Career Talk

HomeProfessionalsCareer DevelopmentFellowsCareer Talk ▶ How to Give an Effective Presentation or Overcoming Your Fear of Death and Dying
How to Give an Effective Presentation or Overcoming Your Fear of Death and Dying

March 2003

An essential, yet under taught, part of academic life is giving presentations. According to some book of lists, the fear of speaking in public ranks #1 of all fears. In contrast, the fear of dying is #7. Although many of us loathe the idea of public speaking, it is a necessary means to disseminate your work in a timely fashion. First of all, realize that this fear is perfectly normal and that you are not alone. Everyone, even experienced speakers, has some anxiety when speaking in public. Proper preparation and practice can reduce a large part, if not most, of speaking anxiety. Ultimately, there is no point in giving a presentation if the audience isn't listening. Much of what goes into building an effective presentation focuses on maintaining the audience's interest and making sure they understand your message, while maintaining content and professionalism. The next two columns focus on four key elements in giving an effective presentation:

1. Planning
2. Designing effective visual aids
3. Practice
4. Delivery (including what to do when things go wrong)

This month's column will discuss the planning and design of an oral presentation. Next month, we'll deal with practicing, preparing and actually delivering the talk.


Begin planning your talk as far in advance as possible. This will give you time to research and collect material from different sources. Ask yourself:

  • What type of talk will this be? Will this be an informal talk? Medical grand rounds? Job-talk? The intent of a conference presentation differs from a job-talk. Also, designing slides differs for a small conference room as opposed to a large hall. What kind of audiovisual equipment will you have access to? This will also help you decide what kind of back-up (e.g., slides, CD, zip disk) to make. If you are not familiar with the environment and audience, talk to your host to clarify these points.
  • Know your audience. Will you be speaking to a mixed audience of clinicians and scientists? Scientists focused on your area of research? It is important to tailor the information content and target the expectations of your host/audience. What prior knowledge does the audience have or need to know regarding your topic? This will determine how much time you spend on "background" and what take-home message(s) you want to give the audience.
  • How much time do you have to speak? Does this include question time? Another point to consider is when the talk is scheduled. For a speech in the morning, consider using some lively or surprising examples to wake up tired listeners. On Mondays, people need more light to focus on the new week. On Fridays, be especially direct and focused; your listeners' will be thinking about the upcoming weekend.
  • What is the purpose of this talk? What do you hope to accomplish with this talk? To inform? Persuade? Entertain? The most effective scientific talks seem to be a combination of all three.

Identifying the focus of your presentation: Start by clearly stating its importance in one short, attention-getting statement. Then, outline your presentation by listing the major themes or issues you plan to address. The order may change as you develop the talk. You don't necessarily need to follow a standard or linear ordering of material. In fact, presenting information in a novel fashion may stimulate the audience's attention and keep you fresh. Use a blank sheet of paper or chalkboard. List your ideas and start drawing lines between related items. Which items seem most related to the central theme? Draw several versions using different connections (and colors). Compare them. Which seems most interesting?

Be realistic about the amount of material you use: Most talks contain too much, rather than too little, information. What will the audience want to know, and what do they need to know? Are there items that have only a tenuous link to the central theme (most often these are near the periphery of the idea network you've drawn), or are there intimate details that only a specialist knows or cares about? These categories of information should be included only after careful consideration, and should be the first items you discard if you find that your practice talks are over-long. Prioritizing the information you want to include in the presentation will help you organize the talk and help you focus your audience on what you really want them to remember. Try to identify on no more than five key points that you want the audience to "take-home."

Tell a story: Most presentations consist of an Introduction, Objective, Overview, Presentation and Summary (Conclusion). The idea is to provide direction, focus the audience, deliver the information and, importantly, reinforce your message! You want to have a good beginning and end. Audiences are most likely to retain information presented at the beginning and end. Therefore, arrange less important points towards the middle of the talk. An effective introduction gets your audience's attention. What will listeners already know about your topic? Describe the framework of the talk by introducing the major ideas or themes you will be developing. This is also the time to demonstrate why your topic is important. The purpose of a conclusion is to let the audience know that you are about to finish. A good wake-up call! Use this time to restate and summarize the major ideas you have presented and, importantly, deliver the take-home message(s)! Again, you need to tell your audience what you think is important enough for them to remember.

Organize your presentation: There are several ways to do this, depending on the type of talk you will be giving.

  • Topical: This is one of the most common patterns. Use this if you have several ideas to present and one idea seems naturally to precede the other. This works especially well for informative and entertaining speeches.
  • Chronological: This presents information using a time sequence for a framework and is best used for informative and persuasive speeches, both of which require background information.
  • Spatial: This organizes material according to physical space. It is most effective for informative and entertaining talks involving physical space.
  • Classification: As its name implies, this pattern arranges material by categories.
  • Problem/Solution: This is used mostly for persuasive speeches. The first part of a speech outlines a problem and the second part presents a solution.
  • Cause/Effect: Again, this is best used for persuasive speeches. The first part describes the cause of a problem and the second describes its effect.

Obviously, you can use one or more patterns to organize your presentation. Like any good storyteller, pay attention to transitions linking the major themes. This can be done in the form of a question, or by explaining how you came to identify the link's existence. Try to anticipate questions or problems that the audience might have and deal with them during the course of the presentation. Be careful about acronyms and jargon. Speak in short sentences that simply and directly state your point.

Use humor judiciously to build rapport with your audience and to maintain their interest and attention. Avoid random jokes. Make sure your humor fits, either relating to a point, or as a break between sections. Small amounts of humor or an irreverent comment from time to time can go a long way to liven a presentation. Appropriate quotations can also make a noticeable impact on your audience and can complement or promote concepts that are part of your presentation.

Give credit: Most science is collaborative. Although many people present an acknowledgement slide at the end of a talk, think about presenting it early on, so you don't have to rush. Whatever you do, don't forget to acknowledge these people's efforts, even if you have to skip a statement or two to remain on time. A collaborator or his/her friend(s) may be in your audience! If you borrow other people's slides, or include other people's data or figures on a slide, always give credit to these people right on that slide. This shows a professional attitude, and (better yet) can save you many words of explanation.

Prepare a memorable summary: Take this time to review and reinforce your message. If nothing else, this is what the audience will remember after you leave.

Design Effective Visual Aids

Good visual aids can enhance a presentation. Types of visual aids include slides, handouts, chalkboard graphics and transparencies. When designing visual aids, keep in mind that they are an adjunct to your presentation and thus should emphasize what the speech emphasizes. In general, aim for BIG, SIMPLE and LEGIBLE.

Visuals should focus the viewer on the essential elements of your presentation. Use short phrases or sentences. If the reader does not get the point within 5 seconds of seeing the visual, then it is not effective. A corollary of this rule is to give the viewer time to digest the slide. Don't say anything during this time. Begin speaking when they return their attention to you.

Aim for relevance and simplicity in both text and figures. Don't put too much information on one slide. Cluttered, difficult-to-read slides or transparencies distract your audience from the content of your presentation. They will get lost. Present complex ideas gradually, one slide at a time. Visuals should be balanced and pleasing to the eye. Artistry does not substitute for content! Complicated artwork may actually detract from your presentation.

Use an appropriate font size and style! Stick to simple text styles. Ornate letters can be difficult to read. Try not to use extra bold or delicate typefaces or italics. Capital letters are more difficult to read than lowercase, so use lowercase lettering for any phrase longer than two or three words. The following table should serve as a guide, but will need to be modified depending on the size of the room. In general, if it looks OK on a computer screen, it is probably too small. Try standing back at least 6 feet from the monitor and look again.

Guide to font size

  Transparencies Slides Handouts
Title 36 24 18
Subtitle 24 18 14
Text 18 14 12

As a rule, figures should be enlarged and simplified for projection. Lines should be thick. Consider outlining figures in black to enhance their shape. Judicious use of color adds impact to meaning of speech and should emphasize, not confuse. Bold contrasts enhance legibility, making it easier for the audience to quickly see and read. Strong light colors on a dark background (e.g., yellow on dark blue) or a strong dark color on a light background (e.g., black on white) are easiest to read. For text visuals, use no more than two or three colors. Colors can be used to link ideas as well as to signal transitions in thought.

How many slides should you include? Figure on an average of about 1 minute/slide. Generally speaking, a slide deserves at least 10 seconds but no more than 100. If you find yourself spending several minutes on one slide, consider breaking it up! (We're not suggesting this as a firm rule, but a good guideline. Obviously, some charts or graphics may take several minutes to properly present.) Then again, perhaps they could be better as multiple slides. When you are done with a slide move on. Don't leave an image up for your audience once you move on to other points.

Finally, your appearance, including dress, grooming, gestures, voice, facial impression and demeanor, can also reinforce verbal communication. For example, making eye contact will make you appear more credible. An erect posture promotes easier breathing and better voice projection. Appropriate use of movement when emphasizing points, e.g. moving closer to the audience, can be useful. Be careful when expressing emotions - too much gesturing can make you appear nervous!