Are you teaching or selling?

This is mega important rule 1. And the rule that I see flouted most. When this happens the presentations are inevitably either super boring, or fail to get their point across.Whale taking an exam

What do I mean by this question? Well it’s straight forward: before you begin writing your presentation, ask yourself whether your audience are going to your presentation to learn about a specific thing, or are they going to find something out? When I say learn, I really mean learn; are they going to be taking comprehensive notes on every aspect of your talk? Are they going to be expected to recite this information back at another point? Really, you only need to make a ‘teaching’ presentation when you are explicitly teaching a class.

The other style of presentation, the one that you are probably meant to be giving, is the ‘selling’ presentation. Now I’m not saying that people coming to this type of presentation aren’t going to learn anything, if you do it right they should indeed learn something. But there is a difference between learning about  something versus learning how to do something (selling versus teaching). You may be presenting a paper to a conference, your recent research findings to your lab, or anything in between. Your audience are there not because they need the exact details of your method and results, they want the big picture, they want to know what the “take home message is”. If you do this successfully, your audience will finish your presentation excited about your research, and interested to find out more about it, and the future of your work. Some will want to ask questions to find out more about particular aspects that interested them, or aspects that they want to question. Great! That means your audience has understood you well enough to ask decent questions.  Some audience members may have seen something that would be really useful to them, something they want to find out about in a lot more detail. In this instance, they can buy you a beer afterwards and chat, or go and read the paper in detail.

This is a key point: when writing your presentation, remember what other materials are already out there to support what you’re saying. Your presentation needs to be an advert for your paper, needs to give people a reason to go away and spend a little time reading your publication. There are details they can go away and find out in your paper. Remember that. You don’t want to make your presentation void of all content. Obviously. Tell us how significant your results are, but don’t tell us the processor speed on the computer your participants worked on. Explain the independent variables of your study, but don’t talk us through the system architecture of that awesome computational model your supervisor made in that paper she published 10 years ago. Know what’s important. Know what’s cool and interesting.

One particular example of this that comes to mind is a presentation I attended some months ago. The presentation looked like it was going to be freaking awesome. It was about a new interface for a safety critical system. Seriously. Sounded brilliant. However, the speaker spend 55 minutes of a 1 hour slot, teaching us HCI. Teaching us HCI. It was such a shame, such a great shame. He didn’t understand that his audience was pretty well versed in HCI literature. He forgot that he had an awesome new idea to present to us and focussed on unnecessary details. In the end 5 minutes of his talk, he actually skipped over a few more slides on HCI practice to get to the actual system he came to present. A sad few minutes went by as he quickly skipped by interesting photos of new interfaces and intriguing studies. He had no time at all to sell, he’d spent too long teaching.

Seriously. This is important. Think about it next time you go to write a presentation. Remember your audience probably don’t owe you anything. They don’t have to be there, sometimes they don’t want to be there… Make it worth their while. Catch their attention. Inspire them. Be enthusiastic. Make them excited like you are. Make them want to be there. Make them stay awake.


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