Ten Tips for Better Presentations – Part 1

Presentation skills—what are they, and why do we need them? Surely, all we need to do is make a few PowerPoint slides, stand in front of the audience, and they are bound to listen (and learn).

These posts are drawn from the wisdom and experiences of Vic Brazil, Simon Carley, Ross Fisher and Natalie May. We originally intended to write a paper in the style of the EMJ “Ten Tip” series to encapsulate our approach to teaching presentations, whether at our institutions or at conferences. The paper sat, completed but lacking many academic references, in a Google Drive for more than five years. Rather than let this wealth of knowledge be lost, the authors have kindly agreed that we can publish it here.

Presentations are ubiquitous in medical education but often fail to inform, inspire, or engage the audience. Presenters prepare and deliver ineffectively and use visual media inappropriately. We suggest radical change in the traditional conference talk for a more memorable and effective educational experience.

This first post covers our first five tips; things to consider before you even open any presentation software.

1. Plan your talk for your audience, context and setting

Great presentations are focused on their impact on the audience and are influenced by the context in which the presentation is given. Different strategies will be required for different audience sizes, heterogeneity of interest, time of day, size of room, the teaching and learning expectations of the audience, and the relationship of the presenter to the audience. The key point is that the presenter must put themselves in the position of the recipient, what is it that they want or need? What is their experience at that particular time and place? Appreciating the learner experience allows the presenter to tailor their approach to maximise learning. For example, a workshop setting should encourage the use of activities,  discussion and learner-led summaries, such an approach would not work in a 2000 seater auditorium. 

Consider this audience experience when developing your key messages and delivery strategies.  Then consider your motivation: do you want to inform, entertain, inspire, motivate or impress? Each will have a different approach.  

2. Start ‘analogue’ and prepare the message and the structure first

Clarity of message is highly regarded by audiences and increases the chance of audience impact. A simple, effective structure will support this clarity. Thus the first step in any presentation should be for the presenter to be clear in their mind what the key messages are (as if the presenter doesn’t know, then the audience has no chance). 

There are several methods to achieve this, but we advocate sitting down with a pen and paper. The physical act of writing or mind mapping takes longer than typing directly into a computer program, but it also facilitates greater creativity. Do not expect a structure to immediately appear. Be creative, list and link key points, consider the topic’s depth and breadth and consider where the limits are. It is not a concern at this point if your talk has no structure that will appear later, so don’t try to force it into one too early.

Next, consider the title you were given, the audience – who they specifically are and what they (not you) specifically want from this presentation. Consider who else is talking and what, where the audience is at the beginning of this, and what single message you want them to leave with. Think about links, conflicts, ideas, and controversies. At this stage, you are likely to have a series of concepts that are variably convergent but resist premature conversion to a linear sequence of slides. 

It is common to feel anxious that you will not be able to “fully cover the topic” and should not attempt to. You cannot share all known information about your subject in your talk (and even if you can, the audience won’t remember it). Stick to the key messages and concepts. 

You will know that your message is clear when you can articulate your message(s) explicitly and clearly. Imagine you want to persuade a friend to come to your talk instead of another running in a parallel session. In no more than three sentences, pitch to them. Don’t give them a summary or a list of points; try to engage them, making them want to find out more. 

Identify core messages that stem from your overarching theme—and stick to a maximum of three. Sharpen these as much as you can: once they are embedded in your thoughts, they should naturally embed into your talk. 

Working from your story and core messages, develop a structured narrative which flows from one to the next. You might use Post-it notes with those links, conflicts, ideas and controversies to storyboard at this step. If the structure is right, the movement from point to point should flow and make sense. At this point, the ‘blocks’ of your talk should emerge and be developed into that linear structure – stories, key examples, ‘didactic’ points,  audience activities, and calls to action. 

3. Ask yourself, “What does the audience do during my talk?”

A talk is a social process. if the answer to that question is ‘sit and listen’ – start again.  Throughout your planning, consider ways to keep the audience engaged. Rhetorical questions, analogies and stories help achieve this. 

Stories resonate deeply with our sense of community and help us to relate our learning to ourselves and to one another, as well as make concepts easier to remember. You might want to try to identify a story you can use to tie your core messages and theme together.  This can provide a through-running thread for your talk. How you use the story is up to you  – tell a patient story at the start, then return to it after the body of your talk, relating your subject matter back to it, or tell the story as you go – it’s your choice. 

However, audience engagement is best achieved through interactivity. Planning interactivity should occur early, not as an afterthought. Options include ‘pair and share’ tasks,  questioning using audience response systems, role plays, shared case problem solving, and various strategies described in detail elsewhere (see ref in notes). These interactive strategies can be undertaken in surprisingly large audiences. 

Microsummaries and mini questions throughout the talk can encourage recall and embed knowledge, using principles of spaced repetition (refs from making it stick). 

Carefully consider how much of your total time you need to spend speaking. Attention quickly wanes with a single person talking, and audiences need time to process what they hear or see. You should aim to only speak no more than 80% of your allocated time and change formats as part of your structure.  

4. Use slides to complement your message only

Poor audiovisual material is a frequent complaint of learners, despite many sources of guidance on audiovisual adjuncts. 

Illustrating your story helps cement learning in your audience’s memory. Use only high-quality pictures that fill the screen. Think about the emotions of colour, and use text sparingly and only for emphasis. 

Nothing on your slide – particularly data – should be so complex that the audience cannot understand it within three seconds. If they can’t, the slide is too complex. Resist the urge to use a laser pointer and change the slide instead. 

Consider a single slide for each step of your talk. A slide may contain words or an image or a data representation but never more than one of these. Aim to illustrate the point, not annotate

An audience member can only do one of three things at any one time; they can listen or read or think. Make sure you only give them one of these tasks at a time. 

5. Anticipate total audiovisual failure

Be aware that the more technology you incorporate into your talk, the greater the opportunity for technology to fail. You can safeguard against some elements by embedding fonts and videos or by using graphic design products such as Canva to create,  save and download your slides as a series of images. 

Seek information from conference organisers about the audiovisual set-up and constraints at the venue. Make sure you know in advance whether the projector’s aspect ratio will be 4:3 or 16:9. Most presentation programs will default to 4:3, but it is possible to change this, and far easier to have the correct aspect ratio from the outset.

You must be able to give the presentation without your slides. Understand why you consider that a challenge – and change it. What are your slides to you – a script? A crutch?  Illustration? None of those is truly necessary. Of course, your slides can add to the experience of your talk, but you should be able to deliver without them. 

Ready for more Presentation Tips? Part 2 coming soon…!

Further reading

Here’s a list of books/sites that we have either read, or which have been recommended to us to improve presentations. Our best recommendation is of course to visit Ross Fisher’s site at https://ffolliet.com/ which delves deeper into the tips we have published here.

  1. Fisher R. p cubed presentations. https://ffolliet.com/ Accessed 9/6/24
  2. Reynolds, G. (2012). Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. New Riders.
  3. Duarte, N. (2008). Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. O’Reilly Media.
  4. Gallo, C. (2014). Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press.
  5. Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Harvard University Press.
  6. Anderson, C. (2016). TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  7. Atkinson, C. (2011). Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft PowerPoint to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire. Microsoft Press.
  8. Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures? Intellect Books.
  9. Duarte, N. (2010). Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Wiley.
  10. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House.
  11. Reynolds, G. (2011). The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides. New Riders.

Cite this article as: Natalie May, "Ten Tips for Better Presentations – Part 1," in St.Emlyn's, June 9, 2024, https://www.stemlynsblog.org/ten-tips-for-better-presentations-part-1/.

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