10 April, 2011

Learning presentation in Graz

So, as I’ve previously commented, my studies in Graz have been very block course intensive. Whereas last time I focused on the structure of the courses, there’s something important that I forgot to mention. Something I’ve only found quite useful with more courses under my belt. That something would be the art of presentation.

Up to this point I’ve had nine block courses, of which all bar one had presentations. Usually there are 3-6 presentations per group of around five. Depending on the course, the presentations are most often done alone or in pairs. This would mean a total of about 1,5 presentations/person/course, totaling to 13-14 presentations. I’ve luckily had more, largely thanks to my enthusiasm to step to the stage – and my classmates lack thereof – I’ve gotten the splendid chance to make around two presentations per course, equaling to a total of 17 presentations, if I recall correctly. This is a considerable amount of practice in comparison to the amount I’ve had in Aalto, for example. So what have I learnt?

First of all is the impression frankly all of us have from university: not all people make great presentations. That’s the case for professors and for students even more so. Luckily, there are ways to improve, and rather fast, too.

Language fluency
Okay, this isn’t actually something you can improve overnight, but it’s one of the most important, thereby earning its spot on the list. I’ve heard the most terrible lectures and presentations in here, and I have to say that no matter how interesting the content, all is spoiled if the presenter is unable to pronounce words somewhat correctly. I’m not too keen if I have to guess what the lecturer is trying to say, it makes me feel like a waste to be in the class. Then again, you don’t have to be a native to make a good presentation: I’ve witnessed wonderful presentations by Spaniards, Norwegians, Austrians, Germans and the likes. Most of them weren’t native fluent, but all of them were fluent enough, especially with the content involved. This brings me to my second point:

The content in your head
You don’t need to remember the presentation content off the top of your head – that’s one of the reasons you have the slides. But you should know your rough structure. You should remember after a glance on the screen, what a given slide is about. Standing and reading from the slides and calling it a “presentation” is just silly. I can read for myself, sir, thank you very much. What I want the presenter to tell me is not what the content is, but why it is there in the first place and naturally why it is important.

Face the audience
You’d think this to be obvious? Well, I did too, until I witnessed a couple of dudes presenting with their backs turned on us. That was mainly because they failed the previous part and hadn’t a clue what was in their presentation, but they could’ve still worked this one out. Even if you don’t remember what’s in there, never turn your back! Take a look, then turn your head back in the right direction and speak. Repeat until end of slide. If you can’t remember the whole slide with one look, take it one bullet point at a time, there’s no point in rushing.

Walk the talk
I challenge you to do an exercise: try to stand in one spot in your room for half an hour. Feels stupid, doesn’t it? Now think about what most of the lecturers do? Exactly, they just stand there and never move. Sometimes it makes you feel like they’re trying to audition for the band Talking Heads! Seriously though, moving around makes your presentation that much more interesting. It’d be fascinating to hear the explanation of a psychologist why it is so, as this is just my personal experience. Also, moving is very useful. You can change the slide and then move to the other side of the room, giving your audience time to read through the slide.

Graphic design
This is very important, but I’ve got to say I’m no pro on the subject. Ask a designer or someone, who actually know stuff about it. Well, one rule I can give: never use just black text on white background without pictures. Never. Ever. Neverevernever. That’ll only make your job as a presenter at least twice as hard.

All in all, the above list could still be expanded a lot, but I’ve found at least these to be important in presenting. There’s hardly any systematic discovery process behind the result, and certainly no knowledge of presentation theory, so if anybody has their two cents to throw in, I’d be happy to hear. Especially if anybody feels I missed something important.

Needless to say, the above factors shouldn’t be too hard to remember, as long as one thinks about them consciously. Getting even the basics right would improve many a presentation tremendously. And as the old adage goes, it’s not just what you say, but also how you say it.

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