A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I decided to attend a seminar focused on discussing public policy. It sounded interesting to me to hear some academic discussion on issues I felt I should be more knowledgeable about. Learning is always a good thing, and hearing alternate points of view is the best way to expand my own. 

Engaging with the topics of the presentations wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that some of the presentations didn’t really get the point across at all.

To be clear, not getting the point across had nothing to do with the subject of the presentations. I came into the seminar more than happy to engage with ideas and opinions that I disagreed with or was unknowledgeable about, so long as I could see the argument being made and contest it on rational grounds. 

That wasn’t this.

It was just an unfortunate series of presentations. The presenters were unclear. The slides were off-topic. Some of the examples being used to support their argument were so bizarre and nonsensical that they distracted entirely from the actual point of the presentation to an outrageous degree.

I ended up leaving the seminar less informed and interested in engaging with the ideas presented, and moreso just wondering what exactly it was I had just seen. This is a nightmare scenario for any presenter, and one of the many situations that can keep university students up at night in abject terror.

So, how do you avoid dragging your own presentation down and inflicting a bevy of sleepless nights on yourself? Well…

Have a clear topic in mind, and communicate it well.

This is something I’m personally guilty of neglecting. There’s no one right way to prepare for a presentation. Some people rehearse all their lines ahead of time, some give themselves notes, and some fly by the wind by presenting off the top of their heads. I’m not here to tell you which is right for you specifically. Experiment and see what works.

What I am here to do is tell you to make sure you know what you’re talking about and don’t stray from it.

An audience is looking for you to make your case. That case can be “Coffee Mugs are Good For Drinking Water,” or it can be “The Right Way to Fry an Egg,” but these should never stray into being about one another. Stay on topic. It can be tempting to follow tangents or new ideas, but you’re here to do something specific. Get it done, and if you’re drinking water out of a mug, you should think about frying those eggs later!

Source and relate your points.

There’s a little voice inside many of us telling us that making our point is what’s most important. It’s a little temptation that asks us to bend the truth, see things dishonestly, or gloss over the failings in our presentations — and hope the audience won’t notice.

They will.

If you’re presenting an argument, you need to make sure it’s a sound one. If it isn’t, then you shouldn’t be presenting it. Make sure your evidence is clear, concise, and connects to your argument well. If not, your audience won’t see the point you’re making; they’ll see everything poking holes in it instead. That’s the exact opposite of what you want from a presentation.

Slides are for support, not to read from.

This is a pet peeve of mine, particularly because it’s something I think should be assumed but often isn’t. I notice this more among student presenters than elsewhere, but the tendency to repeat what slides say verbatim is a huge problem. In an ideal world, most presentations should be manageable without any slides. Whether or not you should include slides varies from presentation to presentation, but if you’re the one speaking, there should be a reason for you to be there. It’s a presentation, not an infographic.

Find a way to be confident.

You don’t need to imagine everyone in their underwear, but one of the biggest hurdles to a good presentation is keeping your confidence up. Finding ways to make your points clearly and effectively are all well and good, but they always come across best from someone who’s confident in what they’re saying.

The unfortunate part is, there’s no one way to be confident. For me personally, I fuel off other people’s eyes being on me. For others, that’s the crux of everything that makes them nervous. I wish there was a simple answer, but there isn’t. Whatever works for you works!

That’s the nature of presentations. They vary wildly by circumstance, content, and goal, and there’s no one size fits all for how to manage one well. There are, however, more than a few ways to make sure they’re the best they can be for what you need. 

If you’re still in doubt, well, maybe you could give a presentation on what you find works?