How to nail a presentation

Now that we have done most of the hard work: numerous experiments, survey, coding, refactoring, pipelining, analysis, visualization, charts, numbers, written documents and so on, we are going to give a final presentation. “That’s easy,” one may think, “Just paste my results into PowerPoint slides and click through it.”

Having seen quite a lot of presentations at conferences, group meetings, and tech demos, and having given many presentations myself in different scenarios, one thing I can say for sure about presentations is that “It is not easy” at all. It is as demanding as most of the hard work we have done, and requires similar learning and practice as coding, analysis, and writing. In this post, I will summarize what I learned from my mentors, teachers, peers, as well as my own mistakes about presentations.

Making slides

1. Start with the default template

When I started to learn PowerPoint in college, I was fascinated with colorfully-designed templates, and even had a separate folder on my laptop collecting cool PowerPoint templates and artistically designed fonts. I would use different templates for different occasions with curated content and graphics. My obsession with templates gradually faded during graduate school, when I had to make short slides to describe my research progress every few weeks. I barely had enough time to organize the numerous and often messy preliminary results in a readable manner, let alone thinking about the fancy templates or aesthetics. I would usually open a blank PowerPoint with the default template, and work from there. I didn’t even bother to change fonts, except when I wanted to highlight some text or save space.

With all this being said, what I came to learn was to not be preoccupied with too much attention to templates when creating the first drafts of the presentations. It is the content that matters, not some exotic color pattern or a minimalistic style design. It is how you present it in an easily digestible format not how you bedazzle it.

2. Show an outline

Regardless of the length of a presentation, it is always a good idea to give the audience a mental map about what to expect.

If the presentation is more than 10 minutes, I would add an actual slide with the outline. If the presentation is shorter, I would usually give a short oral preview, instead of an actual outline slide.

3. Show one key point per slide in the title

My biggest headache is seeing an overwhelming slide full of texts, multiple figures, and colorful shapes. My mind is likely to wander across the slide, and try to make some deduction on what the data means. During presentations, we do not want the audience to do mind gymnastics and guess our thoughts. We want to tell them our conclusion first and directly , and back it up with data. This means, the title of each slide could be a descriptive statement or summary, and the content of the slide could be actual evidence. For example, we may have a slide titled “Random Forest increases precision by 10%” with bar charts of comparison in the content, or slide titled “history of word embedding” with historical research milestones in the content.

If you find any of your slides contains more than one key point, it is usually better to break it down into multiple slides.

When presenting, keep in mind that for most audience, our presentation could be the first time they encounter a particular concept, although we may have revised and practiced our presentation for weeks. This means, as the presenter, we need to make sure the audience is on the same page every step of the way. 

4. Pictures speak louder than words

We perceive visual information much faster than texts, and colorful pictures and patterns attract our attention much better than letters and words. Therefore, try to minimize the number of texts in each slide, and make sure every word we put on the slide is essential for the audience’s understanding. 

5. Animation sometimes helps, sometimes not

I like using animation when possible. It allows me to display groups of items in a sequential manner and guide the audience’s attention to particular items on the slide, reducing information overload at once.

Of course everything in moderation, including animation. Too many animations can become annoying and distractive.

Same is true for using meme and gifs. It usually brings laughter and increases engagement to show a meme during presentations, but too many memes can become cheesy and overplayed.

6. What is the one last thing you want the audience to remember?

It is a good idea to have a summary slide at the end of the presentation. The title could be “summary”, “take home messages”, “conclusion”, etc. The idea is that after all the key points and results that were showed, we want to make a final solid impression and memory reinforcement on the audience. This slide can have multiple bullet points but the message should be concise and clear.

Presenting slides

1. Audience are there for you, not for the slides

Although slides have become the default medium for presentations, it is you, the speaker that plays the central role in a presentation. During presentations, we want the audience to look at us, not “read” the slide line by line.

This means we certainly do not want to have too many texts on the slide, because us human beings will just try to read stuff by default, and while we are reading, our brain cannot process sound at the same time efficiently.

If we are going to cover certain content verbally in a presentation, usually we do not need to have the same content written on the slide. For example, if we are going to say “atomic force microscopy was first invented by Binnig in 1986”, we do not need to repeat the same content on the slide, as it is just background information, not our key points or results.

2. Present to the audience, not to the slides

I have seen speakers looking at their slides the entire presentation, not facing the audience at all. First, as a speaker, we should be super familiar with our slides, the content, animation, transition, etc. Even without the slides, we should be able to tell the story and present the key ideas and results. It shows lack of familiarity and confidence when we stare at our slides all the time. Second, we always want the audience to be highly engaged. One way to start is to have eye contact with the audience. People feel good when they feel they are given “THE” attention and being talked to. We may start from the center of the audience, move our gaze to the left, and gradually move left and right during the presentation. We may even focus on a single audience for a few seconds if they appear to be very engaged. Third, although it may seem like a one-way conveyance, presentations are highly interactive. Rather than reciting a monologue, we should always check how well the audience receives our information, whether they seem puzzled or display boredom, whether they nod, shake heads, or show approval. Audience may not be the one talking during our presentation, but their body language and facial expression reveal quite a lot about what they think and represent real-time feedback to the speaker.

3. Verbal and non-verbal signs of confidence

When we are nervous, we tend to speak faster with lower volume, increase our pitch, use way too many filler words such as “hmm, like, you know”, have awkward hand gestures, and move our body restlessly. All these are signs of lack of confidence in the eyes of the audience, which can be unappealing thus distract the audience from paying attention. We may have the perfect slide layout and well-written drafts for our speech. However, lack of confidence could leave a bad impression on the audience and make our presentation less efficient. 

A simple way to reduce nervousness is to practice. We could do so by ourselves in front of a mirror, record ourselves by camera, or invite a friend or coworker for a rehearsal and solicit feedback. Practice makes perfect, or at least, makes us more prepared and less nervous.

Another psychological tip I learned from yoga class is to stand in the mountain pose, with feet firmly touching the ground, standing straight with shoulders back and palm facing forward, imagining you are a giant mountain, solid, reliable, and confident. And take deep breathes.  

4. Make verbal signals for slide transition

My PhD advisor always told me to think about logic and flow of a presentation. He wisely said, and I paraphrase here, “Before clicking to the next slide, give the audience a brief verbal explanation what is a natural next step from a logical or scientific perspective, what kind of results they could expect, and why you do certain experiments.” Take the audience on a journey with you, and make sure they follow your thoughts. Like a story teller.

5. Most audience forget what you have said

We don’t remember most things that happened in our life. Either we do not pay attention: such as the first face you saw on the street this morning; or we forget: the 6 digit passcode you quickly memorize on your phone for a two-step verification login, and completely forget few seconds later. Very few memory enters short-term and long-term memory that lasts longer. Based on cognitive science research, most people have very short working memory that lasts for 10-15 seconds and can keep to 7 numbers in their mind ( 

This means, most audience, even if they try hard, will inevitably forget the content 2 slides back, unless they have photographic memory. We cannot expect the audience to remember all the acronyms defined and the key results highlighted in red large fonts in the previous slides. When they look puzzled by the word “TFIDF”, we cannot just say to ourselves “But I already explained that in my slide 5! Can’t they just pay attention?”

If you are the audience, assuming this is the first time you learn a particular concept, you don’t know what’s important, and what’s trivial. Every sentence you hear from the speaker sounds new and occupies your working memory to process. When the past sentence is being processed, the next sentence may get ignored. 

So what can we do as a speaker to communicate our ideas to the listener efficiently? Here are a few tips. First, speak with moderate speed and volume, so that the audience can actually hear us clearly and keep up with us. As a non-native English speaker, I think accent plays a very small role in presentation efficiency. I have seen great presentations by people with thick but clearly understandable accent. Second, use outline and intermediate outline. As I said before, in the beginning of the presentation, it is helpful to give the audience a mental map. Same is true as the presentation proceeds. Summarize occasionally what we have said, and make natural transition to what we are going to say. 

Again, everything in moderation. It gets verbose when we repeat too much. And the only way to find out is to practice and rehearse to a small audience and get feedback. 

Q & A

For presentations with smaller groups such as team meetings, we can encourage the audience (coworkers) to interrupt at any time and state it clearly, “feel free to interrupt me any time if you have questions.” For larger groups, it is less convenient to be interrupted during presentations. So if time permits, include a Q & A session at the end of the presentation. Q & A not only gives the audience an opportunity to ask questions and have a better understanding of the content, but also allows the speaker to clarify their statement. As a speaker, you may not have an answer to some questions, and that is totally fine. It is better to stay calm and say “thanks for your question. I never thought about it / I do not have an answer and will look it up and get back to you.”, than become defensive or dismissive. 

Parting thoughts

If there is one last thing I would like to share, it is that if you are going to give presentations, you will fail many times. You may mess up the content of slides, get too nervous, speak too fast, encounter a tough audience, bore the heck out of the audience and they all look down on their phone, or the projector may stop working and your slides cannot be shown properly. But don’t be afraid to fail, as Thomas Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Through failure, practice, and feedback, we will learn our own way to nail a presentation.

Cover photo is from

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