. The Attention Curve
. Why does an audience get distracted?
. How to organize your presentation
. In ten steps to a successful presentation
How often have you been listening to oral presentations that dealt with
interesting science while you nevertheless had difficulty to pay attention
till the end? How often did you lose your interest before the speaker had
even come halfway? Was it because of the subject of the talk or was it the
way the speaker presented it?
Many presentations concern interesting work, but are nevertheless difficult
to follow because the speaker unknowingly makes a number of presentation
errors. By far the largest mistake is that a speaker does not realize how
an audience listens. If you are well aware of what errors you should avoid,
the chances are high that you will be able to greatly improve the
effectiveness of your presentations.
The Attention Curve
The average attendee of a conference is by all means willing to listen to
you, but he is also easily distracted. You should realize that only a minor
part of the people have come specifically to listen to your talk. The rest
is there for a variety of reasons, to wait for the next speaker, or to get
a general impression of the field, or whatever.
Figure 1 illustrates how the average audience pays attention during a
typical presentation of, let’s say, 30 minutes. Almost everyone listens in
the beginning, but halfway the attention may well have dropped to around 10-
20% of what it was at the start. At the end, many people start to listen
again, particularly if you announce your conclusions, because they hope to
take something away from the presentation.
What can you do to catch the audience’s attention for the whole duration of
your talk? The attention curve immediately gives a few recipes:
. Almost everyone listens in the beginning. This is THE moment to make
clear that you will present work that the audience cannot afford to
. If you want to get your message through, you should state it loud and
clear in the beginning, and repeat it at the end.
. The best approach, however, is to divide your presentation in several
parts, each ended by an intermediate conclusion, see Figure 2. People
in the audience who got distracted can always easily catch up with
you, particularly if you outline the structure of your talk in the
Figure 2. Ideal attention curve of an audience when the speaker
divides his talk in recognizable parts, each summarized by
intermediate conclusions. If people loose their attention for some
reason, they can easily catch up with the speaker in one of his
intermediate summaries. The big advantage of this approach is that
every important item is said several times. Repeating the essentials
is the key to getting your message across
Why does an audience get distracted?
There are many reasons why this may happen, some may be outside your
control, such as inadequate sound systems, poor overhead projectors, or
noisy conference centers with cardboard walls between two sessions running
in parallel. What you can do, is avoid anything that may encourage the
audience to stop listening. Such mistakes fall in two classes: speaker’s
errors and presentation errors. We list a couple of the most common ones,
most are self explanatory.
1. The speaker lives in his own little world of research, he believes
that all the background information needed to appreciate the meaning
of his work is common knowledge. This is seldom the case!
|AUDIENCES LOVE BACKGROUND INFORMATION!|
|You can raise the interest of attendees |
|who are not per definition interested in |
|your subject, by giving them the|
|impression that they will learn something|
|from your talk. Note that this part of|
|the audience is more interested in |
|general aspects than in the details. You |
|certainly need to give them a good |
|introduction into the background of your |
|subject, before they can fully appreciate|
|the subtleties of your work. Hence, you |
|should spend at least some 30% of your|
|time on general themes, e.g. what is|
|known about the catalytic reaction and|
|the catalysts and how it is applied in|
|industry, or perhaps a less known method |
|of research that is more generally |
|applicable, etc. A large part of the|
|audience may find this very useful to|
|know. But what is even more important,|
|with sufficient background information|
|they will understand a lot more about|
|your specific results, i.e. that part of |
|the talk you are most proud of.|
3. The structure of the presentation is unclear, and consequently the
line of reasoning is hard to follow. Important matters as problem
identification, aims, or motivation are insufficiently clear.
4. Visual aids (transparencies, slides) are inadequate, confusing,
unreadable, too small, too crowded, etc. Some speakers show too many
in a too short time (one per minute is not bad as a rule of thumb).
5. The speaker uses long, complicated sentences; he uses unnecessary
jargon, abbreviations or difficult words. Passive sentences (“From
this figure it was deduced that …” or “It was therefore concluded
that ……) are more difficult to follow than active ones (“This
figure implies that …” or “Therefore, we conclude that …” ).
6. Even worse is when the speaker reads his speech from paper and forgets
a. written language is usually more formal and complicated than
language used in everyday conversations,
b. and reading written text goes a lot faster than impromptu
Not too fast, please….!
Many speakers have rehearsed their talk so often that they speak too fast.
Others simply have so much to cover, that the only way to stay within the
allotted time is to speed up. Of course, this is not in the interest of the
audience, particularly not at an international meeting.
… and try to vary your pace
As a rule of thumb, speaking at 150 words per minute is all right. However,
try to vary your rate. Key ideas, complicated points, or concluding remarks
(you may want to use one at the end of every slide you show) are best
presented at a slower pace.
In such cases the audience will definitely experience information
overload. Of course we sympathize with the speaker whofeels
insufficiently confident in English. However, reading a text is almost
always an unsatisfactory solution. And after all, nobody in the
audience will blame you for a couple of mistakes in the language,
English will be a foreign language for the majorityofthe
8. Monotonous sentences, spoken either too fast or too slowly, lack of
emphasis, unclear pronunciation, all make it difficult for the
listeners to stay attentive. Some speakers turn their back to the
audience and watch the projection screen while they are talking, in
stead of trying to make visual contact with the audience.
How to organize your presentation
You should be aware of fundamental differences between an oral presentation
and a written report. In the presentation the listener by necessity has to
follow the order in which the speaker presents his material. The reader of
an article can skip parts, go back to the materials section, take a preview
at the conclusions when he reads the results, etc. Exactly because of this
reason, all scientific reports follow the generally adopted structure of
Abstract – Introduction – Experimental Methods – Results – Discussion –
Conclusions – References. However, this structure is totally UNSUITABLE for
an oral presentation. Nevertheless, the majority of contributed talks at a
conference adheres to it. Why is this generally accepted structure
unsuitable for lectures? Because the listener will have to remember details
about the experimental methods until the results are presented, and he must
recall the various results when the speaker deals with the discussion. In
other words, details that should be combined (the why, how, what and what
does it mean of a particular experiment) are treated separately. You ask a
lot from the audience if they need to remember all these facts and figures
until at the end you explain how these bits and pieces fit in a larger
Grouping together what belongs together is a much better way to organize
your talk. Hence, if you discuss characterization by e.g. XPS, you start
this part of the presentation with a few introductory remarks of what you
want to learn about your catalyst, how XPS may help you to provide this
information, then you show a few results and you discuss what they mean.
End with a conclusion. Then you go to the next item in your presentation,
which may be determination of particle size by TEM. When finished with
this, you may give an overall conclusion on the state of your catalyst
before you go on to speak about catalytic behavior.
Figure 3. In an oral presentation you should group together what belongs
In ten steps to a successful presentation
You should realize that the two key issues in the preparation of a talk
. The message: What do I want the audience to know when I am finished?
. The audience: How do I present my talk such that the audience will
understand and remember what I have to say?
1. Start in time.
Once you submitted the abstract to the conference organizers, it is
time to start thinking about how you organize the material in a talk
if your abstract will have been accepted. Read about the background of
your work, read related work, look at your own results regularly and
think about the most relevant conclusions. Try to imagine what type of
audience you would have and consider what you would have to include as
2. The message
Try to capture the message of your presentation in a single sentence.
This is difficult. You will only be able to do this if you really
master your subject (which is actually the main requirement for being
able to clearly present your work to others).
|”I want to convince the audience that|
|among a class of bimetallic catalysts the|
|combination of Fe-Ir/SiO2 shows the best |
|catalytic performance for CO |
|hydrogenation and that it works because |
|the adsorption energy of carbon monoxide |
|is efficiently diminished with respect to|
|that on the single metals.” |
3. Select results and order them
Use the sentence under 2) as the criterion to select which results to
include, in what order, what basic information is needed to appreciate
these results, and which experimental details are necessary and which
not. Be very critical, any experiment or result that does not
contribute to your main message should be left out.
Although it may at first sight seem natural to present your results in
the chronological order in which you obtained them, this does not have
to be the most ideal order for the audience to understand what you
have done. Think about where to discuss highlights, at the beginning?
Near the end? Maybe dispersing the remarkable features through the
entire talk? It is up to you, but take the order which you feel
appeals most to the audience.
The scientific background of your audience determines how much you
should explain aboutexperimentalapproaches,characterization
techniques. Be careful NOT to identify your audience with your
supervisor, the majority of listeners is unlikely to possess much
specific knowledge about your subject. By the way, hardly anyone minds
to hear something he already knows, as long as you explain it well,
and possibly in an entertaining way.
4. Opening and Introduction
In the opening, i.e. the first few sentences, you catch the attention,
for example by a scientific question, or a catchy or maybe even
provocative statement. Perhaps you could already give the conclusion
of your work too. Try to speak slowly, with emphasis, and look at the
audience. Of course, you must have prepared and rehearsed the opening
However, before you give your opening sentence, it is good to start
with “Mister Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen…” followed by a few
seconds of silence, in which you look around to see if people are
paying attention. By doing so, you actually force the audience to
listen. With these words you also test the sound system, and you
ascertain that your important opening lines are going to be heard.
|DON’T DO THIS|
|An often heard, but poor start of a|
|presentation is: |
|”Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am|
|… … and I’d like to tell you|
|something about my Ph.D. project at the |
|Group of Archaic Chemistry at the |
|University of Science City. The title of |
|my talk is … … . I will start with an|
|Introduction, then explain the|
|experimental techniques, next present the|
|most important results, and finally I|
|hope to draw a few conclusions and I want|
|to acknowledge a few people. So let us|
|start with the Introduction …”|
|If you open this way you will find |
|yourself in the company of many others. |
|Nevertheless, this is a totally|
|inefficient way to start a lecture. How |
|would you respond if you were in the|
In the rest of the Introduction, you sketch the background of your
research. Remember that many people will be very interested in a
concise summary of the status in your area. Hence, reserve sufficient
time (i.e. at least 30% of the total time) for the general aspects of
your work. It is good practice to not only clearly identify the
scientific question you address, but also give the conclusion of your
work, if you wish so. In this way you enable the audience to better
follow your reasoning and to anticipate on the outcome of the
experiments. In other words, you give them a chance to listen
actively. Remember that a scientific presentation is not a detective
story which is solved in the last moment.
5. Conclusions and Ending
Conclusions should be properly announced to regain full attention.
Present your conclusions in relation to the questions you raised in
the Introduction. Avoid all irrelevant details. Once you finished the
conclusions, you may acknowledge people who helped you (not the
coauthors listed in the program) and the Funding Agencies. Then you
may end with a final sentence that repeats the message of your talk,
for instance: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope I have convinced you that
XY/Support is a very promising catalyst for converting methane into
synthetic gasoline at room temperature.” This is the take-home message
that the audience should remember, hopefully in combination with your
name and affiliation.
6. Excellent figures have the highest impact
A picture is worth a thousand words. Well, not necessarily. Figures,
especially those generated by spreadsheets, may look neat and tidy but
at the same time they may be real puzzles (see Figure 4).A good
picture to be used in an oral presentation
o is easy to read (large lettering, good contrast),
o explains itself (clear title, preferably a conclusion too)
o contains only relevant information,
o does not contain jargon or difficult codes that the audience
needs to translate.
Figure 4. Spreadsheetsoftenproduceunsatisfactoryfigures,
particularly with respect to labeling. A good figure has labels on the
curves and not in a legend. Secret codes and jargon should be avoided
as much as possible
Hence, when showing a series of spectra or activity curves, you put an
understandable label on each curve (not a,b,c, which are explained in
a separate legend!!). Avoid reference to samples in codes such as
“Sample AX234/a5” which may be handy in laboratory notebooks, but are
unsuitable in presentations (and in articles as well).
Using tables with numbers is in most cases not recommended. Remember
that an audience reads everything you show on a transparency, and
while they read they pay less attention to what you say. Also avoid
theoretical formulas and mathematical derivations. Sometimes you may
have to show one, but try to keep it to a minimum. You should realize
that the human memory remembers in terms of pictorial information.
Hence clear figures, schemes, and diagrams are the best means to
7. Visual aids: Overhead transparencies, slides, or computer projection?
Using transparencies on a simple overhead projector is more or less
problem free. In most cases, transparencies project well, are easy to
read for the audience, and the lecture hall does not have to be
darkened so that people can make notes if they wish. For you as a
speaker, transparencies leave you the flexibility to make last minute
changes, or even write on them during projection.
|Tips for effective transparencies |
|Preferably use landscape format|
|Use large lettering|
|Black letters on a white background, or |
|bright yellow on black or dark blue give |
|the best result |
|Do not use structured backgrounds and do |
|not waste too useful space on logos, etc.|
|Use pictures, figures, with a title, a|
|short, clear caption|
|Avoid data in tables or in text|
|If you use text than no more than 8-12|
|lines per slide |
|Avoid complete sentences, use “headlines”|
|Give each slide a title and try to |
|include a brief conclusion at the bottom |
|of each slide|
|Remove all information from figures that |
|is not absolutely necessary, but do|
|provide clear understandable labels on|
|curves and spectra, so that they become |
|self explanatory to the audience. |
Slides do not give this kind of flexibility. Optimally prepared slides
in combination with a high quality projector can certainly provide
beautiful visual support to your talk. Unfortunately, many slide
projectors offer less than optimum quality, and moreover, many
speakers show unsatisfactory slides. In addition, many things may go
wrong: slide carrousels may get stuck, slides may go upside down, the
slide control does not work properly, etc. Another serious drawback of
using slides is that the lecture theater has to be dark, making it
difficult for the audience to take notes. If the speakeris
insufficiently entertaining, one easily falls asleep…
Recently the use of computer projection with a beamer has become
popular. No doubt, this offers wonderful opportunities for spectacular
effects. However, most portable beamers are not bright enough for
large conference halls, and only very few conference centers have the
necessary high-quality beamers installed. Also, the usual presentation
software offers so many inviting opportunities, that speakers often
use ineffective color combinations and disturbing background patterns,
see also Figure 5.
Actually, the ‘old fashioned’ overhead slides are not so bad at all…
Figure 5. Be careful with colors and backgrounds on overhead sheets,
slides and posters.
8. Communication instead of performing
Your presentation will be most effective if you use the same everyday
language in which you explain things to a fellow student in the lab.
There is absolutely no need to use a more formal language. In fact,
formal language is not desirable at all as it is more difficult to
understand for the audience. Do not try to impress the audience with
fancy words, formal constructions, subject-specificjargon,or
unnecessary abbreviations. Think about oral presentations in terms of
communication and do not see it as the performance of a literary play.
The audience will be grateful if you are easy to follow.
9. Timing: Absolutely necessary
Now comes the moment of truth: Does everything you prepared fit within
the available time? There is only one way to find out: Take your
stopwatch and go. This is usually a frustrating experience. First, you
may note that the sentences simply do not come. My solution is to sit
down and write the first part out in clear, short sentences. Second,
you will probably find that you have too much material. Hence, you
have to cut down and I do hope that you will not take out too much of
the General Introduction. With the attention curves of Figures 1 and 2
in mind, it is probably the best to skip a few less important items in
the middle of your talk. You should never compromize onthe
Introduction and the Conclusions!
|DON’T LOSE TIME AT THE START |
|Many speakers, even very experienced|
|ones, unnecessarily lose time in the|
|first few minutes.|
|If the chairman did his job appropriately|
|there is no need to repeat the title, to |
|explain who you are, or to repeat your|
|affiliation. Showing all this information|
|on a transparency is more than|
|Other speakers noticeably have difficulty|
|to get started. Apparently, the intended |
|introductory statements do not come as|
|spontaneously as the speaker hoped, maybe|
|because of stage fear. |
|Note, that a good start of the talk is|
|critically important in catching the|
|audience’s attention, you don’t want to |
|take any risks here. Hence, the best|
|advice to speakers is to meticulously|
|prepare for the first five minutes. Write|
|this part out in short, powerful crystal |
|clear sentences and rehearse them several|
Carefully timing your presentation is extremely important. Going
overtime is an offense to the audience and to the speakers following
you, particularly if there are parallel sessions. Nothing is more
embarrassing than that the chairman has to stop you before you have
been able to present your conclusions!
1. Are you nervous? Hopefully you are!
Only very few of us have been born as a talented speaker. Almost
everyone will be nervous before a presentation. For beginners,
nervousness may easily lead to lack of confidence, caused by feelings
of being inexperienced.
First time speakers often interpret nervousness as a sign that they
are apparently incapable of delivering a good presentation. This is
not true. All the symptoms that accompany nervousness, such as
frequent swallowing, trembling, transpiration, etc. are signs that
your body is getting ready for something important. Athletes, stage
performers, musicians, and… experienced speakers have learned to
recognize these symptoms and to appreciate them. They start to worry
when these symptoms stay away!
Experience is something that will come in time, by practicing and by
analyzing your presentations and those by others. No one in the
audience will blame you for being a beginner. However, if you take
care to avoid a number of typical mistakes that beginners (and even
experienced speakers) make, you will make a very good start with your
career as a presenter. If you know and understand the basic principles
and you know how to apply these, you are likely to give a talk that is
significantly better than the average presentation at international
meetings. Hence, lack of experience is not important provided you
prepare your presentation well and you do your best to avoid the
obvious mistakes listed in this brochure.
Finally, the ten steps we discussed all go back to two basic principles:
First what is the message I want to convey, and
second, how does the audience understand this message best.
Awareness of how audiences listen and memorize is the key behind a
presentation that will be appreciated by many.
Communicate in an oral presentation with slides
Your goal is to create an oral presentation accompanied by an electronic
slide show that communicates your thesis and supporting points.
Your presentation should include an introduction to your thesis, your main
points, and a conclusion.
. Remember that in an oral presentation you are the star!
. The information in your slides should highlight or illustrate your
narration, not steal the show.
. Pick one slide background and use it throughout your entire
. Keep text on slides to a minimum. Six words to a line and six lines to
a slide are good guidelines. Avoid long sentences.
. Use large fonts that can be easily read from the back of the room. Do
not use light colors for your text.
. Choose visuals that enhance your message.
. Minimize or avoid animated texts, sounds, and fancy transitions.
Special effects should not distract from your message.
Your first step is to sketch your slides and outline your speech, focusing
on your main argument and supporting points. Grab a pencil and scrap paper
and draw your slides. Use simple sketches. Or, use the Storyboard template
. Note the text the slide will display and consider what you will say
when the slide is on the screen. If you use a bulleted list, ensure
that each phrase is in the same grammatical structure.
. Sketch visuals.
. You do not need text on every screen. As you explain a point, you may
have only a photo or graph on the slide. The slides are intended to
illustrate your presentation, not be the presentation.
. In the introductory slides, you should have a “hook” to grab the
. Middle slides should explain your main points.
. Final slides should summarize your ideas.
. Download and assemble photos, graphics, audio, and video.
. Store all items related to your slide presentation in a central
. Remember that music and images that you did not create are subject to
copyright rules. Obtain permission from the copyright holder or use
resources from the public domain.
. With your storyboard as a guide, create your slides using PowerPoint
or another similar application.
. Set up master slide with text style and backgrounds. Use common fonts
such as Times or Ariel so that you can play your show on most
. Insert the text. Check spelling and grammar.
. Insert visuals. Graphic elements should face inward. (For example,
people in a photograph should be looking into the center of the
. Ensure that the colors, font styles, special effects and transitions
enhance your message. They should not distract your audience.
. Before you finalize your slides, ask a friend to give you feedback on
your organization and general presentation of information.
. Don’t forget to give credit for ideas or information borrowed from
others on individual slides and to include a slide listing in your
For help learning slide presentation software:
. Microsoft PowerPoint Guidelines/Help
. Atomic Learning : The website uses short videos to teach software
applications. Ask your library media specialist if your school
subscribes. Obtain the home use passwords.
As with any speech, practice is essential. As you play your slides, imagine
exactly what you will say as each slide is on the screen. Make corrections
to the slides and your speech notes. Practice giving your speech and
running your slide show with a friend as an audience. Practice your speech
without the slide show. Is your message still there?
Arrange your equipment and a time for your speech. Remember to schedule the
equipment you need: a computer, projector and screen. Remember to set up
and test the speakers if your show includes audio. Don’t assume that your
technology will work. It is wise to have a back-up plan. Check and check
Good luck with your presentation!