What makes a good presentation

My mentors have shown me what makes for a good presentation, and now I can’t un-see the fact that most presentations are just awful. After reading this post you won’t be able to un-see it either - and you’ll learn how to stand out from the crowd by making an excellent presentation instead.

It’s easy to make a bad presentation on accident

The first reason that most presentations are boring is that for most people it’s easier and more intuitive to make a boring presentation than it is to make an exciting one. For example, many people think it’s a good idea to end their talk with a “Questions” slide. This seems natural: many presentations end with a Q&A session, so it “makes sense” to have a slide indicating that the Q&A session has begun. In reality though, such “Questions” slides are utterly useless. I explain why in more detail in the next section, however the biggest reason is that “Questions” slides get the longest screen time of any of the slides of a talk while simultaneously providing no actual content. Instead, a far better approach is end one’s talk with a well-organized conclusion slide that advertises oneself while simultaneously reiterating their presentation’s key takeaways. This is better because it reminds the audience who the presenter is and why the listeners should care about what they just said, and gives people a foothold for asking questions about the work. It’s of course much harder to make a proper conclusion slide though, so that’s one reason why they are less commonly seen.

The next (and perhaps more important) reason that people make inferior presentations is that they were simply never taught how to make superior ones. Again, most people don’t know how to make good presentations to begin with, and so most therefore aren’t qualified to give advice on how to compose a fine presentation. This leads to a positive feedback loop where the blind lead the blind, and in the end hardly anyone knows how to put together a decent set of slides!

At this point you’re probably thinking, “OK genius, so if most presentations suck, how about you stop complaining about them and tell me how to make one that doesn’t?” The answer is simple: Just watch the Simon Peyton Jones talk on how to give a great presentation. That’s it, just watch that talk and you’ll be a certified grade-A presenter!

…Just kidding of course. Don’t get me wrong, that talk is really good, and you should try to follow most of SPJ’s presentation advice most of the time. However, his talk is very high-level, and for people who are absolute beginners at giving talks (and I contend that most people are), there is not enough concrete actionable advice to follow. Simply put, SPJ leaves out many of the finer, more granular details on how to forge and deliver a captivating presentation. So here’s my (opinionated) list of things to do to make a magnificent presentation that will earn you the recognition you deserve for all your hard work!

Tenets for making excellent presentations

Go light on the text, heavy on the visuals

You should strive to have as few words on your slides as possible without sacrificing clarity because it will make it easier for people to pay attention to and understand your talk. Any words on your slides will compete with you for your audience’s attention, so by having fewer words on your slides, your audience will more easily be able to focus on you and what you are saying. This also makes it easier for the audience to understand what you are saying as well, because their attention won’t be divided between you and your slides.

On the other hand, you should go out of your way to add fun, simple visuals to your talk to help explain or complement what you are saying. You can leverage the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” to your advantage by using images to explain complex concepts clearly and concisely. The correct image can help the audience comprehend what you are trying to say far faster than text can, and without nearly as much cognitive overhead on the listener’s end. This means that they’ll understand what you are trying to say more quickly and easily, and as a result will be more likely to keep listening to you.

I recommend using flaticon for images. Dr. Kevin Moran (the winner of the 2024 ACM SigSoft Early Career Researcher Award) recently recommended it to me, and I had great success when I used it to make my ICSE 2024 talk.

“But Brent,” you may be thinking, “how can I explain my super complex presentation topic without words?” This brings me to my next point…

Treat your talk like a sales pitch

Craft your presentation as if you were making a high-level (i.e., not very detailed) advertisement to deliver to potential investors of your work. The point of the talk is not to explain every little detail about your work, but to excite the audience and encourage them to learn more about it (e.g. by collaborating with you, reading your paper, buying you product, or asking you questions). For instance, if you were to give a talk about a new battery you invented, you would just say “You can save money by buying my batteries, because they last 40% longer than other batteries and thus don’t need to be replaced as often.” You would want to avoid talking about the specifics as to how your batteries manage to last so long, since your audience more than likely would not care about these details.

Put another way: don’t tell the audience all the cool things about your idea/product/technique, and expect them to realize on their own why it’s a great piece of work that they should care about. Instead, just tell the audience why they should care about your great new idea, and provide a very brief intuition as to how it works. Furthermore, by omitting such details from your main presentation, you give the audience very obvious questions to ask that you can more easily prepare for. Speaking of which…

Anticipate and prepare for questions

Predict the sorts of questions your audience will ask ahead of time and prepare to answer them. This will show the audience that you are knowledgable about your presentation subject, and earn you more of their respect. One great way to do this is to prepare a first draft of your slides with too much detail, and as you refine your presentation, gradually cut unnecessary details out of the main talk and move them to an extra section after your talk’s conclusion solely for answering questions about these details. It may feel like extra work to prepare slides that may never get used if the audience doesn’t ask the questions you expect them to ask, but if you’re going to cut the content out of the slides anyway it doesn’t require much effort to just append them to the end of the presentation instead. Moreover, with judicious content pruning you can subtly guide the audience to ask the exact questions you want them to ask by leaving seemingly obvious omissions from the main presentation. This must be done carefully though, otherwise you run the risk of leaving too many apparently obvious details out of your talk and looking like a fool. Unfortunately I don’t have any concrete advice on the best way to do this (yet).

While all presenters should prepare for questions, the approach of putting extra slides for questions at the end of your presentation may not work so well if you plan to accept questions in the middle of your talk instead of waiting to take questions at the end. This is because you should…

Only move forward

You should never go back to a previous slide while giving your talk because doing so makes it harder to follow what you are saying. People will understand your presentation more easily if it flows smoothly from one slide to the next. Furthermore, if you need to go back to a previous slide to explain something on a later slide, that suggests that your slides were not prepared in the appropriate order to begin with. Astute members of the audience will notice this, suspect that you don’t really know what you are talking about, and choose to stop listening to you. To prevent this from happening you should prepare and practice presenting your slides from start to finish without stopping or going back. The first step to doing this is to…

Nail the first impression

If your presentation is an advertisement for your work, then your first slide is the advertisement for the advertisement. It serves two purposes: to inform and intrigue. When creating the first slide, be sure to include the obvious details such as the title of the work, the names of the authors (perhaps accompanied by images of them) and their institutions, the names of any agencies that funded the work, and the presentation venue and date. This helps people attending your talk confirm that they are in the right room, and makes it easier for others to find your talk online in the future. If the first author is not the one giving the talk, make that clear on the title slide as well by writing the name of the author presenting the work in bold and by including images of all the works’ authors (assuming space allows for this).

When you present your first slide do not say the name of your talk, because the title of your talk is on the first slide anyway and your audience (presumably) can read. This advice is even more important to follow if you are presenting at a conference because the session organizer will probably read the title of your talk before you even begin presenting as well. Instead of reading the title of your talk, introduce yourself and give a very brief overview of what you will be talking about. For example, when I gave my ICSE 2024 talk I did not say, “Hello everyone, today I’m presenting the work Semantic Analysis of Macro Usage for Portability”. I began my talk by saying, “Hi everyone, my name is Brent, I am a PhD student at the University of Central Florida, and today I’m excited to talk with you all about macros”. You want to garner the audience’s interest early on and build “attention momentum” (a phrase I just made up and am already thinking about patenting), so that they’ll be willing to focus on your whole talk without losing interest. Show the audience how much you care about what you’re about to talk about, and it can rub off on them. In the words of Dale Carnegie, the best way to be interesting is to be interested.

If you tend to get nervous when presenting in front of crowds, then one way to overcome this apprehension is to memorize the first few sentences of your presentation. That way you’ll crush your first few slides, and feel pretty confident going into the rest of the talk. When you get to your slides that you haven’t entirely memorized though, just be careful that you…

Do not read off your slides

This will totally obliterate your audience’s interest in what you are saying. If your slides already say everything you are going to say, then the audience may no longer feel the need to listen to you since they can just read your slides instead. Some members of the audience may try to keep listening to you, but they will likely have a hard time doing so because their attention will be split between your written words and your spoken words.

Also, reading directly off slides is just a lazy way to present that will almost certainly annoy your audience. It doesn’t require practice and turns your talk into a monotonous lecture. This is another reason why your slides should have a minimal amount of text. People don’t want to hear you go on and on about something, they want you to…

Get to the point

Try to state the core idea behind your work, and why your audience should care about it, as quickly and concisely as possible. Your audience almost certainly does not care about how your new solar technology converts photons into electricity. They almost certainly will care about how cheap it is, how much money it will save them on their electric bill, and how soon they can expect to receive a return on investment once they buy it. If this sounds like advertising that’s because it is. When you’re trying to persuade someone to buy your product/read your paper/invest in your startup, the first thing you need to ask yourself is “What’s in it for them? Why do they care?” The sooner you answer those questions during your presentation, the sooner you earn your audience’s attention.

Here’s a trick I use to figure out how to explain a topic quickly without beating around the bush. First, I write a paragraph explaining the idea in a fair amount of detail. I don’t focus on concision at all; my goal is just to explain the topic as well as I can using as much text as I need. Once I’m done, I go back and review the final sentence in that paragraph. More often than not, that final sentence is the key idea I’m trying to convey to my reader or listener. If it is, then I move that last sentence to the very beginning of my explanation, and adjust the rest of my explanation to accommodate this change in structure. When I do this I often find that many parts of my original paragraph were entirely unnecessary to explain my key takeaway. I cut these useless parts out, and the explanation becomes much simpler and more straightforward than before.

After you’ve established the main idea behind your work and made it clear why your audience should care, you can start to explain more of the context around it (e.g., more background on the problem your idea solves and how it works). A great way to do this is to…

Give examples

People are hard-wired to recognize patterns and learn best by example, so you should furnish your talk with concrete examples to help explain how your work solves a particular problem. Great problem examples not only provide context as to why your work is important, but can also excite your audience to see how your work solves the problem. On the other hand, don’t try to explain the insight behind your idea first and then give an application of its usefulness, because this can confuse and bore people.

For example, let’s say you are giving a talk on why math is important. What you would not want to do is spend ten minutes explaining all the rules of arithmetic, and then briefly mention vaguely that math is the cornerstone of technological progress. What you would want to say is, “You can learn how to budget more effectively and save money by using math”, or “In the 1960s humans transcended the limitations of gravity and flew to space by using mathematical formulas”. Then, after you’ve earned the audience’s interest with your stellar examples, would you want to start explaining how arithmetic works.

You’re probably going to give a talk on a topic much more complex than the importance of math, though, and won’t be able to use such simple and obvious examples. That’s not a problem, because examples are also effective for explaining complex ideas as well. To explain a complex topic, choose quality examples over a quantity of them. Start with a simple example that doesn’t illustrate all the complexities and edge-cases of your work, and then…

Introduce complexity gradually

To explain a complex idea, start with a simple, limited example of the idea, and then slowly layer complexity on to it throughout your presentation. For instance, let’s pretend I’m giving a talk on home winemaking (a recent hobby of mine):

When preparing slides for your example, I recommend putting the most basic example on one slide, and then adding “appear” animations to reveal the complications. Here more than ever, it’s crucial that you use images to introduce the complications, and not text. Otherwise your example devolves into bullet points, which are boring and annoying.

Provide full context when possible

Explain concepts as if your audience can’t remember anything but your key idea (assuming you’ve already established it) and what’s visible on the current slide. When speaking, always spell out acronyms and accompany technical terms with their definitions. This is just another trick to reduce your audience’s cognitive load. Save them the trouble of remembering what all your technical jargon means so that they can focus on comprehending why it’s relevant to your idea (and why your idea is relevant to them). Tread carefully here: although you want to provide full context in your talk, you don’t want do this on your slides. This is because cramming too much context on your slides results in walls of text that impose a cognitive burden on your audience and distract them from what you are saying.

There’s a very fine line between providing full context and providing too much context. Give too little context, and your audience will be lost. Give too much, and your audience will get confused. Either way, they won’t understand you. To determine the right amount of context necessary for your talk, you will need to…

Practice, practice, practice

Practice presenting often and with a variety of people. Practice presenting both to people who do and do not have any background knowledge on what you are talking about. Feedback from the uninformed audience can help you realize when certain ideas which seem “obvious” to are not actually that obvious to your audience (and thus require that you provide more context when mentioning them). The informed audience can give you a way to practice answering technical questions about the work. If you’re lucky to have a mentor with good presentation skills, then ask them how to make the presentation more concise and engaging.

When I gave my ICSE 2024 practice talk to my mentors at the University of Central Florida (UCF), I learned more about how to put a fun spin on my ideas and how to better sell myself during my presentation. For example, since my advisor Dr. Paul Gazillo had a lot of background knowledge on the work, he was able to recommend a few analogies I could use to better explain my research. On the other hand, the other UCF faculty who only had general computer science knowledge but little knowledge about my work were able to give me more general presentation tips.

Meanwhile, when I practiced presenting my talk to my (very patient) girlfriend, I learned how to convey complex ideas more concisely. Since my girlfriend has very little computer science knowledge, she was willing to ask more “obvious” questions about concepts that I implicitly assumed the audience would understand, but apparently did not explain clearly enough. By presenting to a non-technical audience, I improved at expressing my thoughts with minimal technical jargon. I also had to learn how to not get mired down in the details of my work, since that would also confuse her. In short, I had to learn how to present using the right amount of context. This often required me to…

Highlight key points, and cut out the rest

Emphasize the important, exciting, and surprising parts of your work, and omit everything else from your main talk that doesn’t serve this purpose. When you present a figure with data (be it a table, chart, graph, code snippet, whatever), ask yourself “What do I want the audience to glean from this?” If there’s something in the chart that you can highlight to make this point clearer, then do it! Do not try and make your audience read your table and figure out on their own why the data explains how much better your work is than prior work. Most of them won’t even try to. Just tell them instead.

Once you determine what the key part of your figure is and have highlighted it, then consider removing the rest of the figure entirely and just leaving the highlighted information on the slide. This will help you get to the point when explaining the importance of your data. If you have highlighted multiple parts of the same figure, see if you can use some sort of average (i.e., mean, median, or mode) to summarize this information, and replace the figure with this average. Make sure to leave the full figure in after the end of your presentation though, since this can help you answer questions.

Sometimes it can be useful to present a large, complex figure to convey just how complicated and difficult the problem you are solving is. If you do this, my only advice is to do so quickly. You don’t want to risk your audience actually trying to read/understand the figure and getting distracted or confused. You just want to shock them with it, and then take it away before they can think too hard about it. If they really want to know more, they’ll ask you about it.

Stick the landing

End your talk with a slide that reiterates your main points, presents your photo along with your contact info, and displays QR codes or short links to pages where the audience can learn more about your work. When you reach your conclusion slide don’t read anything on it; simply tell the audience that you have finished your talk and are ready to accept questions. Don’t proceed to a “Thank you” or “Questions” slide, because they provide no meaningful content to your presentation. The last slide of your talk is likely to get more screen-time than any other and is your last chance to sell yourself to your audience, so don’t squander it!

Leave your conclusion slide up on the screen while you await questions so that the audience can record your contact info and read and re-read your key points. The audience may use these key points to form questions, so prepare accordingly. If you need to go to an extra slide to answer a question that’s fine; just try to jump back to your conclusion slide afterward.

Finally, make sure to finish your talk ON TIME. If you run out of time in the middle of your presentation, simply stop and say “I had more slides prepared, but I am out of time and so will end now.” Don’t ask your audience for permission to continue - they will likely feel bad and say sure, but believe me they won’t appreciate you for taking more of their time. This is especially true if your talk is the last one before a coffee or lunch break.

Be humble

Perhaps the most important advice I can give on how to improve at presenting is to remain humble and accept the fact that the first few presentations you make (even after armed with this advice) will likely suck. It can take weeks to prepare an excellent talk, and you may need to throw out your first, second, and third drafts before you arrive at something half-decent. That’s OK though - most talks suck, so a half-decent talk is often all you need to stand out. Keep these rules in mind when you attend your next presentation and you’ll see what I mean. The good news is that as long as you pay attention to what you’re doing wrong, and remain receptive to feedback, you will only continue to improve. It is difficult, but not impossible, to make a great presentation that doesn’t suck.