Telling stories: the craft of memorable conference presentations

Like writing a paper, there's a formula for a good presentation.
01 November 2021
By Andrea Martin Armani
The art of storytelling

It was April 2012, and I was standing on stage in Bovard Auditorium at the University of Southern California, getting ready to run through my talk on science in the 21st century, with TEDx organizers as well as several faculty members from the USC dramatic arts program. Even as I gazed out at some 1,200 empty seats, I wasn't worried. After all, I thought, I give talks all the time.

I might have spoken for two minutes before the TEDx people and my USC colleagues cut me off cold.

They began to explain—in excruciating detail—the numerous ways my presentation needed to be improved. I felt like I was back in grade school at the chalkboard. However, guidance from these professionals transformed not only my TEDx talk but my public speaking style in general. Ever since, I have shared those lessons with my students.

While there are many different types of academic presentations, learning to craft a compelling 20-minute conference presentation can provide the speaker with techniques more broadly applicable. First off, this type of presentation actually runs 18 minutes to leave time between speakers. And, assuming you want to leave time for questions, the presentation length is only about 15 minutes.

But with a timeframe set, you can focus on the purpose of a presentation and its content. What I learned from my TEDx experience is that a great presentation doesn't just present data, it tells a story. One way to structure a presentation, then, is to think of it as a 10- to 12-page illustrated children's storybook.

Selecting the front cover

Any good book has a beautiful cover, and your presentation should, too. The cover slide you choose often sits on the screen even before your talk begins, so provide the audience with an image that commands attention. Looking at your cover image, the audience ought to glean something important about you and the story you are going to tell.

With just 15 minutes available for the talk itself, use the cover slide as an at-a-glance visual summary to replace a boring and unnecessary "talk outline" slide. An effective cover slide should allow you to quickly introduce yourself, state the title of your presentation, and add a short sentence about the material you will discuss.

Tell the story

In 15 minutes, you have time to tell one story—or describe one research project—clearly and completely. Therefore, before beginning to prepare your slides, choose the story you want to tell. Craft a narrative around the story's theme. The message you want the audience to take away from your presentation should motivate the presentation arc.

Ideally, each slide will present one point or concept that feeds the presentation's main message. These are the stepping stones of your story arc. To further guide the audience, your slides should have visually compelling images that are easy to understand. Any text should complement the images, summarize main points, and support the ground covered.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing a presentation is figuring out where to begin. One approach is to look at who the other speakers are in your session and where you sit in the lineup. Are you the fourth person presenting on a topic, or the first and perhaps only speaker? People rarely complain about a quick review of a topic; everyone is frustrated with a talk in which they understood nothing.

If you are fourth in the lineup, you might begin your talk by quickly giving highlights from preceding speakers that set the stage for your presentation. You might answer questions such as how a colleague's work motivated yours or the technical challenge or scientific hypothesis you set out to study. If you are the first speaker or only speaker, a good place to begin might be with a brief summation of the problem or technical challenge you set out to solve.

Reaching the back cover

Good books have thoughtful, well-stated conclusions. Likewise, your presentation should conclude with a summary of the main message of your research story. This is your last chance to emphasize key findings and place them in context in the field.

Don't forget to thank the people who helped you along your journey, and remember to acknowledge any organizations or government agencies who financially supported your research.

Common traps to avoid

While your research writes the story, it is your responsibility to develop images and to present the results in exciting ways. By making a few simple adjustments, you can improve your presentations further.

  • Sound: If there is a microphone, use it. Conference rooms and convention halls rarely have optimal acoustics.
  • Slide formatting: Be consistent. It is very distracting for the audience if your slides are constantly switching between different layouts, color schemes, and formats.
  • Images and figures: Legibility is key! All graphs and images need to be clearly labeled and legible in order to be useful at conveying a message to your audience. This means that the text should be large enough to be read from the back of the room. A general guideline is to keep font size above 18 pt.
  • Color selection: Yes, colors are important enough to get their own bullet point. Nearly 10 percent of the male population is red/green color impaired. Therefore, when plotting data or making schematics, don't assume that red and green provide contrast. Additionally, make sure to choose colors that will work in both low and bright light and use color to emphasize important features.

Finally, be excited to tell your story. A presentation is your chance to tell the audience about your discovery. Infuse your presentation with this energy and make sure to guide them through every data set.

And how did my TEDx talk end up? Like many presentations, we had some technical issues, but having my friends and significant other in the audience made the experience a lot of fun and gave me a few smiling faces to focus on amongst the sea of strangers.

Andrea Martin Armani is the Ray Irani Chair in Engineering and Materials Science and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

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