Six ways to increase your impact during a research presentation

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It’s not difficult to deliver a powerful, memorable and persuasive presentation with just a little extra effort and a different way of thinking.

Presenting your research to a wider audience is one of the key ways of achieving impact. If, however, the people in the audiences aren’t paying attention, or if they don’t retain your messages, that impact is impaired or even lost entirely.

Despite this, few researchers learn how to present well, leading to un-engaging and forgettable presentations, which they dislike giving and their audiences rarely enjoy sitting through.

It’s not difficult to deliver a powerful, memorable and persuasive presentation instead. These six tips require just a little extra effort and a different way of thinking and preparing.

However, they can exponentially increase your impact, ensuring your messages reach the ears, hearts and mind of everyone in your audience.

1. Use slides as visual aids

When planning a presentation, most researchers instinctively load up PowerPoint and start filling up the slides with text. However, none of the most memorable presenters in history – from presidential addresses to TED talks – have relied on PowerPoint to convey their powerful message.

If you want your audience to read about your research, send them an email or produce a handout. A presentation is an opportunity to communicate in a much more impactful way than a narrated series of bullet points.

After all, your audience will read any written text quicker than you can say it aloud. While they’re doing that, they aren’t listening to you. And by the time you say it, any new information has lost its novelty.

So think of slides as an optional way of illustrating your talk rather than something to read from. Your verbal delivery is the main course and any visual aids are an optional garnish.

You may even find that a physical prop is a more powerful visual aid than PowerPoint slides. For example, a researcher giving a presentation in October could bring a large pumpkin on stage to illustrate the weight of average carbon emissions per person per day, before talking about how energy demand reduction solutions could halve this.

2. Know what your AIM is

Another natural instinct is to start planning a presentation in a linear way, starting with the content of the first slide.

This approach is a bit like chopping up ingredients when you’ve yet to decide what to cook. Before you cut into that onion, you need to know what the final dish will be.

For a more powerful presentation, get a sheet of paper and write the letters AIM down the left hand side.

A stands for Audience: who will you be speaking to? What is their current level of understanding of this topic? What type of language and references will resonate best with them?

I stands for Intent: why are you giving this presentation? What do you want your audience to do (or think) as a result? How will you know if it’s been successful?

M stands for Message: how would you sum up your presentation in one sentence? When a member of your audience speaks to a friend or partner afterwards, what do you want them to say? What’s the key sentence you want people to take away?

Using this framework will help you start with the end in mind when planning your presentation.

3. Build your presentation on strong foundations

When you walk into a house you don’t want to see the supporting structure – but you do expect it to be there under the skin of the building.

Most talks either have no structure or one that is overly prominent. It’s either like a house that creaks and shakes when you enter, or one surrounded by ugly scaffolding.

Instead, build your presentation on strong foundations, so that you lead the audience from point to point smoothly, logically and subtly.

Some of the presentation structures you could use include:

  • Past, present and future
  • Future vision, current position and how we can transition between them
  • A sequence of questions
  • The hero’s journey
  • Situation, opportunity, resolution

4. Begin strong, end well

The first minute of your presentation is when you have the greatest amount of that scarcest of resources: attention.

It’s your opportunity to convince your audience to continue investing their attention in you and to override that ever-present urge to respond to a text message or refresh their email inbox.

That’s why this is the most important part of your presentation, and the one to spend most time preparing and fine-tuning.

Yet so many researchers begin their presentation with a boring and predictable opener such as, “Hi, I’m Professor Smith and I’m here to talk about…”, “I’m very honoured to speak to you all today…” or “Thank you all for coming…”.

Instead, ask the person introducing you to provide any necessary background information about you. That gives you the chance to open straight away with something more powerful such as:

  • Using a relevant local or topical reference, e.g. “I was delighted to read in this morning’s newspaper that sales of heat pumps and electric vehicles are at their highest levels yet. We’ve modelled how local networks will be affected by this additional demand for domestic energy and how flexibility can help reduce the cost of infrastructure upgrades…”
  • Asking a question, e.g. “What might our cities and infrastructure look like if we all had the right to live without a car?”
  • Telling a true story, e.g. “When the cost of gas and electricity goes up, the Smiths have a choice to make: do they keep feeding the ever-hungry pre-payment meter? Do they turn off the heating and use the money to travel to a medical appointment instead? Or do they put those coins towards some food so that the children can have dinner tonight? I spoke to their daughter as part of this research, and she said…”

The second most important part of your presentation is the end. Again, rather than finishing with a “Thank you for listening” or “And that’s it”, try to make your final words more impactful.

Examples include:

  • A brief summary of the key points – especially if your presentation was long – and the conclusion those points lead to
  • Looping back to an anecdote, story or message that you opened the presentation with
  • Setting the audience a challenge to do that evening or on the way home
  • Repeating your key message
  • Ending with a powerful and relevant quote
  • Asking the audience a thought-provoking question.

5. Use rhetorical tools to engage the brain

Years of spin doctors and disreputable PR firms have given the language of rhetoric a bad reputation. But when it comes to the art of talking effectively and persuasively, these timeless tools have proven their power, from Aristotle in ancient Greece right through to their use today.

Here are some of the most useful rhetorical tools to harness for your next presentation:

  • Use analogies and metaphors to bring complex concepts to life, especially when speaking with non-academic audiences. For example, researchers compared wind power to the siren call of mermaids to illustrate that exclusively focusing on switching to clean energy supplies means we overlook some of the jagged rocks submerged just under the surface, such as the inconsistent availability of wind power and the urgent need to reduce energy demand.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. A blog post or research paper filled with repetition reads badly. However, in spoken presentations repetition is essential. Brief recaps of each of your points will help clarify your messages and lock them into your audience’s memories.
  • Harness the power of three. Distil your key message into three words or phrases to make it ‘sticky’ and easy to remember. From the number of pigs and bears in a children’s fairy tale to the strapline at a Downing Street pandemic briefing, the magic of three is used everywhere because it works.
  • Use clear, active language. Speak directly to the people in the room, using the second person (“you”) and jargon-free, direct and active language. Instead of talking in abstract terms using abbreviations and passive phrasing, bring problems (and their consequences) to life and share a vivid vision of any policy or other solution you are proposing.
  • Speak with colour, energy and emotion. Just as babies mirror the smiles of the grownups looking at them, so do adults reflect the emotion of those they are looking at. If you appear relaxed on-stage, your audience will feel relaxed, too. Conversely, if you look anxious, or if you speak in a bored monotone, your audience will experience those emotions, too. Of course, many researchers are in the energy reduction field because they are passionate about the future of the planet. Let your passion show through in the stories you tell and the words you use. After all, your audience may agree with what you say and find you to be a credible speaker, but it’s emotional engagement that will lead them to act on your message. In the same way, using descriptive and unusual language will speak to all the senses of those in your audience, helping them to visualise and experience your presentation through all their senses, and making it more impactful as a result.
  • Create discomfort with hooks. Imagine a presenter brings an unusual prop to the stage – a young child’s balance bike, for example – and places this in a prominent position near the lectern. This creates a question in the audience’s mind – why is that bike there? – and the discomfort this unresolved question provokes means the audience pays additional attention as they seek an answer. In this case, the presenter might finish with a story of their child’s love of cycling, and speak of their desire to not only reduce energy demand, but bring the joy and health benefits of active travel to every child’s life. Another way you can ‘hook’ attention is by telling the first half of a story at the start of the presentation, then pausing it at a critical point to cover your factual points before returning to the story at the end of your talk. Additional options include posing a seemingly impossible question, making an outlandish statement or teasing the audience early on with snippets of what you will be revealing to them later on.

6. Practice, edit, repeat

Researchers often skip the most important part of presentation preparation: rehearsing and fine-tuning what they are going to say, preferably out loud and in front of a mirror.

It’s during this phase that you might stumble over a particularly tricky sentence, realise there’s too little or too much detail on a particular point or spot the opportunity to use a more interesting and colourful description.

Rather than trying to memorise your first draft, the aim is to chisel at the raw marble of your notes until something more elegant appears.

This way, on the day of your presentation, your ideas, words and rhythm have been sufficiently refined that your talk becomes easier to deliver – and much more impactful for your audience.

Lastly, check that you can say everything you need to within the time limit you’ll have. It might seem obvious, but a great 20-minute presentation can become a scrambled mess if you try to race through it to fit in a 10-minute slot. It’s best to share fewer ideas, but with greater detail and more emotional impact, rather than trying to share too much, too quickly.

TED talks and YouTube have raised audience expectations of what a good presentation looks like, and the constant distraction of phones and emails means you have competition for your audience’s attention.

However, with a little effort and preparation, a presentation on any topic can be transformed into a memorable and engaging experience which pulls the audience into the moment and which could permanently change how they think and act.

By taking some time to study and adopt good presentation practices, just as you would for any other skill, researchers can achieve maximum impact when sharing their findings.

It’s also entirely possible that – over time – giving presentations could even transform from something you dread doing to one of the most rewarding parts of your role.

Banner photo credit: Jaime Lopes on Unsplash