Top Tips on Seminar Presentations and the return to IRL – In Real Life

January 31, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

After the Zoom years, lots of us are now back in the lecture theatre/other forms of real life contact and exchange. Intoxicating, in many ways. But I’m also struck that it feels the same, but different, to the pre-Covid world, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about getting the most out of these encounters, partly for readers, partly for my students, and hopefully get you to throw in some good ideas too.

First, the tech: the tech content has gone up, especially in hybrid sessions, and although everyone (even me!) has become a lot more tech literate under Covid, it can still be pretty messy. Clickers, mikes, simultaneous streaming and recording (Teams, Zoom). The key for me is to get the tech under control beforehand, so I can concentrate on the actual lecture without getting flustered/distracted. That means getting in early, and if necessary doing a rehearsal before first use and/or trying to have a tech elf on hand, especially for the first lecture.

Second, some old truths still apply, namely the basic rules of good powerpoint:

  • Images better than words
  • Few words better than lots of words.
  • Alternate between presenters.
  • Avoid powerpoint karaoke (reading out long paragraphs of text, especially with your back to the audience and facing the screen).
  • If you embed videos, make sure in advance that they work in this room with this equipment (especially the sound!).
  • Similarly with interactive tech – you want it to fit in with and enhance the flow, not interrupt it. Some of my students made great use of menti last week.
  • How many slides do you really need? This from a previous adjacent rant on conference presentations: ‘nothing spoils a presentation more than an out of time speaker rushing/gabbling through their remaining 20 slides. A 15m talk should have a max of 7 or 8 slides. (ht Peter Evans: it’s called Powerpoint, not PowerLotsOfPoints).’

Still searching for the perfect guide for student seminar presenters – any suggestions?

Otherwise, here are links for more general advice on presentations: a Princeton guide and one from Birmingham for the more academic end, the Ted Talk version and the piss take.

Third, the Q&A: First question to a woman, natch. Second, be kind – asking questions can be scary, so always be positive in response (unless the questioner is a pompous air-hog, or asking something totally off topic, but even then, don’t be mean). Particularly if the questioner is asking in their 2nd, 3rd, or nth language, listen hard and see if there’s a ‘question behind the question’, then answer that. As the presenter/supposed expert, saying ‘I don’t know’ is a positive, not a negative thing – it reduces the power imbalance in the room. Enjoy yourself and the contact with the audience. Be funny if you can pull it off (when brain fade sets in, I sometimes offer an answer ‘loosely inspired by your question’ – that usually gets a laugh).

Finally, the content: For seminar presentations, great presenters dominate the reading list rather than being led by it. They summarise, spot trends and tensions in the literature, and add to or critique it as they go.

As for the audience, my favourite bluffer’s guide to looking smart during somebody else’s powerpoint is: raise your hand and say ‘could you go back a slide, please?’ Then just say ‘thanks’ and look wise. Genius.

Other suggestions? I tweeted but got tumbleweed, apart from Peter Evans (again) recommending PechaKucha.

And here’s that piss-take. Enjoy.

January 31, 2023
Duncan Green


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  1. Don’t agree really, especially presenting in developing countries where English may not be the audience’s first language, translation and auditorium can be imperfect but where most will have access to a laptop.

    Too many PPTs that I get sent after a meeting, even when I’ve attended it, make little sense by themselves.

    For those like me who want to impart important, difficult information, you need pics, words, diagrams and a finished article that makes sense when you read it again later.

    Most of what you say will be forgotten in half an hour, but for the one or two in the audience that you are really targeting, they can have more to digest when they want.
    Yes, there are a few talks that are inspirational and hardly need a PPT, but few of us can rise to that challenge.

    We are not all slick corporate bods; be true to yourself or you may look shallow and false.

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      Good points here, but makes me wonder if we’re loading too much onto the ppt – maybe better to have a text-light ppt, accompanied either by notes pages people can read, or a handout?

      1. Well I probably overdo it sometimes!

        Handouts: unless I’m the keynote I’m usually still revising it until the last moment – once I get the mood of a meeting, I sometimes realize the talk must change, so handouts are difficult. But I try to get a copy of some sort to the translator(s).

        I’ve noted a tendency for organizers to insist on getting the Ppt well in advance. This should be resisted … I gave a talk in Africa where the organizer sent them to someone in the US for ‘editing’. A colleague complied and found the meaning of some slides had been altered.

        It’s made me wary of people telling me how to give talks …

    2. Totally agree. I have not used a slide deck in a face to face workshop in 6 years and am hoping never to have to use it. It is laborious but I write on charts, post-its every time. That way I keep the text limited and use the time to move people around, and converse, rather than kill them with slides in a dimly lit room. My learning is that one can facilitate 3-4 day meetings with NO ppts at all. One just needs to experiment with methods.

  2. Agree on everything except for “a 15m talk should have a max of 7 or 8 slides”. Noooooo….You’ll end up with ten bullet points on a slide instead of a slide (preferably without bullet points) per point. You wouldn’t tell an animator to create a one-minute clip but use a max of two (instead of 1000) frames. In Pecha Kucha, a 6-minute talk means 20 slides. If I’m asked to have a max 7 slides, I’ll only speak for 2 minutes. Which might do everyone a favour.

  3. “Images better than words”, unless you’re one of the couple of billion people in the world with a visual impairment. They’re still good to use, and I generally agree with all your points, but your PowerPoint rules could do with some consideration of accessibility.

    If anyone was at the Global Disability Summit a few years ago at the Olympic Park (hosted by IDA & DFID), the main thing they’ll likely remember is how hilariously/depressingly inaccessible it was. Aside from all the wheelchair users being turned away because they couldn’t be accommodated, my lasting memory is session after session where the presenters confidently asserted “as you can see on this slide…”, ironically oblivious to all the white canes and guide dogs in the audience. Facing away from the audience remains a no-no, but describing /reading out what’s on a slide is basic good practice. If that means reading lengthy chunks of dull text, perhaps that says more about the design of the slides than about how to present them!

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