Most students will probably be requested to give at least one Computer-assisted presentation during their tenure at university. This article is designed to help students create successful presentations in English.
Not a script
One of the most common mistakes students make is to treat slides (the “pages” of a presentation) as if they were pages of a script. Many presenters write what they plan to say on the slides and then read from them in front of the audience. Frankly speaking, this approach makes the speaker’s presence unnecessary. It is also tedious to view these presentations as the screen is filled with lengthy text the listener will be hearing spoken anyway. If there are long (and crucial) quotations or particularly confusing data, presenting those portions in their entirety may prove useful. However, long selections of text should be kept at a minimum.
Instead, slides should be treated as visual explanations of the speaker’s verbal message. They compliment instead of mirror the spoken portion of the presentation by providing visual cues such as graphs, charts, maps, photographs, audio, video clips which facilitate a broader comprehension of the speaker’s message.
It is useful to treat each slide as a unique unit with its own discernable topic or topics. Of course, the overall theme will carry over to succeeding slides, but it is important to designate a specific purpose to each slide. By assigning a definable theme to every slide, the speaker will encourage the audience to become more engrossed in the moment and to strive to treat each slide as an important event.
Slides should, whenever possible, follow a chronological order. Something that occurred in 1979 should be discussed before topics concerning the 1980’s and follow discussions of the 1960’s. And, much like a film or television production, slideshows should always strive to engage the viewers early on, maintain a steady argument, and end with an equally strong impact, summarizing the important points raised throughout the presentation. Though your subject matter may be purely academic, a slideshow is an occasion. Treat first and last impressions with special attention.
Issues of Authorship
With copying and pasting from Internet sites so prolific, it is important to draw a line between cited and original content. First and foremost, found text and images should be cited briefly on the page in which they appear. Last names of authors, photographers and artists can be listed in parentheses under or beside the selection, and complete footnotes can be provided on the last slide.
If translation software is used to translate foreign language text, a native speaker should be consulted to confirm the integrity of the translation. Some words may be translated with outdated, confusing, or just plain improper equivalents. Finding out that your data is confusing (or worse still, offensive) on the day of the presentation is irresponsible.
When importing audio and video clips, many problems can occur during playback. The most common is that the computer you end up using in the classroom will not have the media files needed to play the clip. To avoid this problem, make sure you bring all necessary media files with you on an external memory device. Find out what version of the software the venue’s computer uses, and verify that all of your media is playable on it. Of course, the safest bet is to bring and use your own computer on the day.
Issues of Style
Because most presentation software have spell check features, there should be absolutely no spelling errors in your slides. All proper nouns (e.g.: names of people, cities, and book titles), should be double checked as they are often not included in dictionaries.
Slides should contain font sizes that are visible from every seat in the room. Font size 16 is usually big enough, but 18 might be necessary if the screen is too far from the seats in the back. Choose one font type and stick with it throughout the entire presentation. Also, though using bold, underlining, and italics might seem like a good idea, these should be used with discretion. Overuse of these tools will actually dilute their effectiveness.
Another pitfall new users to presentation software seem to fall into is the myriad of options available for slide layouts. Many students spend a lot of time finding attractive backgrounds and some students even change backgrounds throughout the presentation. These decorative features are actually quite distracting and can weaken your message.
Clip Art and stock media images should be seen with an equally critical eye. These are the free images included in popular programs (Word, PowerPoint, etc.) that substitute for ‘direct’ images (e.g.: an actual photograph of a politician.)
Clip Art and stock images are by definition generic and they are rarely effective. If anything, Clip Art images can cheapen the message of the speaker. Every effort should be made to find images directly related to your topic and to credit the original source.
Most speakers are given a determined length of time in which to deliver their presentations. If you are not experienced utilizing presentation software, it is imperative that you rehearse in advance to determine how many slides can be covered and how much media can be included within the allotted time. A good gauge is approximately 1 to 2 minutes of speaking per slide. As the slide is being displayed, it is also a good technique to refer to the slide either by physically pointing with a finger or ruler, or using a laser pointer. Doing so will engage the listeners and remind them to connect the two flows of information.
Reading about presentations can be an abstract exercise. Therefore, I have asked one of my students for permission to include a slide that they created for a class I teach on film. I feel that this slide fulfills many of the requirements listed above.
This slide was used to introduce the biography of film director Tim Burton. The student centered an image of Mr. Burton and connected it to major developments in his life. As she verbally explains the incidents (e.g.: “When Mr. Burton was a young man he was obsessed with drawing and watching old movies.”) we can follow along to the balloon off to the right linking this information with the influence of actor Vincent Price. Below that, is a large red X over another image (a Burton film that Disney never released), and this visual tool of an ‘X’ conveys the power of studio censorship (and certain disappointment of the director) in visual terms. Please notice that the font type remains constant (though the font size changes), and there are no spelling mistakes to interfere with the viewing experience. This slide is in synch with the presenter’s spoken script and most of all: it compliments and clarifies the presenter’s intended message.
Good luck with your future presentations.