Every student must do a presentation at some time during university. It’s an important skill, but also a quick way for staff to assess knowledge and analysis without pouring over essays or exam scripts.
Good presenters draw on ideas that fit well with the Slow Movement, particularly those dealing with time, delivery, content and preparation. Not surprisingly, the advice is simple. Slow everything down.
Students tend to treat time-limits on speaking the same way they would a word count. Working to the word limit ostensibly shows maximum knowledge. In a similar fashion, we bizarrely believe time spent not speaking equates to marks wasted.
It’s easy to see why we think this way. Marks may be docked if you exceed your allotted time. The trouble is that we try to cram too much in, forgetting that a presentation is about much more than the content.
I put my phone timer on just as I start presenting. If the time-limit is 20 minutes, I aim to finish in 15. On the day, I’ll often speak for 19 minutes, because time always flies when presenting to an audience. Giving yourself this leeway is critical as it allows you to slow down delivery
The problem with presenting is that nobody interjects, allowing you to accumulate speed like an avalanche.
People take time to digest points, and if you hurtle through your monologue at breakneck speed, salient information drowns among the onslaught of information. It’s a time-honoured trick of radio-advertisers. Speed up the terms and conditions so people faze out.
Reducing the number of words spoken per minute requires effort and practice. It’s extremely hard to remember to do while presenting, particularly when nervous. I find the best place to practice slow delivery is in everyday conversation with friends, where you can often do so unnoticed when the stakes are much lower.
A complimentary tactic is to make good use of natural pauses the body offers when taking a breath. Pregnant pauses are extremely effective vocal cues. They have special symbols in musical notation. They replace punctuation and change the rhythm of your voice. The most respected orators and voice coaches command attention through the absence of words. As such, they are the antidote to monotony, where both audience and speaker slip into the lull of unvaried delivery. Remember how teachers would simply stop talking as they noticed someone not paying attention at the back? The class would be instantly drawn to the unexpected silence.
Confidence and comprehension is best signalled by you dictating the pace of delivery, rather than your nerves. Slowing down will allow you to enunciate, intone and emphasise points better. It will allow you to tinker with the quality and tone of your message.
If you slow down delivery and add in some tasteful pauses, you’ll take longer to say less. So how do you combine this with a shorter, more succinct presentation? The answer is to cut content from your slides. Aggressively.
In presentations, less is always more. There should be as few slides as possible and as much information coming from your mouth. Likewise, cutting content from slides is not the same as cutting content from a presentation. Explaining a slide takes a lot of time, and often is superfluous to the wider argument.
The biggest crime a presenter can commit is to place a whacking great segment of quoted text onto a slide. I’ll be looking to haul them to The Hague if they proceed to read out said text. These two things insults the audience (you think we can’t read) and lazy (you couldn’t find your own way to say it).
If a busy presentation slide is the jungle, the delete key is the machete that allows you to thresh a path through.
I make a slide’s primary function to remind myself of what I want to talk about next. If the slides are nothing more than signposts, they won’t take attention from you. Too often the content determines the presenter, particularly if they simply repeat what is written on the slides.
The obvious exception to this is with charts, graphs, images or items which visually reinforce a point in a way your voice cannot. This is the secondary function of a slide: to be demonstrative of your argument.
I don’t like it when a presenter comes on stage clutching hand-written notes. Many academics like to have a verbatim printed copies of their presentations which they read aloud, occasionally glancing up to remind the audience they are sentient. While this seems to be an accepted strategy, and I can see how it helps extremely nervous people remember content, I don’t think it helps people connect with their audience or overcome their fear of speaking to large audiences.
On a separate note, it takes extremely skilled presenters to educate an audience and keep their attention without using slides at all. The people who do so tend to have speech writers. I’ve seen a student try it before, and it was awful. I wouldn’t suggest it.
If slides should allow the audience to anchor themselves to the argument you are making, they should also not distract from you. It is you, not Powerpoint or Prezi, who is getting marked.
I set myself rules for presentations, unless the format is specified by the lecturer:
· I use the simplest colour schemes consistently through slides.
· There should be one image/chart and maximum three bullet points per page.
· A quote can be no longer than two lines.
· Images must be formatted and cropped to remove white, and they also must be high quality.
· Absolutely no animations or noises. You’re not 13.
· A reference should be footnoted on the slides in question. Bibliographic slides are redundant as they are usually skipped over when a speaker runs out of time.
I see the presentation as a trifecta made up of the audience, the presenter and the slides in that order of importance. The presenter spends most the time speaking to the audience. At regular intervals, they should pause to refocus on themselves, their delivery, body language and audience engagement. They then might move back to the slides to emphasise a point on a graph, before returning to the audience.
The Slow Movement is concerned with quality. Your voice is an instrument that has a varying quality dependent on how you treat it. If presenting in a 9am lecture, there is a danger that the first words you say that day will be the ones being assessed. If so, it's likely they will be raspy, garbled and stuttered. The throat and mouth are full of muscles, and they need warming up. This requires giving yourself ample time before you go on stage. Even if you silently mouth some tongue twisters on the bus, it will help loosen your jaw so warm up before.
In essence, slow everything down and make everything less busy. Your audience and markers will thank you for it.