Presenting Psychology: 10 Ways to Polish Up Your Research Presentation

Gone are the days in which promising scholars could conduct brilliant scientific work, write compelling and cogent articles and books, and be forgiven by all for having no clarity or articulation when attempting to talk about it in person! ...If those days existed at all.

Scientific communication takes many forms, but virtually all graduate students, faculty, and other related roles must present about their research at some time. Psychological research (or any research for that matter!) can be complicated enough when working alone in a dark office in the basement floor of your building. Explaining complex phenomenon in front of crowds, conference goers, or even your own lab can be even more difficult. For many, public speaking can be a scary and messy process which often leaves presentations feeling cluttered, unorganized, and confusing to audience members. Alas, there are a few things you can do to tighten up your speeches and presentations to help communicate effectively. While there are many ways in which to polish your speech, included below are 10 tips that can help some of the most common issues when presenting.

1. Use a preview Dropping a line in the beginning of your presentation that previews the structure of your presentation is a great way to help the audience know what’s in store for them. Stating something simple, such as “Today we will be looking [A], [B], and [C] in an effort to explore [SUBJECT]” can be really helpful for an audience member to know what to expect. Further, it can keep the presenter focused.

Side Note: This can be especially helpful if you are very passionate about a subject and spent your life studying one phenomenon. When you know a lot, it’s easy to get derailed with so much knowledge that you can a come off as distracted or omnipresent. Have a goal for what you want your audience to learn, and build structure around that so you can first, get them up to speed with what they need to know, and then drop some seriously research on them.

For a great example of preview use, check out Ashton Kutcher's "3 Things" about life speech he gave at the Teen Choice Awards.

2. Use sign posting As a presenter of often complicated and cool research, it’s easy to rush into the details in order to get to the good stuff (“microwaving the soufflé” as Ariel Gore once said). However, if you drag your audience by the scruff of the neck through your presentation, they will likely be distracted and confused before you can even get to that good stuff. Instead, [metaphorically] take them gently by the hand, and guide them. At every point of change, try to recall where you are, and how you got here. Use sign posting!

Sign posting essentially means calling out to the audience when you are transitioning to a new point, so that everyone is aware a change in direction is coming. It’s sort of like holding a big sign in front of someone so obviously that they can’t miss it. For example, let’s say you are presenting on a study you conducted. If you just talked about your methodology, and are transitioning to the results part of your presentation, refrain from saying something like “Then we did a 2 X 3 ANOVA and found significance.” In one brief sentence, you have ripped the reader’s attention away from the intricate nature of your carefully crafted methodology and shoved them straight into analysis mode. Instead, try something like, “Now that we know what this phenomenon is, and how we measured it in our sample, let’s look at what we found.” Using language like this, you can effectively transition your audience along with you.

3. Use your body to signal changes Just like sign posting can help your readers to prepare for a quick shift in the presentation, your body can signal to the audience that you are moving on. Try using what’s called the “Speaker’s Triangle” in which you move between points on an imaginary triangle.

In one example of the speaker’s triangle, the speaker begins their presentation in the middle of the stage. Once the introduction and preview is given, such as “Today we will be looking [A], [B], and [C] in an effort to explore [SUBJECT]” the speaker moves to one side of the room to talk about their first point (From Introduction to Point A in the figure above). When using sign posting to transition to the second point (e.g. “Now that we understand the history of this phenomenon, let’s look at the current research”), move to the other side of the room (Point B). In similar fashion, continue on back to the center for your third point (Point C) and you can end your conclusion here, or take a few steps forward for your conclusion.

It may not seem like a big deal, but physically watching a speaker move when transitioning points cues the audience to know that you are moving on. Over in one corner you talked about Point A, but now that you are in the other corner, you are clearly talking about Point B. The same thing goes for Point C, use your sign posting language to move. I often liked to end in the middle of the room, so that when I am ready to give a conclusion, I am already center stage.

Side note: Often furniture dictates how and where a speaker can move, as large tables and awkwardly placed podiums are already in place. If you arrive early to a room, move the furniture to your liking. If you can’t move it, try to move around it in your presentation if you are able. You can even joke about the obstacle in front of you during your presentation (see tip #5 on humor)!

Additionally one more word of caution: light. If you are asked to give a presentation in front of a window or have any sort of light source behind you, make sure to move during the presentation. Not only does moving help your audience understand your transitions, but moving around protects their eyes from staring at one stationary object (you) with a blinding light behind it for a whole presentation.

4. Review Just like a preview helps audience members to know what’s coming, reviewing what you talked about at the end of your presentation helps them to remember. Try using a line like, “Today we talked about A, B, and C.” right before your final message. It's simple, but effective!

5. Use humor One of the best feelings of public speaking is turning a bored looking audience into a room full of chuckles and smiles. It relieves stress, you feel good about where you stand, and it’s a nice break for the audience. But even more than that, even the best speakers can get bored. If you happen to give the same presentation over and over again, you will find that if you build in a few light moments or bits of humor, you look forward to them while speaking. It also brings back wandering attention of audience members.

If you are someone who struggles with using humor, give your presentation to your peers and ask if they see room for an easily joke or light-hearted comment. In my experience, someone always sees an opportunity for a bit of humor, somewhere.

For a great example of how various types of humor (stories, sarcasm, comedic timing) can be utilized to keep audiences engaged, check out this video of Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work

6. Visual aids, not paragraphs If you are giving a talk, a lecture, or a presentation—whatever, people want to see you speak and present information. What they don’t want to do is watch you attempt to read three paragraphs of information in 11 point font off a PowerPoint slide. They can do that at home. To clean up your presentation, use bullet points to highlight subtopics you are talking about, but make sure you do the talking, and not your slide.

One common exception for this guided rule is sharing quotations from other people. You can have that one.

In terms of visual aids, there are often two unique benefits when using them. The first is that good visual aids enhance the understanding of the audience. For example, if you are giving a presentation about the temporal lobe of the brain, it would probably help the audience to see a picture of the brain, with the temporal lobe area highlighted. A visual aid that would not be helpful in this case, is say something like a cute clipart picture of a brain. Although it might be related, it does not help further the audience’s understanding.

The second benefit of using good visual aids is that if you suffer from anxiety or are a very nervous public speaker, visual aids get the audience’s eyes off of you and onto your visuals. This can help ease your stress while presenting, and help your audience’s understanding too!

7. Avoiding talking "at" the audience Some of the most boring lectures and presentations are given by individuals who would give the same performance whether the room was full of students or empty chairs. They tend to be the ones who rant, don’t ask the audience questions, hardly make eye-contact, and ultimately fail to acknowledge the audience is there. Put simply, they talk at the audience, rather than talking with the audience.

This isn’t to say that you need to stop during your presentation to incorporate group activities. But what you want to do is acknowledge your audience is there by giving them your energy— don’t give it to your PowerPoint, your notes, or the floor. To do this, keep your body posture facing and open to the audience. Make eye contact with various people. You can even try giving an occasional smile or nod to a few audience members. Humor can also help accomplish this, as it's an exchange between the audience and you. If the audience feels that you are acknowledging them and are engaged with them, you will hold more of their attention.

8. Video record yourself beforehand This is a hard one, but it’s worth it. If you have a big talk or lecture coming up, and you want to be as polished as you can be, give the talk to an empty room with your cell phone or video recorder rolling, and watch it. No one I have ever met likes doing this exercise, as most people HATE listening to themselves talk. But it can save you from things that unknowingly, will distract your audience. Let’s illustrate this point with a personal example.

I was forced to do this exercise in a class years ago, and I hated every second of it. BUT I learned a very valuable personal lesson for me about public speaking— I can never wear my hair down when I talk in front of people. 

After presenting and thinking I did a good job in class, I went home and watched the recording of my presentation. But that feeling of confidence was soon replaced by a feeling of extreme embarrassment. I watched myself saying the same words I remembered speaking, but I also saw myself repeatedly reaching across my face to tuck my hair behind my ear. When I kept talking, the stray section of hair would slowly loosen over my ear, and when it finally escaped over my ear, I would causally reach my hand across my face again, and idly push it back.

Over, and over, and over, I pushed that strand of hair back. Watching the tape, I didn’t even hear what I was saying. I just was so focused on how long it would take for my rebellious hair to break free again. It was so distracting, and I had no idea I was doing it!

Other students I spoke with in that class had similar experiences, and for the first time noticed things like awkward shifts in weight, nervous gestures (such as fiddling with clothing), and bad posture. Most of us have these nervous or unconscious distractions. Which one do you have? Time to find out, and take care of it in advance!

9. Get the bad one out For the big talks, the big presentations, give the presentation twice that day. The first one should be at home or in your hotel room the morning of, and the real one later. The purpose? To get the bad one over with. The first time you give a presentation is often the one that feels more clunky and is a bit more jumbled. So don’t give the clunky speech to the audience, sacrifice it to an empty room that morning and be done with it. You’ll thank yourself later!

10. Remember how lucky you are! Although it may not seem like strong advice for a solid presentation, this last piece might just change the way you think about public speaking.

I was told by someone a long time ago that when you are in front of an audience, the audience is giving you something that is truly wonderful—their time. Even if it’s 10 minutes, each person is in that room to hear you speak, and they are giving you a piece of their day that could have been spent in many other productive and fun ways. Even if that person somehow got trapped in your presentation and they actually don’t think your presentation is worth 10 minutes of their time, change their minds. You’ve got them there anyways! You get one chance to make an impression, so cherish the time, understand the sacrifices of the audience, and make it worth it.