Often, when scientists think of giving a presentation on their research, flow is the furthest thing from their thoughts. The accuracy of the data, quality of the experiments, and intricate details that make up experiments are typically considered to be much more important. But ignoring presentation flow, which can make a presentation sound natural and capture a listeners attention, can be to a presenters detriment: flow is a critical part of storytelling and making a presentation palatable, fun and interesting to listen to.
But how do you create flow in a presentation? And what is so challenging about it? Creating a flow requires you to transform your presentation from a series of slides, presented in a sequential order, to a single unit with each slide leading logically from one to the other. Developing that can require quite a bit of work. Certainly, much more than looking at each slide as a separate component of your overall presentation.
With that in mind, let’s talk about some of the ways in which you can make your presentation flow.
1) Tell a Story
For those who have done some reading on science communication and presentation skills, the “tell a story” advice is nothing new. There are an endless number of blogs written about how to tell a story in your presentation, so I’ll spare you the in-depth details of doing so. What I will say, however, is that looking at your presentation as a story, with key characters and interactions, puts the content on each slide of your presentation into that context. By considering how each slide moves the story along, you can figure out how one naturally leads into the other. Finding and effectively telling a good story can be compelling, interesting, and a great way to attract and keep you audience’s attention.
2) Create a Slide-to-Slide Transition
While creating a transition between slides can sound easy, this can be one of the more difficult challenges to finding a flow. The best way to do this is by using verbal transitions, which lead your audience through your thought process as you change slides. When done effectively, you can keep your audience’s attention and seamlessly direct their attention to the newest slide, using it to support the topic that you transitioned to. There is a simple step-by-step process to go about doing this.
First, complete your explanation of the slide that you are currently presenting. Leave no stone unturned: make sure you explain every piece of data on the slide. After doing that, your audience’s attention should naturally shift from the slide to you. You can facilitate this attention shift by asking a simple question or making a statement to naturally get the audience to start thinking about the next topic you’re going to introduce. For instance, you may have just described some data that challenges one of the well-accepted models in the field. After describing the data, it would be great to explain that to your audience. This then raises the question for your audience: “Okay, so how do you explain that then?” Then you can follow up with your next slide, when you give an explanation or show additional data that helps answer the question you just posed.
3) Keep Slides Simple and the Attention On You
By keeping slides simple, it can be easier for you to keep your audience’s attention on you rather than on your slides. This is not always easy when presenting your research, especially if it involves complex data that may require a lot of explanation. Make sure all the data you are including on your slides is absolutely necessary for you to tell your story. If it isn’t, cut it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of including too much data by considering every minute detail to be important. Doing so is surefire way to lose your audience’s attention.
On slides where you do find it necessary to present complex data, be sure to introduce it in a stepwise fashion, using animations if necessary. As a result, your audience will be more likely to listen to your verbal transitions and maintain focus on you as you switch slides.
4) Refining Flow Through Practice
Practicing your presentation is a critical part of figuring out how to make your presentation flow. Through the course of practicing, you can identify slide transitions that are difficult to explain. These problem areas can arise due to a lack of logical flow and can be a signal that you as a speaker need to give additional explanation or context. In addition, if a transition seems awkward, you may need to think about rearranging your slides and considering a different order.
Creating and refining a presentation flow is only possible through practice and you’ll only discover these awkward spots if you talk through your presentation. You can practice by yourself, but having an audience can really help you identify additional problem transitions that you may have missed. It’s often useful to do one or two practice runs by yourself to identify and fix the main problem areas, then get a mock audience for additional refinement.
5) Use a Presentation Outline
Introducing your audience with the content that is going to be presented can also help them better understand the structure, and hence the flow, of your presentation. This is often done with an outline slide at the beginning of a presentation and a brief explanation of the different sections of the talk. This gives your audience a overview of what is to come and how all the pieces fit together. Even if there are some difficult slide transitions, your audience can maintain a handle on the “big picture” view of where the presentation is going, rather than being lost in the weeds.
When used together, these five tips can synergistically transform your presentation from a series of slides to a cohesive unit. But, if you are just starting to develop some of your presentation skills or are in the early stages of your research career, don’t try too much all at once. Experiment with one of these tips and see how it goes. Improving your presentation skills and creating a presentation flow is a process of incremental improvements that your audience will thank you for.
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Other articles on the art of telling a story in a presentation
More on story outline/structure: Even the Shortest Story Needs Structure