Top Ten Mistakes in STEM Presentations

Universities and businesses give very little training on how to communicate effectively. This is particularly evident when I watch people give technical presentations at meetings or conferences. In this blog post, I list the top ten mistakes people make when giving a technical presentation and how you can avoid doing the same. There are many more mistakes I could list, but the following ten are by far the most common.

10 - Cookie Cutter Slides

Unless instructed to do so, it is a mistake to use standard and recognizable templates. It conveys you have put little time or effort into the presentation and it makes your presentation ordinary. If you have any respect for yourself or your audience, make a custom template but don’t overdo the details. It would be another mistake to have such a fancy template that it distracts from the presentation.

9 - Lack of Engagement

If you do not engage the audience, you will come across ordinary and boring. You will lose the audience’s attention and you will not be remembered. It is difficult for many of us to have a dynamic and sparkling personality, especially when nervous. At a minimum, make eye contact with the audience. Consider picking five or so people in various parts of the room and talk directly to them. Further, people like to learn new things. You can engage people with interesting facts, snazzy graphics and animations, classy and appropriate humor, having a prop in your hands, and other gimmicks.

8 – Not Enough Practice

Not practicing before giving a presentation can cause several bad things to happen. You may struggle to find the right words to describe something while you are presenting, which will waste time and confuse your audience. Your speech may not be synchronized correctly with your animations and transitions, making your presentation less effective and harder for the audience to follow. Your talk will likely go longer than the time you are allotted. This will either cause your presentation to be cut short or it will take time away from whoever presents after you.

7 – Reading Directly from Slides

Reading directly from the slides will frustrate, and can even anger, your audience. If you are reading from the slides, you are most likely looking at the slides instead of the audience (see mistake #9).  Reading from the slides makes for a very boring and impersonal presentation. You should have very limited text on your slides anyway and this practice will prevent you from being able to read from the slides because there will not be enough text to read from. Practice your presentations so that you do not have to read from anything.

6 – Being Boring and/or Rambling on About Unnecessary Things

The best way to keep the audience’s attention is to avoid being boring. A monotone voice, a very quite voice, or talking too much about unimportant things will lose your audience’s attention. They will not learn much from what you are saying and they will not remember you, at least not in a good way. Work on being dynamic and deliver the presentation as if you are having a personal conversation. Try to be excited and passionate about what you are presenting. Positivity is contagious!

5 – Not Verifying Technology Prior to Presentation

Always verify that your technology is working prior to a presentation. Ensure your laptop connects correctly to the projector or ensure the provided computer is loaded correctly with your slides and displays the slides, transitions, animations, fonts, and slide formatting correctly. Check the laser pointer, slide presenter, microphone, or whatever else for proper functionality. At a minimum, failed equipment will delay the start of your talk and cut into your total allotted time. At worst, it will make it impossible to present. Verify your equipment and be mentally prepared to present with technical problems happening.

4 – Playing Fruit Ninja with Laser Pointer

Most people using a laser pointer would be much better off not using it at all. The tendency is for presenters to wave the laser point around quickly and erratically, like they are playing Fruit Ninja or they are a Star Wars Jedi in the middle of a lightsaber battle. It is best to minimize use of the laser pointer no matter how skilled you are with it. If you absolutely must have to use a laser point, hold it with both hands for stability. To bring attention to a specific part of the slide, hold the dot still under that part of the slide. To connect two things or convey a flow of steps, move the dot slowly and methodically between specific points on the slide. Always avoid fast movements because they are very distracting and irritating to the audience.

3 – Making the Slides the Focus of Attention

When giving an important presentation, your primary goal should be to make people remember you and what you talked about. This is very important for professional networking at a conference or making yourself stand out above your competition at a job interview. To do this, you must be the primary focus of the audience’s attention, not the slides. The slides are just there to backup what you are saying, not to do the talking for you. Do not load your slides and run off to some corner of the room to hide while you present. The best outcome of this will be that the audience remembers the presentation but they will have no memory of you.

2 – Crowding Too Many Images on the Slides

It is critical in a presentation to keep the slides simple. A single picture with minimal or no text is ideal. Very busy slides are impossible for an audience to digest and understand. The extreme effort they will have to invest to understand all the information on a busy slide is energy they are not devoting to listening to you. At the very best, a busy slide is completely ineffective and communicates no information to the audience. At the worst, you will lose the audience’s attention and they will understand little about what you are saying.

1 – Too Much Text on the Slides

The number one mistake STEM people make when giving a presentation is having way too much text on their slides. Why would you put any text on a slide that you should be presenting? Text is there for people to read, but if they are reading they are not paying attention to you. This can cause you to lose an audience. Pretend that for every word you use on a slide you must write a two-page essay to justify using that word. How conservative would you be with adding text? Be that conservative with words when adding text to a slide.

In Summary

The ideal presentation uses simple slides and keeps the presenter the main focus of attention for the audience. I could have listed other mistakes like using crazy animations or transitions, but these are not mistakes I see as often. I should also say something about nervousness. Nervousness is good. The more experienced people in the room will know that you are taking the presentation serious and that your performance is important to you. As long as your nervousness does not shut you down, do not worry at all about looking nervous or having a shaking voice. Most experienced people in the crowd will respect and appreciate your nervousness. Practice and devote energy into being a more effective speaker and it will significantly enhance your career!

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