Last month we had the pleasure of delivering Story to stage, our first workshop on presentation techniques, to a group of researchers affiliated with NanoLund1.

We began developing this workshop back in 2015, driven by a strong belief that scientific presentations can be informative, accurate and engaging all at once. Our conviction was that, given the right tools and training, all scientists would be able to deliver great presentations and ultimately increase the impact of their research.

So, what does it take for you to be an effective and engaging presenter? In our view, great presentations rely on four elements: story, design, delivery and practice. We organized and developed the workshop along these four dimensions.

Use story

This is advice that we give in all of our workshops. A story engages your audience and helps it understand and remember the information you are seeking to communicate.

In our first module, we combine insights from cognitive sciences and drama theory to identify key components that should be present in any story, as well as to map out the arcs of different types of scientific stories. These arcs are adapted to the format of your presentation, your audience and the story you wish to tell.

We then present a step-by-step approach for crafting scientific stories for presentations, which the participants can practice during the module’s group exercises. The outcomes are scientific stories that the participants develop using input from us and co-participants.

Think like a designer

Although we are big fans of presentations that do not rely on Powerpoint, the reality is that many scientists need and prefer visual aids. The second module thus focuses on essential design principles for effective visual communication. We touch upon colour, typography, form, space and layout. Our message is that you don’t need to be a designer to think like one. Throughout this module, participants design their slides to complement the story they developed in the first module.

Conquer your public speaking anxiety

Having a great story and visuals will go only so far without a great delivery. Most people dread speaking in public; their anxiety is manifested in physiological and cognitive responses. Although perfectly natural, anxiety is likely to affect how your audience perceives your talk and your trustworthiness as a speaker. In this module we discuss the manifestations of public speaking anxiety, encourage participants to share their experiences and guide them in assembling their own toolbox for tackling anxiety.

"The small group size enabled a safe environment to practice and improve your presentation skills. The workshop leaders gave a lot of very valuable input on how to focus on what is important and how to structure interesting presentations. Very good!" - PhD student, Lund University

In the second half of the module, we involve the participants in interactive exercises to discuss aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication. This includes voice mechanics, movement and body language, dramatization, and creating memorable moments to ensure that you deliver your story effectively.

Learn by doing

As with all trainings, improving a skill requires a lot of practice. To kickstart this process, each participant is given the opportunity to present in front of a live audience in the last module of the workshop. The time-limited, moderated format of this exercise mimics real-world scenarios of presenting at a conference or pitching your research programme for an ERC panel in Brussels.

It also offers an opportunity to practice in a safe, non-judgemental environment, where you can receive structured and constructive feedback from us and the other participants. The presentations are also recorded to enable you to reflect on your delivery techniques following the workshop and learn by observing.

The participants at our workshop last month did a marvellous job in the short timeframe. We were pleased to see the great strides they had made in absorbing our principles on story, design and delivery, and apply them immediately to their own presentations.

We were very happy with this first test of our workshop material. Based on discussions with the participants and their feedback, we are now making changes to improve it even further and are looking forward to delivering the workshop again soon. Perhaps you or your institution would like to organize one? If so, get in touch!

1A big thank you to NanoLund for organizing, and to Alex, Christina, Frida, Jonas, Laura, Louise and Stefan for participating and providing us with valuable feedback!