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Refining your PhD presentation style.

Doing a presentation during your PhD is inevitable. This post provides tips on how to improve your storytelling to engage your audience and hit your message home. Containing two free downloadable templates that you can use.

Presentations during your PhD is a rite of passage, it has to be done, and can actually be a pleasurable experience as it allows you to leave your little silo of work and see who/what else is out there. It’s also a really great way to develop another transferable skill and it enables you to grow in confidence when it comes to sharing and disseminating information. Presentation skills are great to add to your CV and LinkedIn page – it can also be translated well into industry, irrespective if you have a STEM or non-STEM PhD. It’s also a perfect example that can be used to demonstrate your interpersonal and communication skills. Irrespective of the presentation you need to do, the approach should mostly be the same. How you go about conveying your message will mostly be the same. Whether you’re a keynote speaker, presenting quickly to your research group, or even presenting at a conference with a typical PowerPoint slide deck or a poster – this blog post is for you.

The most common type of presentation during your PhD however is usually a poster presentation. If you haven’t checked it out already, we recommend you read this post on creating the perfect conference poster, as there will be more guidance on how to lay it out, where to use images, and how to really capitalise on this opportunity. There is also a free downloadable poster template (yes, you’d be crazy not to look at it) which you can use/look at/get some inspiration from. Building on from that post, here we’re going to spend more time on how to structure your oral presentation, how to work engage your audience, and ultimately captivate your audience. So, if that sounds like the kind of content you want to see, and some more free template goodies would be of interest, keep reading.

When it comes to doing a presentation, it’s important to keep in mind that storytelling and just stories in general have and will continue to be the age-old method of communication. Since the dawn of ages, humans have used stories to teach lessons, past down messages, and share knowledge across generations and within communities. Your presentation should emulate such practices, with the key focus on presenting a story. In its most simple form, you want to present a beginning, middle, and end to your narrative. But the real difficult part we can find ourselves in is figuring what parts of our research/project are relevant. All of it is important right? Well not quite – at least not in the context of a presentation. Everything you do in your PhD has value, even if you’re problem-solving, going down dead ends and finding out what doesn’t work, developing new skills and of course publications.

However, a presentation is not a summary of your entire working day or PhD journey. Instead, it’s a snapshot of a small component of this timeline. In essence, you need to create a beginning, middle, and end to a fraction of your entire PhD. As outlined in the post regarding a poster, you want really to focus on a succinct narrative. Typically, a presentation will be on one of your PhD projects. Here you should start and end where this particular project does, not before it and not after it. Again, this is easier said than done, so we’re going to provide some frameworks which you’re free to use to help aid your thinking and presentation planning.

The first approach we’re going to cover when planning your presentation is the idea of a ‘story map’. A story map is a diagram containing relevant boxes/topics which you want to think about in your presentation. You can print off this free template here and fill out it when you get a moment.

As you’ll see in the template, a story map contains boxes or sections for different elements that are important to consider when designing your presentation. The top three boxes are labelled as setting, time, and place. These refer to the context of your research, your rationale, you want to set the scene (‘once upon a time’). Time and place just refer to the context even more. Is your research time sensitive, in the context of the current evidence base, how does it fit on the timeline? Where can this be applied to? Can you connect your research/aim to the real world more tangibly (i.e. place)? 

The second key box of your story map is the characters. This mainly refers to your audience and who you will be presenting to. Are they familiar with your topic area? Will they understand your methodology (and if not, does it matter?), What do they research? What kind of things interest them? Are they decision makers or in high up positions who may be curious to know about your recommendations or implications? What types of language and terms will they understand/be familiar with? There’s lots of different questions you can ask yourself here, but truly understanding your audience will a key deciding factor as to whether you do a good or not-so-good presentation. You want to speak to their interests and heart strings.

Next, we move into your problem and plot of your story. This is the juicy ‘middle’ of your narrative. Once you’ve set the scene correctly, you can begin to unfold the plot at hand. Talk around your motivations for this research, the possibilities/impact it could bring. Are there any additional opportunities? What are your hypotheses? We want your audience to be invested in the plot. The goal is to have them on the edge of their seat, itching for the end. Don’t undersell this, but also don’t spend too long here to the point that people begin to disengage. Finding that balance of keeping your audience curious but not bored is the goal. 

Lastly, it’s the end of your story. Nobody likes a cliff-hanger – particularly in research. You need to wrap it up. A cheeky flashback or recap of your story doesn’t do any harm, especially if you’ve got a complex plot. The box on the story map is called ‘resolution’, and that’s how it should feel. We want your audience to feel content that the story has been fulfilled and come to a close. Here you can talk about what your findings mean, why are they relevant? What do you recommend from this? Do you have any assumptions? Are there any caveats/limitations to your work? Again, remember to keep your audience in mind and revisit that character’s box we covered earlier.

Applause all round.

The second framework we’re going to talk you through is what’s known as a presentation canvas. Much like a story map, there are sections/elements that you should consider when telling your story. These are very similar to what’s already discussed, but sometimes it’s nice to have things explained in another way. Just like setting/time/place in a story map a presentation canvas has a ‘presentation objectives’ section. What does your presentation need to accomplish? Or at least, what do you want your audience to take away from it? As before, a presentation canvas has boxes about your audience. What describes them? How involved might they be? What do they need from your presentation? Lastly, a presentation canvas has a box referred to as ‘presentation content’. In this section you want to think about how it will address both the presentations objectives/goals and the audiences. This is similar to that balance between detail and not boring your audience we mentioned earlier. As with the story map, you can download a free presentation canvas below.

These two approaches aren’t the holy grail for presentations, but they most certainly are useful in providing a framework and structure to think about when planning and designing a presentation. Give both a go and see how you get on!  


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