You have been invited to a well-known international conference to give a presentation – what an honour! Your first thought may be to get started right away by copying graphs from your publications into a slide, or dragging and dropping content from your archive of premade slides and clip-art into an empty presentation…

Don’t open PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi just yet. If you really want to make an impact with this presentation, you need to think about why you want to present. Get your goal clear first, because when nobody understands why you’re giving a presentation, none of the tips we’ll share here will save you.

This blog will help you go through the storytelling process and get to the point where you can actually start building it (and where this blog about improving your slide design will help you further).

1 Define your goal: what do you want to achieve with this talk?

More often than not, you will be asked to give a presentation without being provided with a goal for that presentation by the people who invite you. So you are free to pick your own! And unless you’re merely entertaining (and aren’t you better than that?) you will need to think about your goals and what you want to achieve with your talk. Even when your only goal is to entertain, that is your goal.

Examples of presentation goals:

Maybe you want to…

  • get more grants and impress the subsidizers in the audience
  • advocate for your science and show your peers that your latest research is important for the progress in this field
  • change policy, and raise an alarm with the public officials about this trend you discovered
  • raise an alarm with the public officials about this trend you discovered

These are good goals in themselves, but you should adapt them to the circumstances of your talk. For example, you will have to keep into account what the amount of time is that you have for your story, what the expectations of the audience may be, why you’ve been asked and what the overall theme of the symposium or conference is – if there is any.

2 Define your message: what do you want people to remember from your presentation?

Now, at first your message may feel similar to your goal. But there is a distinction. The goal is about the effect that the presentation has on your audience, while your message is about the content of your talk, and what you want people to remember. In other words:

Your message is always for your audience, while you could keep the goal to yourself

When thinking about your message, don’t overdo it. Try to stick to one message, since people have a hard time remembering more than one. Of course, the longer you have, to more elaborate or well-supported your message can become, but its core should still fit in one sentence.

That one sentence will be the basis for your presentation; start and end with it! On the first slide, it will give your audience a feeling of context and direction, on the last it will serve as a reminder and summary.

3 Write the narrative or story of your presentation

When you have your message clear, you can build the story. What does your audience – this specific audience – need to know or understand before you deliver (parts of) your story? What facts do you have to support your message? This story will guide them through your main message. You probably needed some time to arrive at your conclusion, so allow your audience some time as well.

Your story should answer the following questions:

  • Why is your main message so important?
  • What is the evidence to support your message (why is it true)?

Think about what do you want to explain, and what evidence you have for this narrative? Do you need to make side steps?

the-online-scientist-writing-penWrite all of this down, then rewrite it and rewrite it again. This is not a waste of time, since you can use the result to fill the notes section in your presentation – this is basically the story you will tell on stage. Your slides will become the illustrated background to that story, where you showcase the evidence, anecdotes and examples. At the end of your presentation you will have reached your goal by means of your message: an effective presentation.

4 Balance logos, ethos and pathos

Not every audience member is the same. Some people are very emotionally engaged, while others respond more to facts and ratio. This is exemplified by the classic Greek terms of logos, ethos, logos and pathos –logic, ethics and emotion. A good story balances the three, so as to serve all three kinds of audiences. In other words: your entire audience.

Get to know your audience

To do this successfully, you need to get to know your audience. As a scientist talking to her peers, you may be right to assume that most of your audience will be at the logic side of the triangle, but that is no excuse to neglect the other two. There will always be a few of the other kind (think policy makers), and any story becomes more compelling if you mix them up.

Examples of how to present your story:

Let’s take diabetes as an example. If your goal is to influence policy, and your message is that diabetes is on the rise, consider these three perspectives:

The Online Scientist - Logos Ethos Pathos in presentationsHere are some data; you can see that diabetes is becoming more prevalent. This is what it costs to treat it, and this is what we can save if we prevent it.

This is logos or reason speaking, and a rational person would say this is all you need to act.

As a prominent diabetes investigator, I’ve seen that diabetes is costing society a lot of money and reduces quality of life for patients. With these policies that I planned with an expert committee, we have the means to prevent them from increasing further.

This is ethos; a plea for a moral solution and an ethical approach. The main arguments are believed because of the credibility of the author.

Meet Barbara, she is a typical case of modern type 2 diabetes. She can’t resist the modern processed foods, which caused her to become overweight and develop diabetes. Because of complications, she now rides an electric scooter. This makes here less mobile, leading to extreme loneliness.

This is pathos. You evoke emotions by giving the data a face: this is what living with diabetes looks like, and more and more people experience it.

Of course these three are intertwined, because with the proposed policy to increase quality of life and reduce loneliness comes the very rational question of what that will cost, for example. But you need to use these three channels the same way as an old television uses red, green and blue to create a multicolored image. This also means your story will need more space (time and slides) than a presentation that just addresses the ‘logos’ side of things.

5 A presentation contains only useful slides

Of course, this seems gratuitous. And if you have followed step 1 to 4 securely, it’s redundant. But our experience is that more often than not, it’s good to go over your presentation one more time (or twice, no pressure) and ask at every slide: ‘is this adding value? Does this help me tell my story? Reach my goal?’ If it doesn’t, try tweaking the contents. If that doesn’t help, delete it.

Ask at every slide: ‘is this adding value? Does this help me tell my story? Reach my goal?’

And remember, because your slides are a means to an end, it’s not bad to tell part of your story without slides if they don’t help you reach that end. If you feel a slide does not convey the idea very well, or if you want the audience to focus entirely on what you’re saying, use a black slide and just talk. It’s better to leave out something than to force a slide in there.

You can use these five steps right away on your next presentation. It seems like a lot of work, but it is! Giving presentations may be common, but let’s not forget that it’s more than a filler in between the coffee breaks. With every talk, you have the opportunity to change your audience. It’s valuable to at least think about and realize that potential.

If you’re ready to learn more, why don’t you choose one of our workshops? To learn more about defining your message, we offer Basics of Science Communication. To develop your skills in making the presentation, you can take Presentation Design. If you want to get better at storytelling first, we have a workshop Storytelling for Science. And of course, don’t hesitate to contact us when you struggle or if you want more extensive advice, We’re here for you!

About the Author: Stephan van Duin

Stephan enjoys the process of understanding complex matters and being able to present them in a comprehensible way. His vision is that science and society can benefit from clear science communication, and that technology can aid this development in various ways, from science websites for the public to academic e-learning for students.

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