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Top tips for public engagement presentations

Know who your audience are

Any good public engagement is planned for the audience as the first priority. The timing, location, format etc. should all be designed with needs of the audience in mind.

For example if your event was targeting new mothers you’d be planning it during the day (i.e. mid-morning or mid-afternoon), it would be at a child friendly location (e.g. children’s centres or library’s) and you’d provide appropriate spaces at the venue for them and not be expecting everyone to be sitting undistracted listening to speakers for several hours.

Similarly your presentation needs to be designed with the audience in mind. If you’re addressing people with no prior knowledge of your field you need to take more time to set the scene. If you’re speaking to people who may be personally/ emotionally effected by your research topic (e.g. cancer survivors for someone researching cancer cures) then you need to be mindful of that in your delivery.

Use simple language and avoid jargon and acronyms

Jargon and acronyms create a barrier for the audience in understanding what you want to tell them. They often make people switch off and stop listening to you. Usually they are not required to get your point across, but if you must use them, make sure you explain them (and if you come back to the term later, it’s useful to remind people again what it refers to).

Public engagement is not an academic conference presentation or journal so don’t feel the need to use academic language. The simpler the better as this will make it most accessible to a wider range of people. Keep in mind your audience and ensure your language is appropriate for them (e.g. keep it extra simple and explain basic terms when speaking to children).

If you’re explaining a complex point consider if you could use a metaphor or visual aid to explain it to the audience. That being said be aware of your audience and if you’re speaking to a group where several members may have a condition such as autism then they will take things very literally and metaphors may not be appropriate.

Practice and prepare

Before your presentation, take the time to rehearse it so ensure you’re timings are correct and you aren’t going to run over. Usually presentations overrunning cuts into question time and limits the amount of interaction you’re able to have with the audience.

Whilst you don’t need to memorise word for word what you’re going to say, having a rough idea of what slide is coming next and what you’re going to talk about on it will help you feel more confident. You will also appear more knowledgeable – there is nothing worse than a presenter who’s obviously reading off the slide, or even looks surprised by each slide that comes up.

If you can, go and visit the room you’re presenting in beforehand. Make sure you know what AV is available and have at least 2 ways of accessing your slides. If the visibility of the screen in the space isn’t great consider limiting how much you rely on slides for the talk. For example if you need people to see a picture in detail and the screen isn’t good quality, consider printing a few copies to hand round instead. If you’re relying on videos make sure there is fast wifi access/ have them downloaded in advance and make sure there is the ability to play the sound loudly enough at the venue. (AV systems are available to hire from IT services if you need to supplement what’s available at the venue).

Dress to impress?

What you decide to wear for your presentation may be something that happens by luck depending on what you picked out of the wardrobe that morning, or it may be a carefully planned ritual – we are all different! Consider who your audience are when picking your outfit though. If you usually wear jeans and t-shirt to work, but you’re off to present to financial tycoons then you might consider being suited and booted for that presentation.

However if you’re off to speak to people from a deprived background and you’re usually draped in your finest jewellery and carrying a designer handbag when you come to work then you may want to consider if that’s the image you them to have of you. Human nature is to make snap judgements about people based on appearance and how you’re dressed might lead them to have a perception of you that’s false. Whilst you may overcome this with what you say during your presentation, picking your outfit with the audience in mind may help break down some of the barriers between you.

Being comfortable and feeling confident in whatever you choose to wear should be the most important factor though. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes you don’t mind standing up in for the duration of your talk.

Visual aids/ accessibility

Most of us like to have some kind of visual aid with us when we’re presenting. This might be your PowerPoint (or an alternative such as Prezi), it could be something drawn on a flipchart/ whiteboard, it could be a poster, or a specific image, or it might be some kind of prop you’ve brought with you. What you decide to use should be suitable for your audience. PowerPoint gets a bad reputation for “death by PowerPoint” but used wisely – i.e. as a skeleton outline and not an essay broken down into bullet points, it can be an effective way of helping you communicate complex ideas.

Be aware of making sure your visual aids are easily readable for the audience, and avoid using red and green/ yellow and blue together as those who are colour blind may not be able to see them.

Make it interactive

Good public engagement is two-way and must involve listening as well as telling. Can you build interaction throughout your presentation rather than just leaving it for a Q&A at the end? For example asking people questions throughout, giving them an activity or something hands on to do, getting the audience involved in your presentation.

Consider tools such as Response Ware – an audience voting tool (think of something a bit like the “ask the audience” voting pads from “Who wants to be a millionaire?”) for interaction in your presentations.

End with a clear take-away message

Your take away message might be a specific call to action such as “sign up to hear about how our study progresses” or it could just be a summary of why your research matters. If the audience is leaving your presentation going, “I don’t understand why they’re doing that piece of research” then you’ve failed to engage them. Make it clear why you’re doing it and where you’re hoping it leads.