In this week’s blog our Executive Director, Flóra Raffai, shares her top tips on how to give a good presentation. 

Presentations at events can be one of the most effective ways for small patient groups to raise awareness of their rare disease and their work. You have an allotted time to speak to a room full of people, who usually have never heard of you. But how can you capture people’s attention away from the smartphone hidden on their lap?

This is a challenge I have faced countless times when I have presented about Findacure over the past few years, mostly to audiences unrelated to rare diseases. In this post, I would like to share my top tips to giving a good presentation.

Tailor your presentation to the topic
It is shocking how often people recycle previous presentations when they are invited to speak at an event. This is a guaranteed way to ensure the audience do not listen and to ensure you are not invited back to speak again. Instead of paying attention, people will be trying to figure out how your presentation relates to the topic on the agenda. It does take time to write a new presentation for every meeting you are invited to speak at, however, your message will be lost if it is irrelevant to the meeting.

Even if the topic you have been invited to present on is similar to a presentation you have previously given, it is worthwhile changing elements. The rare disease world is quite small, so it is quite likely several people in the audience will have attended the meeting where you last presented, meaning they will switch off the moment they realise you are giving the same presentation.

Have a good hook
A good way to keep people from reaching for their smartphones is to have an unusual hook at the start of your presentation which catches their attention. This can be a personal story illustrating the rare disease you will be discussing, an audience participation exercise, or an anecdote to which the audience can relate. By referring back to your hook at transitions in the presentation, you can draw people back in who may have started to think about checking emails.

Keep your slides light on text
It is very challenging to read and listen at the same time. Putting up slides that are a wall of text will result in the audience ignoring what you are saying and just reading the slides. Presenters also frequently fall into the trap of reading aloud their slides if there is too much text on them. This can make audiences frustrated and they stop listening, knowing they will have access to the slides after the event anyway.

Instead of lists of bullet points, try using images, graphics, and statistics related to your points. I have found changing slides every 30 to 60 seconds, with graphics that reinforce the points I am making, keeps the audience focused on the presentation, as there is not enough time for their eyes to wander.

If you are wary of removing text from your slides because you use your slides as a prompt, try writing your key points down on flashcards instead. This can be hidden from the audience on your lectern and keep you on track with the presentation, but removes the temptation to spend the presentation with your back turned to the audience, reading your slides.

Interact with the audience
The best presenters keep their audiences engaged through personal interaction. You do not need to be overly charismatic or a confident presenter to do this. Simply maintaining eye contact throughout can improve audience attention. Presentation coaches recommend scanning the room with your eyes in a ‘W’ pattern, looking at people in the back left corner, scanning forward to the front left section, scanning to the back middle, forward to the front right section, and then to the back right. This way each member of the audience feels you are speaking directly them at some point throughout the presentation.

You can also throw questions out to your audience and have them complete an exercise. You can poll the audience by getting everyone up on their feet and have them sit down when they disagree with your questions. This can be a good way to refresh people who may have been sitting still for several hours at a conference.

Keep to time
Poor time keeping is disrespectful to your audience, the meeting’s organisers, and your fellow speakers. If you have been given a set time slot, subtract at least 5 minutes to allow for questions at the end, unless you have been explicitly allotted time for questions. Write on top of your notes the time you are set to finish and have a watch nearby to remind you of the time. Practise your presentation ahead of the meeting to ensure you can keep to this. This also helps you decide on your phrasing, reducing the need for excessive notes on the day. Speakers who finish on time are remembered much more positively, even for an average presentation, compared to an excellent presentation given by someone who significantly overruns on their time.

Hopefully these tips will help you improve your presentations. But you may still be wondering how to secure a speaking slot to begin with. Unless you work at an organisation with strong brand awareness, you will need to be proactive. Whenever I attend a meeting I believe relevant to my cause, I speak with the organisers to put my name forward for future meetings. After speaking at a couple of events, you develop a reputation as a ‘speaker’ and you will start receiving invitations which you will need to filter to only dedicate your limited time to those where your presentation will have the biggest impact.