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Rules of Rhetoric?

January 10th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

One of the worst things about conferences is the poor quality of presentations. And whilst we send students on compulsory research skills courses (and I am ambiguous about the value of many of these) we do not teach them how to make a good presentation.

In an age of multimedia, live performances, for that is what a conference presentation is, have to have added value over the paper copy, the blog or the video. Why go to a lecture if all the lecturer does it read her or his notes which are online anyway?

The European Educational Research Association‘s Emerging Researchers Network has provided this advice sheet – in a file somewhat oddly entitled Rules for Rhetoric and written by Prof. Dr. Meinert A. Meyer from the University of Hamburg, Germany- for those presenting at its annual pre-conference to the main European Conference for Educational Research.  I don’t see though, why it is only being offered to emerging researchers. ECER should provide this advice sheet for everyone?

I am not sure about producing a written text though. I think a series of bullet point notes may be better. And – talking of bullet points – try not to use them on slides. Slides should be there to add to your presentation – not to duplicate visually what you are saying. See the powerpoint as an extra channel to add richness to our spoken word. I would also bring the last point – on what message you are telling to the top. I would then suggest producing a  storyboard of your presentation and use that storyboard to think about your oral presentation, the images you will use and the words you will use on your slides.

  1. “If you have a time slot of 15 Minutes, this means that you can produce 3 or – at most – 4 pages of written text, Times new Roman 12, one and a half lines distance. (Don’t forget the time you need to show and explain your figures and diagrams.)
  2. You should prepare your presentation with a written version, but after that you should speak freely, addressing your audience, not your laptop. Make sure that you do not reduce your eye contact to one or two persons or to only one half of the audience.
  3. Try to speak as simple and down to earth as possible. The majority of your listeners does not have pre-information concerning your topic, your special interest and focus. A list of keywords/a crib is helpful for that, and – of course – practice. Talk to the mirror; tell your friends what you have to say, as simple and understandable as possible.
  4. It is helpful to have your presentation videotaped, in advance, and to analyse it carefully. Please watch the rhetoric of your presentation. Are you slow enough? How many “ehms”, “okays” et cetera did you produce? How many break downs of sentences did you produce? Can you reduce their number?
  5. Very many presenters produce power point slides with too much information and with too small letters. Use size 24, fat, as a rule, and size 18, fat, as the absolute minimum.
  6. Don’t produce a full version of your paper on slides and read that out. This is the best guarantee for a boring presentation. I suggest not more than 12 slides for 15 minutes.
  7. Avoid reading your text at full speed. Even though it my be that you yourself understand what you say, the listeners won’t.
  8. Make sure that your time for discussion equals your presentation time. Good presentations always have ample time afterwards. (You may have a few slides in reserve, in case the listeners ask you what you would have liked to integrate into the paper if you had had more presentation time.)
  9. You should be able to say, in one sentence, what your message is/what the gist of your story is.”

Has anyone any other advice for improving conference presentations?

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