Presently Presenting

Present wrapped in red ribbonIn preparing to make a presentation at Swarthmore’s Staff Development Week next month, I thought it would be a good time to review some rules of thumb for making presentations that I’ve learned and discovered over the years.  Because institutional researchers generally have such a range of people in our audiences, it can be tricky!

Power Point – This package is both a curse and a blessing.  As a presenter I like having a visual reminder of key points, and to help frame for the audience where I’m going.  As an audience member I know too well that slides full of text are deadly boring.  Because I am a tactile learner, I have found that I like to organize my presentation by making a text-rich Power Point slide show, but then not actually showing much of it!  The advantage is that I can share the full document later as the version that “includes speaker notes.”  For the actual presentation, I try to use slides primarily for simple charts, illustrations, examples, and a minimal number of bullet points (with minimal associated text).   I want people to engage with what I’m saying, not read ahead.

Tell what you’re going to tell   – The importance of giving your audience a simple outline of the presentation was impressed on me by Alex.   After a particularly boring talk we’d attended, he persuaded me how much better it could have been if we’d simply been able to follow its logic, which an outline would have provided.

Tables – Avoid all but the simplest tables of data in a presentation, and make sure, if you want them to be read, that they are indeed legible from the back of the room.  If I am showing a table primarily to present a layout, I would make clear as soon as the slide is shown that it is not meant to be read.  (This is not uncommon for Institutional Researchers, who share strategies and techniques – sometimes it’s not the data we want to see, but how you presented it!)

Graphs – I personally love a graph that contains a ton of information on one page.  I could stare at it for hours, like someone else might stare at a painting and glean layers of meaning.  Alas, I would try not to make such a graph for others!  In general, the wider the audience, the simpler the chart should be.  Avoid ratios, or even percentages that aren’t immediately grasped.   And be sure to use colors.   A simple, attractive chart that reveals an important relationship can reveal meaning to even the most staunchly anti-data.

Involvement – Whenever possible, I try to involve the audience either through humor (but DON’T overdo it – I’m an institutional researcher rather than a comedian for a very good reason) or engaging with an exercise or activity.  At a faculty lunch presentation a number of years ago, before I began (during lunch), I left displayed a chart reflecting faculty opinions about their adequacy of sleep by career stage.  It certainly piqued interest – people love to hear about themselves!

Certainly none of this is new, but I find it helpful to review and remind myself of them before starting a new project.  As I look back through some of my past presentations I see that I haven’t always followed my own rules as well as I’d wish!   But presentations can be a powerful tool for accomplishing a primary goal of Institutional Research:  getting information to people who need it. And so it’s something I continue to try to learn about and work on.


Published by

Robin Huntington Shores

Currently the Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Swarthmore College, Robin has worked in Institutional Research for over 20 years at a range of institutions.