Together with Philip, I had decided to focus my presentation on the general audience, rather than on the exam committee. This had a profound effect on the level of knowledge of the audience.
The exam committee does not just consist of physicists that are knowledgeable in the field, but they also have perused the thesis itself. The rest of the audience, however, consisted of friends and family with very diverse academic backgrounds. While they would surely understand what I had done, more time had to be spent on explaining the underlying physical mechanisms.
Judging by the positive remarks afterwards, substituting some of the in depth technical details with an explanation of the basic physics of (laser)light was a good choice. The presentation was well received and understood by my fellow students (with backgrounds ranging from chemistry to international management).
Below I will go through some of the elements that contributed to the presentation. However, all of this can be summarized in one paragraph:
Presentation ZenWhat you'll read next is based on what Garr Reynolds writes in his book and on the plethora of blogs that I started tracking after reading Presentation Zen. Proper attribution of ideas is lacking, so be aware that none of these are mine.
While in Japan, I had spare time to spend on a presentation that I had to give at a conference in Kobe. In search of modern ideas on presentation design, I came across Garr Reynolds website: Presentation Zen. When his book (same title) came out, I ordered it as soon as I could. The simplest way to improve your presentations is to buy and read his book.
Even when you have your story all thought out, leave the computer off. Instead, get a large stack of post-it notes and fill up your walls with simple outlines of your slides. Make a simple sketch, add a word or two, and move them around until you are happy with the flow.
When you do this you'll note one thing quickly: you can't fit six bullet points onto a post-it. Great! Draw this conclusion: if it doesn't fit on a post-it, it doesn't belong on a slide. The use of bullet points has been deeply engrained in our brains by years of watching bad presentations. I had no idea that you could do without until I saw someone do exactly that. So, surf to Slideshare.net and look at some good presentations. These presentations are made for the web and can thus be viewed without an accompanying story, but just take a moment to consider the design. There are no slides with bullet points. Instead, you see large compelling images with short bursts of text that bring across a single point.
Try it once: don't use a single bullet point in your presentation.
Ok, so now you have your story and an outline of your presentation. You know what you want to say and what image is to go with that. Now you can turn on your computer, start your favourite software, and begin making those slides.
Ah, key issue!
Forget about design, think about your message. When you have that set, you can start thinking about design.
So, more about design. I'm a physicist, not an artist. In fact, physicists are probably furthest removed from artists as you can get. So if I don't feel held back by a lack of creativity and feel for design, then there is no reason why you should. Just do as everyone does: copy & paste.
Go back to Slideshare.net and look through some good looking presentations. Then, go and find great images to use in your presentation. There are umpteen different sites where you can get free stock images. There are even more where you can pay to get great pictures. You could start off by going to stock.xchng or everystockphoto. Just check the licenses before you use the images.
Learn one new technique: the squint test. Either stand a good seven meters from your computer screen, or squint while going through your slides. If you can't read the text, do you still get the point? You won't be able to read the sub-sub-sub-bullet points, but then again, the back of the room won't be able to read them either. What you are seeing in the squint test is what the back of the room sees during the presentation. It had better be interesting.
My pet peeve: alignment. Learn to work with the software you use and find the alignment functions. Then make sure everything is aligned to something. Align different text blocks left, right, top, or bottom. Align charts and graphs, also between slides. Spend a few minutes on this and you'll improve the looks of your presentation with 15% (if you could define a measure for the spiffiness of a presentation). No one will notice that you have painstakingly aligned all the elements in your presentation, but rest assured that everyone will notice if you have not.
Plan your practice talk a few days before the actual talk. This gives you time to rework your story and slides, and rehearse the new presentation a few more times. And you'll be plenty busy on the day of your talk (and before), so you can't prepare early enough.
Visit the presentation site in advance. If possible, go there a day in advance to check it out. You must at all times and without exception always bring your own laptop. This way you are ensured that your presentation works. It will never work on another computer. If, however, you are unable to bring your own computer or the venue forbids it, then make sure you are there a day in advance to check if your presentation works. Go through all of the slides (and movies!) and be happy that you reserved a few hours or a day to fix the problems.
Now, for the short term preparation. I'm not an experienced presenter and so I'm nervous everytime I have to get on stage. This time, I found a way to get on stage fully prepared, comfortable, and energetic.
I arrived at the venue early. Two hours early. This gave me time to set up my demonstration, lay out my props, and check the lighting in the room. With one hour to go, everything was ready to go. Then, with no one in the room, I practiced the opening two or three times. Just the first few minutes so that you are comfortably starting off. If you start by stumbling over your own words then the nerves only get worse. So make sure that the first three minutes come out fluently and effortlessly, merely so that you have three minutes to 'get into the zone'. With half an hour to go I turned to a great tip from a forgotten source. Put your headphones on, find a quiet spot, and put on some loud, fast paced music. This helps you to mentally switch gears and brings you into an energetic and pumped up mood. Forget about the nerves, it's just action, action, action!
Now you are ready to enter the room, great the people as they come in and build some rapport, and then give a great show.
The presentation consisted of three parts, each lasting roughly 10 minutes. This is also the average attention span of people. Every ten minutes I, therefore, had an intermezzo that would wake people up again. I had a demo setup with a laser generating a spinning logo, as well as sound recordings of lasers pulses converted to the acoustic domain.
During the presentation I also made use of some props. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much for the actual item? There is a perfect good use for cling film in a presentation on spatio-temporal pulse shaping of femtosecond lasers.
I have tried my best to intersperse the presentation with some captivating images: kids looking through microscopes (children = emotions!), exploding bottles, and funny frogs.
The presentation lasted 35 minutes. In this time I went through 107 slides. There is no rule as to how many slides you may have per minute. There can only be a rule as to how much information you may have per minute. So 100 slides with six bullet points each is fatal. But if there is one word on picture on each slide, then feel free to flash through those at lightening speed. Dick Hardt has an excellent presentation with hundreds of slides in 20 minutes: be amazed.
I had mostly dark slides with light text. For a few I was forced to switch to a light background because I couldn't (or didn't want to) change the images to work with a dark background. Having a dark background enabled me to keep most of the lights on in the room. Whenever I'm sitting in a dark lecture hall I'm vast asleep in no time. Bad idea. And what is even worse is to turn off the lights illuminating the speaker. People are there to listen to you! And in order to listen to you they should see you. If they can't see the slides but can see you that's better than reversed. So don't turn off all the lights, but merely reduce the intensity of the audience lights a little.