How To Prepare Presentations

Guidelines for Preparing Presentations

You all will be doing most of the teaching in this course; each of us will play both teacher and student roles. For this to work effectively, we must prepare presentations thoughtfully, carefully, and with sufficient lead time, keeping the following points in mind.

Table of Contents


You will have multiple opportunities to present to the class. By your final presentation, we should understand the following.

  • The basic physics of the issue or technology; historical usage and trends, where appropriate
  • The advantages and disadvantages for various stakeholders (industry, public, environment)

The emphasis will vary as we progress through the term; the first talk might feature historical usage and trends, while the second explains the physics carefully. Or, perhaps, the other order makes more sense for certain topics.

The aim of the talks is to bring everyone along so that we’re all better educated on the topic after each presentation. Although the schedule is tight, I would like time for one or two comments or questions. Therefore, I will have to become ruthless with the timer. Please plan to present for 8 minutes, leaving 2--3 minutes for questions and feedback.

How to Prepare Slides

First some general guidelines on preparing interesting and effective slides for your presentation.

  • Why before how — orient your audience to each slide by beginning with the goal, before describing how you aim to achieve the goal
  • Sparse > busy — too much information on a slide is tiresome and distracting. It is better to err on the side of simplicity
  • Graphics > text — a picture is worth 1000 words. In some cases it is important to quote verbatim on a slide; usually it is preferable to speak the words and show the pictures
  • Avoid small fonts — try projecting your base slide and viewing it from the back of the room. Is the text large enough? Does the background or the color of the text make it difficult to read? Is that color decidedly different from its appearance on your screen? Note that I will provide a Macintosh equiped with Keynote, PowerPoint, and Acrobat Reader 7. If you prepare your talk with PowerPoint, avoid nonstandard fonts to avoid unpleasant surprises!
  • References — Make sure to indicate the sources of your graphics, data, and other content, whether they be URLs or traditional.
  • Label graphs — Graphs and plots should be clearly labeled in a legible font. Certain programs (Matlab, GNUplot) by default use a very small font size. Override it!
  • Clean and simple > complicated
  • Color, backgrounds, fancy fonts — it is tempting to some of us to spend lots of time on these, but try to keep such efforts modest. Random bright colorful text can diminish effectiveness — I have wasted time in presentations trying to figure out the meaning of a presenter's color scheme, ultimately deciding that is was random. Bottomline: be consistent.

You may also use the class wiki for your presentation. Note that you can add as many sub pages to your page as you wish. Just enter [[ title for the new page ]] and save the page. You'll see a link with a question mark. When you click on it, you are taken to the new page to edit. See Using the Wiki for more information. A sequence of short, graphics-heavy pages within the wiki would be just fine for presentations.

You may also use the standard presentation packages (Powerpoint, Keynote, Presenter, PDF). If it is not too much trouble, please render the presentation in PDF format for posting on the website. If you can't, I'll be happy to do it for you. Unless your PDF is too large, you should be able to post it to the wiki yourself. Instructions for uploading PDFs and other files.

Bringing the Presentation

Please send me the presentation by 2:15 on the day you will be making it (or simply use the Wiki).

Two Beasts to Avoid: Cow and Bull

Let me start by describing two unsuccessful strategies. We all know what B.S. is: a litany of unsubstantiated opinions and conjectures, often of dubious validity. Some topics inspire great passion and enthusiasm, leading one to form deeply held opinions. Indeed, I hope that we all find many such topics in this course. However, even a very enthusiastic presentation of your deep-seated convictions will not be as informative, or ultimately as persuasive, as it could be when supported with appropriate neutral (factual) information. Avoid the bull!

Perhaps less familiar is cow. Cow is the opposite of bull: a litany of disconnected facts and data. Cow is often less informative and almost always less engaging than bull. You can spot cow presentations by their great number of slides, and by the modest time spent on each slide. I once attended a presentation at a Gordon conference in which the speaker slapped transparencies showing graphical data on different types of glass at the rate of about 3 per minute. Rest assured that about the only thing communicated was boredom.

People need time to absorb the information on a slide, whether it involves graphics, text, or both. Remind yourself that your audience is seeing the slide for the first time. Help us get oriented to the visual information, but with your oral presentation supplement the visual information. A presentation in which the speaker reads the text of PowerPoint slides is deathly!


It can be tough to get the pacing of a presentation right; too fast and people quickly get lost and tune out; too slow and they get bored. Watch the audience and listen to yourself speak. Many of us speak faster when we're nervous. Take a deep breath from time to time and watch the audience for signs that they are following. Drop in a question from time to time.