A new set of presentation slides is like a program that has never been executed. It probably contains bugs. It reduces the pain for all stakeholders, and most importantly yours, if you test it to discover (and fix) its bugs before exposing it to its audience.
My test process for presentations has three steps. The first one is alone, like a developer test of a program. The second one is in front of a test audience, like an acceptance test done by representative users. The third one is with your supervisor.
Step One: Alone
The first rehearsal step is to give the presentation to an imaginary audience.
If possible, I give it in the location in which the actual presentation will take place, since this allows me to get a feel for the room. I connect my laptop to a projector. I start my slides and my timer. I speak out loud. I even greet my imaginary audience when I start the presentation, to rehearse the first sentences of my talk. I then talk through all slides. When I am done, I stop the timer.
This rehearsal uncovers these types of problems:
- My spoken transition from slide n to slide n+1 is unclear or bumpy.
I keep switching back and forth between slides as I talk. This indicates that I should reorder them.
My explanation of a slide is too complicated, I go in circles or ramble.
I mention a point early, forgetting that it appears on some later slide. This makes it hard to understand when I say it first, since there are no visuals to back it up, and boring when it appears again later.
I forget an example or anecdote that I had planned for my narrative.
I take too much or too little time. (10% too long is okay, since one typically goes a little faster on later attempts, especially if an audience is present.)
Immediately after the presentation, I write down a list of all problems I noticed. Only when the list is complete do I start fixing them.
Fixes to these problems fall in two categories: slides and narrative. Slide problems are fixed by changing the slides. For narrative problems, I create slide notes, e.g. to remember a good vocal transition to the next slide. These slide notes are visible in the presenter mode on my laptop when I give the presentation the next time.
I consider this rehearsal as passed, if I can give the presentation to my imaginary audience without major glitches. Sometimes this works on the first attempt. Often, however, it takes me several attempts to complete.
In some cases, I notice halfway through a rehearsal that the presentation has a fundamental problem. Maybe the example does not work. Or the argument I want to make falls apart. I then abort the rehearsal and rework the draft and the slides. I then have to repeat this rehearsal from the start, however.
Step Two: Test Audience
The second rehearsal step is to give the presentation to a test audience.
Two to four persons make the perfect test audience size. A single person can miss too many problems or be too subjective. More than four add little value but complicate the rehearsal, since everybody wants their say. Personally, I prefer three test audience members.
The test audience comments are the more helpful, the more similar the test audience is to the audience of the final presentation. Computer science students are thus preferable over parents over grandparents. However, take what you can get. A rehearsal in front of your grandparents is still far better than no rehearsal in front of an audience.
I use this process for test presentations with an audience:
- Hand out pen and paper, including a printout of the slides. It is easiest to note down visual slide problems on the slides themselves. It also allows you to collect the notes afterwards.
Plan at least three times the amount of time of the presentation for the entire meeting (e.g. 60min rehearsal meeting to test a 20min presentation).
Give presentation as “live” as possible: in actual room; slides on a projector; laptop in presenter mode; if you plan to use a flipchart in the final presentation, use a flipchart now, too.
Have one test audience member measure the time.
Allow clarification questions, but avoid discussions about the content, or meta-discussions about the presentation, until you have finished the last slide.
After the presentation, collect feedback in two rounds.
- Every participant mentions all high level points, i.e. feedback that is not specific to a single slide. E.g. Body language, talk speed, story line, … For high level points, it makes sense to repeat them, even if another participant has mentioned them before. This gives you a sense of importance of the high level points.
Walk through the entire presentation slide by slide. For each slide, the participants give you all the feedback they took down. For these points, each participant should only mention issues that have not been mentioned before, to save time.
Take your own notes of all the feedback (even if you collect the participant’s notes afterwards; parts are often intelligible). This is crucial. Often, you are still in the tunnel after giving the test presentation. You will not remember all points, even important ones, if you do not take them down.
Ask clarification questions, but do not argue or defend your presentation. You are not obliged to incorporate feedback. In any case, however, accept it gracefully. If you fight against it. Otherwise, you will get less feedback.
Conclude the meeting, after all points have been discussed. Then work through the feedback list and treat each single item. (It is okay to discard an item, it is your presentation, after all.)
Step Three: Your Supervisor
Try to get your supervisor to act as test audience. His opinion is paramount, not only since it directly affects your mark, but also because he knows your topic, contributions and the audience of your final presentation. He can thus point out omissions, excessive detail and other structural problems.
I suggest to do this rehearsal after the other rehearsals. First, this allows your supervisor to focus on major problems, since he does not get distracted by superficial ones (since they were removed by the earlier rehearsals). Second, while the rehearsal typically does not affect the mark (this is the basic idea of a rehearsal, after all), it subconsciously always leaves an impression. You supervisor will very likely appreciate that you did (or did not) rehearse the presentation.