This past three weeks, I've taken part in three research presentations: one my own, and two others'. I'm not sure how my own went -- I never am. The only indication that it went fairly well was that people had plenty of questions, and none of them were along the lines of: "Well, you have some really interesting stories there, but..." The worst thing is when there are no questions. Then I know that I either a) lost them, or b) bored them. Neither of these is a good thing.
But on to the two other presentations. One (a presenter I invited) went really well, in my opinion. The other (an instructor in our own institution) did not. So, though most of my readers are probably well-practiced in making presentations, I thought I'd offer some observations on what went well and what did not.
1. Know your time limit, and stick to it. When I asked my guest presenter how long s/he'd be speaking for (in a one-hour time slot), s/he said "about 38 minutes." And damned if it wasn't precisely that long. This left plenty of time for questions from the audience. Presenter two, on the other hand, spoke for an hour and ten minutes in a series (one that s/he'd attended before) where speakers routinely speak for 35-50 minutes, leaving the rest of the time for questions. And said speaker only finished three-fourths of the material s/he had outlined.
2. Don't try to cram in more information than you can do justice to. Both speakers were presenting materials from much larger projects (dissertations in both cases, I think). Speaker one spent a bit of time on general background for a non-specialist audience, briefly outlined the larger project and its goals, then spent the bulk of the time on one discrete part of it. Speaker two appeared to be trying to present the entire larger work in capsule form. In the former case, the audience learned one thing, and learned it well; in the latter, we got little tidbits of a lot of things, but no real depth.
3. Define your question near the beginning of the talk, so your audience knows what to focus on as they listen. We were 15 minutes into speaker two's talk before I even really understood the topic, and at the end, I still didn't know what the central question was, much less the argument.
4. Anecdotes do not a talk make. Interesting anecdotes are great -- even essential to holding your audience's attention -- but they need to clearly serve a point. Speaker one did a great job with this, moving smoothly back and forth between introducing a point for analysis, presenting the evidence (stories from the documents), and analysis; speaker two just piled on the anecdotes. Many were interesting, and they got our attention, but if they were supposed to add up to something, we had no idea what it was supposed to be.
I think I may be getting cranky in my near-middle-age, handing out unsolicited advice like this, but perhaps it's of interest. If it saves one audience from a poorly-constructed talk, I'll be happy. And perhaps I'll even revisit this post the next time I have to give a talk, just to remind myself.