The Do's and Don'ts of Giving Talks

As a people analytics researcher, I’ve probably attended hundreds of presentations and gave dozens. Being on both sides of the podium taught me a few things.

1. Storytelling isn’t just for fiction.

Storytelling is the art of taking the audience by the hand and walking them through your insights and findings. Storytelling not only increases the clarity of your presentation: It also makes people more engaged. After all, we all like stories, particularly when they spark curiosity and make us eager to learn more.

People think that storytelling isn’t desirable when the topic is complex and serious: On the contrary, it’s a powerful tool for conveying complex information! You will lose everybody in the audience if you don’t give them a story to follow.

2. You’re the most knowledgeable person in the room.

I attended too many presentations where the presenter seemed completely oblivious that they knew more about the topic they were discussing than anyone else in the room. This is called the “curse of knowledge”: After spending weeks, months or sometimes years on a project, you have accumulated expertise that other people don’t have, and it can become difficult to remain aware of this knowledge gap.

What’s the solution? Perspective-taking: You need to forget what you know, put yourselves in the shoes of the audience, and bring them up to speed on what they need to know to follow your presentation.

3. Give details… But not too many!

When you’ve been immersed in a project for quite some time, it can be difficult to determine which details are important to present. If you share too few, people will lack context. If you share too many, they’ll be overwhelmed.

What’s the solution? Start with the “main insight(s)” that you want the audience to get from your presentation. This is your North Star. Next, ask yourself which details are necessary to understand this insight: Discuss the ones that bring more clarity and perspective, and omit the others.

However, you should always be prepared to discuss the details you omitted: Once they’ve grasped your “main insight”, your audience could want to learn more!

4. Use data visualization… Sparingly!

When discussing social networks, presenters are often tempted to show a big “network graph”: Thousands of dots (representing people or organizations) connected by lines (representing relationships). These graphs sure look impressive, but what can the audience learn from glancing at it? Probably nothing.

Your goal, when crafting a graph, should be to convey a complex insight in the simplest possible way. A powerful graph is one that will be etched in the mind of the audience, and that they will remember days after your presentation.

5. OMG, I don’t know the answer!

The first few times I presented my work in front of an audience, I often feared the moment someone in the room would ask a question I would not have the answer to. How shameful, right? After spending months on a topic, there were still questions I did not think of!

As I gained more experience presenting, I realized that these “unexpected” questions were the best. It means that the audience is interested, knowledgeable, and that they are bringing a novel perspective on the issue. In brief, what I originally viewed as “trick” questions were in fact new territories just waiting to be explored.

So don’t be afraid when someone asks a question you don’t have the answer to! As people analytics researchers, we’re studying human behaviors. We are always dealing with complex, multiply determined phenomenon, and we rarely have all the data we need to study them. Be humble about what you know and just learn from your audience!

I wish you a great presentation!

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Zoé Ziani
Zoé Ziani

PhD in Organizational Behavior