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Plan the perfect presentation to conquer your presenting nerves

Conference participants get the most out of presentations that are easy to follow and relevant to their needs. Learn how to prepare a presentation that conveys your message and pleases your audience, too

Presentation (Lpstudio/Dreamstime)
You have to give a presentation and, naturally, you are feeling a little apprehensive. Often nerves can come from a lack of preparation. Putting together a high-quality presentation that gets your message across and is relevant to your audience is one way to help relieve your nerves.

Get your content right

The basic rules for a good presentation are to:

  • Keep your message clear
  • Know your audience
  • Time your presentation well

Clear message To keep your message clear, consider what the key points are that you want your audience to take away from the session. Although your style and approach to delivering your presentation is important, you want to be remembered for what you say, as well as how you said it.

As a rule of thumb, try to keep to one key message for each 15 minutes of your presentation. This will allow you time to outline your theme, explore it in detail and relate it to practice. However, there will be times when this approach may not be relevant or appropriate.

To help you focus on what material to cover, organise your content into what you must, should and could say. The information that you must say is the content that your audience needs to know; these are your objectives. The information that you should say includes any supporting evidence or background that will help your audience understand what you are telling them. Material that you could say is information that is not essential to your message and could be easily omitted if you are running out of time.

Always ensure that you understand what that message is. If it is not clear in your mind, it is unlikely that you will be able to present it clearly to your audience.

Your audience
Remember that you are not writing the presentation for yourself; it needs to meet the needs of your audience. If you know your audience and prepare your presentation accordingly, more people will hear, understand and act on what you have to say.

If you pitch the content too high, people will start to switch off; too low and you risk insulting them. Focusing too much on policy when your audience wants practical solutions will not achieve anything. And including too much personal comment or opinion may result in your audience judging your personality, rather than listening to your arguments.

If you do not direct your presentation to the audience in the room, some participants might start to disengage and talk among themselves, distracting those who are trying to listen to your presentation.

Time considerations
Most events will have a published timetable for presentations that may allow time for questions. You will generally be expected to finish on time, even if you are late starting. When you are preparing your presentation, plan for time shortages and consider which parts of your presentation you could omit if you need to. If you end up having to do this, make sure you direct your audience to where they can find the omitted information.

Structure and appearance

So you have thought about your content, got a good idea of who your audience is and made the length of your presentation about right. You then need to decide how to display the information clearly.

Slide design If you are using slides, your audience needs to be able to see the words and pictures on your slides clearly; however, regardless of what font size you use, many other factors at the event itself — such as the magnification of the projector, seating arrangements, lighting and size of the venue — can affect how well your presentation is viewed. If you can, find out these details beforehand and use the information to guide decisions about the appearance of your slides.

When designing your presentation, following a few simple rules (see Box) will make it easier for your audience to read your slides.

Slick slides

The way you display your information on a slide will impact on the success of your presentation. Information needs to be clear and easy to read so your audience understands what you are showing them. Follow these simple rules:

  • Use a black or dark blue font colour
  • Only use pale colours for backgrounds, eg, white, cream or pale yellow
  • Restrict the number of lines of text on a slide; aim for five lines and do not exceed eight
  • Keep to only a small number of words per line; similarly, aim for five words and do not use more than eight


Put yourself in the position of a member of the audience. Can you read the screen easily? Is the font size big enough?

Many of us are used to seeing presentations that display slide after slide of text arranged in lists with bullet points. But this may not always be the best way to get a message across to an audience. One approach that has been used successfully is to avoid the use of lists and support your essential statements with a visual image.

This technique, popularised by the book ‘Beyond bullet points’1 is based on the idea that most people think and remember in whole sentences; using a linked image will help your audience recall what you have told them.

Complex information Some presentations require the display of complex information, eg, involving graphs, tables, flowcharts or chemical structures. Putting images like this onto a slide makes the information harder to read. As the presenter, it is your responsibility to make your slides legible — you cannot expect your audience to do the hard work.

If you are using a graph to illustrate a certain point, show the full image first and follow it with another slide showing only the point of interest. Increase the magnification or zoom into areas that you want your audience to focus on.

Similarly, flowcharts are best shown first in full and then with each step magnified on a separate slide. Returning to the full flowchart brings everything back together and reminds your audience of the relationship between the separate elements.

Presentations allow you a degree of flexibility that you do not get with written work. There is often little need to use tables in a presentation. Present actual findings — these will have more impact. If you must include a table, present the information one line at a time.

If you are including photographic images in your presentation, use the highest resolution possible because the quality will be reduced when they are magnified. Make sure your audience is aware of what the image is for. Presentation tools like Prezi can help you get the most out of using images to convey information.
Always provide your audience with a copy of any graphs or figures you use in your presentation so they can study them in more detail if they want to.

Language Being professional extends to the presentations you give. So it is important that your spelling is correct, grammar is accurate and you have avoided unnecessary slang and jargon.

Spell check tools will pick up many spelling errors; however, pharmacists need to pay particular attention to the spelling of drug names and pharmaceutical terms. Ask a colleague to look over your presentation to check for spelling and grammar errors.

Spell out any abbreviations when they first appear so that you and your audience share the same understanding of what they mean.

Handouts It is a good idea to create and share handouts of your presentation, and remember that these can be more than just copies of your slides. A good handout will encourage further learning, reflection or investigation. Consider writing your handout as a summary article of what you have presented to make it an ongoing resource for participants.

In summary

If you put time and effort into creating a well organised, legible presentation that relates to your audience, it can help you feel better prepared when it comes to delivering the presentation in front of an audience.

In the next article, find out how to support a well designed presentation by delivering it with confidence.

1    Cliff Atkinson. Beyond bullet points. Third edition. Washington: Microsoft Press; 2011.


Matthew Shaw is director of pharmaceutical industry advanced training programmes and deputy director of the Centre for Pharmacy Postgraduate Education at the University of Manchester.

Citation: Clinical Pharmacist DOI: 10.1211/CP.2013.11129490

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