When I talk about presenting nowadays a strong image often comes floating back from my past life as a teacher.

Standing close to a large ruler… a look of serious concentration on my face… goggles safely on… arm outstretched… holding tightly onto an elastic band. I have a volunteer gradually add weights…

50 grams! 100 grams! 150 grams!

As each mass was added the elastic stretched and the new length was entered as a data point by another student. The results were plotted instantly and projected on the wall.

The mass kept increasing…    1.1 Kilos! 1.2 kilos!

The students can see the line on the graph behind me is levelling off. They know what is about to happen but they can’t know when…

presenting skills illustration


The suspense keeps building as some students lean in while others squint their eyes and look away.

1.3 Kilos! 1.4 Kilos!


The weights crash on the floor as the room gives off a unified shriek. I feign a pained expression as I quickly move my hand back… it’s done.

And now the students have a vivid understanding of the elastic limit of materials.

I could have just as easily showed them a graph, told them what would happen, and reminded them they would have to memorize it for a test.

And yet, presented this way, I have never had to utter the words “you need to know this”. The elements of the demonstration worked in concert to bookmark this as a ‘significant’ event in every brain present in the room.


A Deeper Look into Presenting


Physics can be very, very dry. I’m often reminded about this by most peoples’ reaction when I tell them I used to teach it. Perhaps because it is a subject so rich in complicated concepts, data, and maths, we are led to think that THAT is all we need to relay. Bare information.

Along the way we forget about the warmth, the suspense, the humour needed to put our brains in an optimal state to absorb that information.

Why was that lesson effective then?

And what does it tell us about presenting our own material?


Play on expectation


Our brains are immediately interested in uncertainty or what breaks expectation. In this case the fall of the weights was expected but the uncertainty of the timing captured attention.


Personal stake


The ‘danger’ my hand was in certainly played a part but we also discussed the importance of understanding the properties of materials to build strong bridges and stable buildings. Buildings they may visit themselves.


Developing ‘narrative’ when presenting


The data was created and developed in the moment, before their eyes. This made the audience an integral part of the experiment.


The visual aids are simple to digest


The graph works by giving us a look ‘under the hood’ of the demonstration. The graph is no longer some static, black and white image. It is an x-ray into an invisible relationship that is playing out before your eyes. We can see the mechanics of the relationship at a detailed level which was not obvious from the demonstration itself. It offers a deeper layer which the audience can explore if and when they decide to glance at it.


It’s not just Physics…


My Physics bias might be getting in the way however so let’s try a different example. How interesting would you say a talk of demographic statistics could get?

Personally, it wouldn’t be on my list of most popular subjects.

However, if you want to see data presented in an entertaining way look no further than Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor, statistician, and public speaker.

There are many elements to his TED talk (~ 10 min. long) that help keep the audience engaged and let us in on a few tips for our own presenting style – so let’s pick just four that selfishly confirm my narrative above shall we?


Play on expectation


Unlike his “previous 5 TED talks” he decided to use unusual props: Ikea Boxes. Just as the novelty wore off, more props came out of those boxes creating a sense of uncertainty. On several occasions he breaks expectation with his words just before he wants to make an important point. A good example is when, after building up such a rosy prediction for the future, he says “I’m not an optimist (pause)… but neither am I a pessimist…I’m a very serious possibilist.”


Personal stake


Hans frames the start of the talk by discussing the world as his “teachers had taught him”. He then quickly shows the audience where they, part of the industrialised world, fit in the picture with the blue box. Starting with the blue box was not a random choice!


Developing ‘narrative’ when presenting


Hans may have moonlighted as a horse-race commentator in his past because he did a wonderful job of keeping the audience on their toes as the decades ticked by on the screen. All the way from 1960 to 2008, he described with excitement all the changes that were happening to the data at each stage. The audience was transported through time along with him and the evolving landscape of circles.



presentating skills graph


The visual aids are simple to digest


The element that, personally, I find to be true genius however is that graph (above). Look at that beauty. Normally it would be unadvisable to fit more than 2 dimensions of information to your graph. Yet he managed to fit 5 streams of data AND he made it easy to interpret!

That is some master level graph right there. He finished off by relating the graph to the boxes he had at the front of the stage thus increasing the links the brain can make about that subject.


How this helps you in your presentation skills


These elements may not always play a big role in your style of presentation of course. Yet they do offer possible avenues for exploration to increase the engagement of your next talk.

Here are some questions you could pose yourself:

How can I create, and then break, audience expectations?

How can I introduce a personal element from the very start?

How can I take the audience along an evolving journey?

What is the minimum amount of information needed to visualise the relationship (not just data) I’m discussing?

And if you would like a more tailored approach to upping your presenting level you can always contact us for a place on our presentation skills course.