May 24, 2020Communicating data forestry presentations
“The primary purpose of a talk is advertising, not science.”
This is one of the statements made in the Leek group guide to giving talks. Our lab group discussed this topic at a recent meeting in April.
Sometimes we are required in a grant to provide a talk via a presentation about our research to the public. Other times we present our research in the name of service and outreach, especially those of us that work at land grant universities.
We spend a lot of time crafting the design and delivery of presentations to ensure it resonates with our audience. Even in the age of COVID-19, many conferences and meetings are moving to online formats where presentations are continuing.
What were your hypotheses, how did you do it, and what can you say (and not say) about your findings? These are important questions that the Academic wants explained after watching your presentation. What are the key take-home messages that I can use in my daily work? This is the important question that the Practitioner wants answered.
We also give talks to build our CVs. If every forestry researcher is adding presentation after presentation to their CV, then we should be too. This might be particularly true for researchers in the early stages of their careers. Simultaneously, “getting your reps in” by presenting in a variety of formats to diverse audiences builds your communication skills and develops you professionally.
In the early part of your career, you use presentations to advertise yourself to others.
Mid- to late-career researchers often use presentations to advertise themselves to funders. You might present because you’re asked. This is related to the idea of service to provide expertise on a topic.
Whether in the early or late stages of your career, presentations can be used to advertise yourself and your work.
We are encouraged to present our research often, but we rarely step back and think about why we give presentations. We often don’t leave our audience with any way to follow up with our work after we’re done presenting.
Provide a call-to action
A call-to-action is a marketing term for any device designed to initiate an immediate response or encourage an immediate sale. As the Leek quote above indicates, you can use your presentation to advertise something more. This could be the slides you’ve just presented, a report with more details, or a strategy or tactic for your audience that they can implement in their work.
Donald Miller outlines this approach in the book “Building a Storybrand”. After your presentation, leave your audience wanting more and provide them something easy to follow up with to learn more. Here are six tactics that I’ve seen used well in academic forestry presentations that give a call to action. I’ve used many of them myself:
1. Point your audience to the slides.
Include short URLs or QR codes that refer your audience to the slides you presented. This can be helpful so that your audience can refer back to what you presented at a later time.
It also makes your slides accessible to more diverse learners, e.g., those with poor eyesight or learning disabilities. This approach is also friendly to social media for increased sharing. In particular for those in quantitative disciplines, your quantitative audience may appreciate the opportunity to look at your numbers and figures a second time.
Provide the short link on a slide early in the presentation, or in the footer of the slide deck. The audience will think “Okay, I can revisit the slides later and don’t need to worry about getting everything.”
Many short URL services like Bitly have analytics behind them, so you’ll know how many people typed in your URL to access your slides. The University of Minnesota uses z.umn.edu, a handy URL service branded to our institution.
Here are a few examples of the numbers of people that have have attended my presentations, and the subset of people that subsequently typed or clicked the URL on their devices:
- A 25-minute presentation on the effects of thinning to mitigate spruce budworm delivered at the 2020 Minnesota SAF Winter Meeting. There were about 50 people in the room and 8 people typed in the link z.umn.edu/MNSAFspruce.
- A 30-minute presentation on results from an invasive plant survey delivered at the Chippewa National Forest MN DNR Forest Health Workshop in 2020. There were about 120 people in the room and 16 people typed in the link z.umn.edu/FHinvasives.
- A 45-minute presentation on tree and woodland health delivered to the Washington County Master Gardeners in 2018. There were about 50 people in the room and 4 people typed in the link z.umn.edu/Russell_WashMG.
Do not expect large volumes of people to access your slides after you present. However, the people that choose to access your slides will be thankful for it.
There are a variety of platforms to post slides online. “But the PowerPoint file is too big!” is no longer an excuse. I like pointing people to Google Slides directly, or sharing a PDF version on Google Drive or LinkedIn. Most people will access this on a mobile device if you present at a conference or meeting, so be sure your slides are mobile-friendly.
2. Point your audience to a report.
Include short URLs or QR codes that refer your audience to a paper or report with more detail about your study. The length of time you have for a presentation is almost always too short. Often you spend more time preparing a presentation and deciding what to cut rather than what to add.
It is not a good practice to say “Find the report at our website.” That’s not specific enough and you’re giving your audience too many hurdles to access what they want to read. They need to identify your website, navigate it to find the report, then hope they’ve found the right document. I like short URLs and QR codes here too because they can point to specific documents.
Short URLs may seemingly have less of an impact when so many presentations are being delivered over video conference. You can just copy and paste the long hyperlink to your report in the chat window! But short URLs still work because people often have multiple devices near them when they’re watching online and can type it there.
3. Provide a handout of the same paper or report.
Printed handouts work well, too, especially with smaller groups. And yes, paper still works. Since very few things are read on printed paper, ideas that are available on paper and have high quality content have great impact. Readers can focus on your reading document and aren’t distracted from notifications and other noises and pop-ups coming from their devices.
I attended Jeremy Fried’s presentation on forest biomass availability at the Forest Inventory and Analysis Stakeholder meeting last year. It was very quantitative and I didn’t catch all of the intricacies of the analysis during the talk. He had with him several printed copies of his Journal of Forestry article on the topic. I picked one up and read it on the plane back to Minneapolis.
Handouts are an excellent call-to-action for an academic audience.
4. Provide a thought-provoking question at the end of the presentation.
One call to action is to immediately ask your audience to reflect on what they just heard. Asking a specific question that people from both the academic or corporate world can answer encourages them to evaluate how and why your presentation matters to them. It also can provide you immediate feedback that can be valuable to you.
A few thought-provoking question for a forestry audience:
- How can these results help you in your work?
- Was there anything you found surprising in the results from this presentation?
- Is there any part of the analysis or study that you think can improve the presentation?
I’ve found these questions are particularly useful if you have time for questions at the end, but no one is asking questions. People are more likely to respond if “nudged” with a question about the work, and that usually turns into a question to you from the audience member.
5. Point your audience to a library of your presentations.
Have you ever loved a presentation, but loved the presenter even more? You can learn a lot by watching presentations from great and engaging speakers.
Begin to create an archive of your recorded presentations to share with others. Amelia McNamara mentions creating a YouTube playlist of your recordings. I’ve often found that questions people have, whether formally at the end of a presentation or in a private conversation, are addressed in previous presentations I’ve given.
In the age of COVID-19 and working from home, lots more presentations are being recorded and being made available to viewers. Never miss an opportunity to record your own presentation to (1) rewatch them yourself to improve your presentation skills and (2) develop an archive of your work to share with others. Plus, you’ll have a history of your professional growth when you watch those recordings 10 or 20 years into the future.
6. At a minimum, always provide your contact info on the last slide.
On your last slide, provide a specific method for someone to contact you. For me, this is my email address. You might include a social media account if you use it for professional purposes or even a phone number.
I like to include two ways to contact me: one electronically and one physically. A physical contact could be mentioning where you will be at a specific time during the conference or meeting. And be specific. For example, “I am going to be at the Company ABC booth during the afternoon coffee break if you have any comments or questions.”
If presenting at a virtual conference, consider holding an open office hour a day or so after your presentation (or the conference is over) through Zoom or a similar video service. If no one shows up, you can work in the background and you won’t have wasted the hour.
Think about something your audience can do after your presentation ends. Much of our work in presenting academic talks can be thought of as advertising. Develop some strategies and tactics that work for you and your presentation style. Even in the age of COVID-19 driving most academic presentations online in the near future, asking your audience to do something can leave your work more impactful. Adding a call-to-action in your presentation can benefit you and your audience.
By Matt Russell. Email Matt with any questions or comments.