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How to create a powerful research presentation

28 March 2021
Nikki Anderson

I used to write research reports, which then essentially turned into weighty research presentations. My trick was to copy and paste the information from my report into slides. There was little design or consideration of the flow of my research presentations. Instead, my audience would be facing walls of text while I spoke about the critical information that I couldn’t squeeze into the ever-so-small slides.

It was about four years into my career when I hit a breakthrough with this. I had always been envious of people who could put together beautiful and concise presentations that seemed to flow out of them. I figured, since I was a researcher (with a background in academia), my presentations would have to be ugly and filled with information. However, for this meeting, I had to do a good job. I was presenting research to executives and was hoping for a promotion. 

I went through my slides and got to the halfway point when one of the audience members put their hand up. I froze, and my internal dialogue consisted of a cornucopia of swear words and considerations of running out of the room. It was as bad as I thought. The person said they were lost—agreeing nods circled the room—and asked me to “fix-up” the presentation. We would reschedule the meeting for when the slides were more concise and easier to follow. 

I had a week to change the way I reported and presented user research. In that week, I overhauled my entire structure and flow into a three-step approach I still follow today:

  1. Before creating the presentation

  2. Creating the presentation

  3. During and after the presentation

Each step has its preparation that leads to a more thoughtful and deliberate presentation. 

Before creating the presentation

I no longer start with creating a presentation as my first step. I found that starting with the design and creation of slides was detrimental. Instead, I focused on beginning with ideas that could help me better create the presentation:

  • Know your audience. Always consider your audience beforehand and the level of information your audience needs (or likely wants). Executive levels don’t want the nitty-gritty details of the study. Instead, they are interested in the overall themes you found and, most importantly, what the implications are for these findings. If you do what I did and present all the research details, you may see eyes glazing over. However, the team directly impacted by the study will want to know more detailed information. One tip: create the same presentation for everyone, but skip specific slides you know won’t be relevant to particular audiences. 

  • Outline the key insights. Before designing your slides, you should feel comfortable with the research and how it all fits together. I determine the critical insights by the information that came up the most frequently from users—usually focused on pain points. I only let myself choose up to five key insights to report. 

  • Think about your teams. Ask yourself: “what is the most important information my team needs to know to make immediate decisions?” The answer to this question will likely mean you have to leave some information out of your report. That’s okay! You can always resurface those findings later when the timing is better, and the team can work on them. Instead, think about what your team needs to know now to make better decisions on their current work.

  • Keep it short. As mentioned, only consider up to five key insights! If you have many more than that, you might need to break down the presentations into different phases. When you present too much information at once, you lose your audience. I like to have my presentations be around 30-45 minutes, with 15 minutes after for questions. 

  • State your expected outcomes. If you feel comfortable, you can email your expected outcomes to your audience beforehand. For example, I would email the contents/plan of what I want to cover during the presentation and ask if I am missing anything. Doing this before helps to align your presentation with the audience’s expectations.

Now, let’s get started on the actual presentation. 

Creating the presentation

I was missing flow and had an overabundance of information. By prepping with the model above, I was able to cut down on the amount of data. However, I still struggled quite a lot because I like to write things, not show them, but that was an area I was losing my audience. With the feedback I received, I redid the structure of my report. This flow and design are what I use now in almost all of my reports:

First portion

  • Agenda/contents. This section includes what you will cover during the presentation. By making it clear upfront, your audience will understand what to expect and be better able to follow the presentation flow.

  • Expected outcomes (reiterated). Hopefully, you were able to share these beforehand. Regardless, I like to repeat or share my expected results of the presentation. For example, at the end of the presentation, the teams can make X or Y decisions by the end or understand A and B implications and what to do next. 

  • About the study. These slides give context to the background of the project, methodology, recruitment, and approach you took to the study. It grounds the audience in understanding why the study happened as it did. 

  • Executive summary (three to five significant insights). Arguably one of the most important slides of the presentation. Remember the three or five insights you outlined above? Those insights should go into this slide with a brief overview, and they will be the driving force for the rest of the presentation. 

Second portion (repeat with each insight)

  • Insight one recap. This slide gives a summary of the first major insight you will tackle.

  • Findings within the insight. Usually, findings make up insights. These findings are supporting evidence to the overarching insight. I include up to three findings that support each insight. 

  • Deep dive into finding one, two, three. Each deep-dive is a different slide where you explain the finding and include media such as quotes, videos, or photos. It is super key to have this type of evidence (especially videos) because that is how people connect with users outside of research sessions.

  • Opportunity area for each finding. For each finding, you can highlight an opportunity area. For this, you can include a recommendation or a How Might We statement. 

Third portion

  • Recap of the insights. After going through all the insights and findings, give a general synopsis of your audience’s insights. This slide can mirror the executive study slide. 

  • Overview of the opportunity areas. If you have too many opportunity areas, you can pick the top three to five opportunity areas the teams should focus on in the next quarter or half-year. Think back to the essential information for your teams, and use it to pick the opportunity areas. 

  • Impact/implications. In this slide, write down the implications or impact the research may have. For example, you might have to write that the team is focused on the wrong area or pain point and needs to pivot or that a new innovative product/feature might be a high priority.

  • Recommendations. If you have pointed recommendations based on pain points, this is the slide to include them! I report on recommendations in a table that consists of the finding, the recommendation based on the finding, and evidence supporting this. For example, I find people cannot fill out a form, so I include that finding, my recommendation, and proof (quote, video, photo).  

  • Links to all raw data. For those who want to dive deeper, include all the other information, such as notes, research summaries, recordings, and any other raw data.

One final tip: try to stay away from fractions when explaining how many participants encountered a particular problem or stated an insight. It is a lot more powerful to say 80% of participants felt X or struggled with Y than it is to say 4/7 participants. You disclose the number of participants at the beginning of the presentation, so there is no need to continue bringing that up. 

After putting in this information, I will start playing around with colors, fonts, alignments, and other design elements—first, the content, then the tweaking.

During and after the presentation

  • Ask questions, engage people. I always stop at each section to see if there are any questions. You can also use polls or software (such as Mentimeter) to ask questions and engage with your audience. 

  • Request feedback. After each presentation, ask your audience for feedback on what went well and what you could do better. With this information, you can continuously develop and hone your presentations.

Since implementing this process, I have had a lot more engagement and success with my presentations. People pay attention, have an easier time following the information, and then feel more compelled to take action. Having others get excited by, understand, and act on research is such a fulfilling feeling and one of the top outcomes we strive for. Try out this process and see what happens!

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