How to Give a Great Scientific Presentation
A lack of communication skills is one of the most common complaints levelled at scientists. Developing these skills is critical for an emerging researcher, since it affects all facets of one’s professional life – from the impression you give at a conference, to your performance during a job interview, to quickly explaining to anyone what you do in the infamous ’30-second elevator speech’ scenario. In this tutorial, we’ll help by explaining how give an outstanding scientific presentation.
1. The Most Important Things
Introduce Your Topic Properly
A great introduction is the most important, yet also most ignored, aspect of a scientific presentation. You should have such an excellent introduction that everyone in the audience – no matter their background or education – will be follow most of your presentation. As New Zealander and Nobel laureate Lord Ernest Rutherford
often declared, “it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.”
Other luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman also emphasized this point, one perhaps most neatly summarized by Kurt Vonnegut: “any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”
The simplest way to make an excellent introduction is to first assume that no one in your audience has any background in your research. You will have to introduce your motivation, your methods, your equipment, and so forth, one step at a time. This background may well take up over half your presentation, but it is well worth it if it means that you do not lose your audience.
Motivation: Why Is Your Research Important?
The second most important point is to clearly explain the motivation behind your research. Why should a non-scientist care? How will it impact the world in general? Ideally, one should be able to link this motivation to people – just as the photographs that fascinate us have human faces in them, the most interesting talks are those that address real human concerns. If your research is in the medical sciences, this human connection is often evident. For other fields, it may be more difficult. However, there is always a way to do this effectively: at some level, there is a motivation that relates to human concerns, or else your research would have never been funded.
Keep It Simple, Keep It General
Do not add unnecessary complications to your presentation for no reason. As Albert Einstein said, everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. Focus on what your main results are, and tailor your presentation around that. The details are for the full journal article you publish, and anyone needing them can read them there. This strategy of simplicity will also help with over-cluttered slides, keep the text to a minimum (if you have more than 1-2 short paragraphs on a slide, you need to do some editing).
Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you have finished your presentation, you should practice delivering it at least 5-10 times. “Practicing” means standing up, speaking aloud, doing your normal range of body gestures, and timing yourself. The last point is very important, since it ensures that you do not go over your allotted time. But keep in mind that while lots of practice is necessary, you also don’t want to memorize every word of your presentation, since this can give your talk a robotic feel – leave some spontaneity in!
2. Ensure Scientific Fairness
Clearly Compare Your Research to That in the Literature
Giving a survey of existing scientific literature is of key importance to any research presentation: it shows that you’ve done your reading, and it helps the audience by positioning your research into the broader scientific context. In your presentation, you should clearly what exactly is novel about your research; for example, by saying something like “We were the first to show that it is possible to achieve [x] from this [y].”
Any time you bring up any images, results, ideas, claims and so forth, you should cite where that work is coming from. Make it clear whether what’s being shown is new work from your own group, or is past work from someone else’s group. This allows the audience to evaluate the impact of your presentation. Make sure your citation style is consistent across your entire presentation, and use a well-known style that’s common in your field (e.g., chemists can use the ACS style guide to referencing).
Have a graceful acknowledgements slide in which you (briefly) outline your supervisors, collaborators, and others who have helped with your research. Also remember to include your funding agencies. Thanking the audience for their attention doesn’t hurt either, and provides a nice segue into the question-and-answer session.
3. Engaging With the Audience
Enthusiasm is incredibly important in engaging your audience. You should be animated in your voice – vary your volume and speed of delivery – and also be active in your gestures. Use your hands, wave them around, point to things. Make sure you project your voice, using techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing
. Other points to keep in mind:
- If have a session chair introducing you, thank him/her by name, i.e., “Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Prof. [x]”.
- Make a connection between you and your audience by introducing yourself. “Hello, my name is [x] and I’m from the department of [y] at the University of [z], in the position of [w]. Today I’ll be talking to you about [v]”. Do this even if you’ve already been introduced by the chair, and even if it’s written on your slides: it’s different when you say it.
- Respect time limits. Your audience is likely to be on a tight schedule, and going over your allotted time is disrespectful to your audience, organizers and fellow presenters. If you follow the previous advice of practicing (and timing) your presentation 5-10 times, the time limits will not be an issue. If in doubt, follow the 1-minute-per-slide rule of thumb (i.e., for a 10 minute presentation, you should have about 10 slides).
Finally, remember that the Q&A (question-and-answer) session is key: it can make or break your presentation. Be respectful to the person asking the question, even if they seem overly critical. As the question is being asked, walk as far as possible towards the person asking, i.e., to edge of stage nearest to them. Don’t feel that you have to rush your answer – take a moment to compose your thoughts. Start by repeating the question back at the audience, i.e., “So, the question asked was ‘Why is it that [x]…'”. This does two things: (1) lets the general audience hear it (they often don’t, because audience voices can project poorly), and (2) makes sure that you understand the question asked. Then answer the question to the best of your ability, finishing your answer by asking “Did that address your question?”.
4. Slide Design
Making beautiful slides helps, but there is no magic bullet here – not everyone is a professional graphic designer (this handy “guide to visual design for everyone
” can help though). Keep these points in mind to avoid the most common mistakes:
- Use animations sparingly. They are most useful when used to focus and direct the audience’s attention. The best way to do this is to use the “appear” and “disappear” animation: start a slide with a single sentence or image, and then add to it using the “appear” animation.
- Have a cohesive color scheme and design. All slides should feel like they’re part of the same presentation, not just a random mix of styles and themes. For inspiration, see this website’s most popular palettes.
- Use large photos as backgrounds if possible. Search on Flickr or Google Images for photographs shared under a ‘Creative Commons’ type license. For more on this point, see this fun, excellent tutorial for details, and this one.
- Avoid 1980’s-era clipart. Use large, beautiful photos instead; see point above.
- Limit your text per slide to 1-2 short paragraphs, at most. Better yet, keep it to a few, simple sentences. Leave the details for your publications, and refer your audience to those publications if you wish. This also helps keep your font size large and legible, a very important consideration.
For further reading on slide design and presentations, see these helpful, fun examples:
Finally, if you haven’t discovered TED yet, take a look at some of the best presentations you’re ever likely to see. TED talks have also been dissected here to help you build their best bits into your talks. Also note that Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman’s talks, some of which can be found here, are as good an inspiration for scientific enthusiasm and clarity as can be found.
Written by Cosmin Laslau; originally published on February 22nd, 2011.