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How to Give an Incredible Scientific Talk

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting

Committee meeting approaching? 10 minute department seminar? Lab meeting? Fear not! My adviser has insulted my presentations so regularly, that I’ve finally learned some things. Hopefully, I can head your adviser off at the pass, and give you some tips on crafting an incredible talk.

What’s the Occasion? Who’s Your Audience?

This is arguably the most important piece to creating an incredible talk. Consider carefully who will be listening to your talk and why you’re giving it. A committee meeting or lab meeting will require serious details about the methods and results, but probably not as much background. Department talks, especially in interdisciplinary programs, or presentations for the “general public” need a strong, yet simple, foundational background. Again, the more specific you are about your audience, the better you can tailor your information to resonate with the people in the room.

Formulate Your Message

Your message depends on your audience. While scientific audiences can be satisfied with facts, non-technical audiences respond better to values and stories. However, scientists are people too! It doesn’t hurt to begin your talk with a simple, clear message. For example, I study quorum sensing. Specifically, I study the mechanisms and implications of quorum-sensing receptor ratio regulation. However, that is a terrible opening. So, whenever I begin a talk, no matter who’s in the audience, I always begin with the phrase “Bacteria can talk to each other,” which is a relatively interesting and simple point. The obvious follow-up question for scientists and non-scientists alike is “why?” Try to distill your work into a simple phrase that you can build upon, which leads me to my next point.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Simplicity is crucial to a beautiful talk. People can only remember so much! A short talk should only have 3-5 points. Longer talks can delve into details but returning to your message or your 3 main points throughout the talk will hammer them home. Think about a terrible talk you’ve been to. Did the presenter drone on forever with highly technical terms and worthless jargon? Many scientists make the mistake of trying to sound super productive and cram as much information as possible into 60 minutes. This is a classic mistake. Now think of an incredible talk you’ve been to. How many “facts” did you learn from the talk? I would guess you remember at most 3 and they were probably conveyed through an animated narrative. Remember, jargon is not your friend! Even experts in the field will appreciate a clever analogy.

The actual PowerPoint slides should also be simple. White backgrounds with huge figures will make your data the star of the show. Know what’s the worst thing ever? A huge slide of text. Why even give a presentation at all? Might as well email out your slides and stay home. By eliminating distracting text, your audience has no other choice but to listen to what you’re saying to understand what’s going on. As a bonus, with visual and aural stimulation, the audience has a better chance to comprehend and remember. Furthermore, try to breakdown complicated figures into multiple slides. Throwing up a figure with 10 different lines on it will overwhelm any audience. Start first with a simple graph with only one line. Explain the axes and describe the baseline. Then, add back each sample into the graph individually as you are explaining the interpretation of the results.

Transitions Are KEY in a Talk

My final advice is to practice your transitions. You don’t have to memorize your entire talk, but I do suggest memorizing what you’re going to say between slides. The results are easy! You were there when you collected the data! Nothing says “I’m unprepared” like stumbling through the reason why you want to go to the next slide. Another presentation fail is being surprised by the following slide. Don’t let this be you! Nailing the transitions of a simple, clear, message-driven presentation allows you the opportunity to give an incredible talk.

Now go out and win them over!

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