How to give a scientific presentation

15 08 2015

fearHaving just attended the joint 27th International Congress for Conservation Biology / 4th European Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier, France, I have a renewed vigour for proffering advice on the DOs and DO NOTs of giving a scientific presentation.

There are of course many different styles, formats, media and audiences for scientific presentations, so I’m going to outline only general issues of which you should be aware when preparing and delivering that often stress-inducing presentation. There are also many different durations of a scientific talk — including, but not limited to everything from a 5-minute speed talk to a full-on, dazzling, TEDx-like performance that can last for over an hour. Many of these principles apply to the full gamut of talk types, although various elements will have to be adjusted according to format. Only experience and plenty of advice can assist you in the tweaking.

Without further ado, here are the top 15 most important things to consider when preparing and giving a scientific presentation:

  1. You must remember that a presentation is a story, not a verbal rendition of a scientific article. I’ve actually attended presentations where the uninspired scientist reads snippets from a paper without so much as looking at the audience — do not do this! As I like to say, science is a method, but results are a story. Rarely with the exception of talks about methods, should presentations go into much detail at all about how experiments were designed or what sampling protocol was used. You generally won’t have enough time and despite having spent the last three years doing nothing else but these repetitive and menial tasks, they are usually the most boring part of a paper, let alone a verbal description. Think Once upon a time, and go from there.
  2. Much like preparing to write a scientific paper, you have to get your main message straight in your own mind first. I like to use what I call the ‘three-floor lift’ rule, which essentially implies that you should be able to explain what you do, what kind of problem you’re trying to solve, and why it’s important, to a complete stranger in the time it takes to travel three floors in a lift (‘elevator’ for you non-Commonwealth types). Spend a lot of time crafting this message, then give it at random to people you meet and see if they (a) open their eyes wide and say ‘Wow!’, or (b) they glaze over and look like they wish instead that they were being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. If the latter, you have some more work to do.
  3. Here’s a little advice on what to present. This might seem to be largely out of your control if, for example, you are a student working on a very specific topic. However, I am adamant that you do have an element of choice here. If your thesis has, for example, several components with potentially global implications, focus on those and don’t forget to couch your work in the bigger picture. Do not just explain your results within the context of some largely parochial framework. Controversies are always great, because everyone likes to perv on a good fight, and anything involving public or political discord (think climate changehuman rightsfinancial bias et alia) will even keep those at the back wide awake, even in a hot, dark room.
  4. In reference to Point 1 above, this is how you should generally structure your talk: (i) This is my main message. (ii) This is how I’m going to tell you about it. (iii) This is what I told you. Everything else is detail. Repetition is not a bad thing, because people have short attention spans and without constant reminding, they start to think about the next talk that they might want to see, the snack that they hope they eat at the break, or the fact that they haven’t yet prepared their own talk.
  5. I don’t know about you, but I like stories that are funny. Dry, monotonic, emotionless, expressionless and humourless talks don’t just make me want to go to sleep, they make me want to hurt the presenter for wasting my time. Pepper your presentation with cartoons, humour-filled stories, funny anecdotes and wit, and you’ll have the audience eating out of your hand. A little humour can also go a long way to distracting those predators out there who might be set on exposing your weaknesses and flaws during question time (see Point 14 below).
  6. An oldie, but a goldie: practice the fuck out of your talk. If you’re away from home and in a hotel, practice five times in front of the bathroom mirror before even thinking about giving it in public. Practice on a mate/spouse/partner/relative when you’ve got your storyline firmly wedged in your brain. Then give the talk again to the wall. Not only is this a great way to ensure that you stay within your time limits (everyone hates a chronologically greedy scientist), you’ll know you’ve got your shit together once the words just roll off the tongue without much thought. Like lines memorised by actors for play, so too should your ‘lines’ be more or less committed to memory.
  7. If you’re normally the shy, introverted type, or are just plain terrorised by the mere thought of getting up in front of a large crowd of people and trying to sound intelligent and science-y, then this point is for you. Point 6 notwithstanding, the best way I’ve found to overcome the butterflies is to remember one simple rule: you are the smartest person in the room. I’m not trying to be facetious or deliberately provocative here; it’s actually true. Even if you are a beginner student and find yourself in a room populated with crusty old profs who have spent their entire lives researching your topic, I guarantee that you know about your project than anyone else, for the main reason that no one else in the world has the time to dedicate all their focus to your specific research. You are the expert, so take some solace in the fact that you know more about your talk than anyone else.
  8. Take that slide full of text, throw it (virtually) to the floor, and stamp on it madly until it bleeds. Text is your enemy. I’d be happy if I never again saw another bloody word on a slide, let alone the reams of full sentences I usually see splattered across slides in nearly every conference presentation. Use imagery and if you have to print words at all, be exceedingly brief. Use symbols; avoid articles and verbs; and never compose anything that can be read like a book on screen. At the most, a few words can help guide your narrative and focus the eye of the beholder, but images are always better.
  9. Unless you’re attending a statistics conference, or a workshop on chaos theory, avoid equations about as much as text. Even I, a self-proclaimed quantitative type, hate seeing them in a presentation because I never have time to dissect them and understand what every element means. Unless it’s an extremely simple equation that most people know, and it is essential to your narrative, avoid them like the proverbial plague.
  10. I like quotes. Most people love clever, witty quotes of really smart, famous people who sum up a complex concept in a mere sentence. Every discipline has great people who are famous for their wonderful quotes. Use them often (and attribute them accordingly, of course).
  11. In reference to Point 8, use figures, graphs and schematics with gay abandon. Figures (pictures) say 1000 words, whereas 1000 words make you want to slit your own wrists.
  12. Maps are wonderful. If you have anything spatial at all (and you all do, because all science is done somewhere), put up a cool map. Geeks love maps, and we’re all at least a little bit geeky.
  13. This is fairly minor, but it cheeses me right off when I see it done improperly. Please, please, please reference your slides so that I can find the bloody citations. Don’t just put a microscopic ‘Bradshaw et al. 1845’ at the bottom of the slide and expect anyone to be able to find the original paper. At the very least, give the minimum required detail (e.g., Bradshaw et al. 1845 J Bullshit 15:342) that includes the first author, the year, the (abbreviated) journal title, the volume and the first page number. Anything less is kind of useless and patronising.
  14. Love question time. Embrace it; need it; anticipate it. For nothing says ‘I couldn’t give a shit about your research’ more than no questions. Make sure of course that you leave enough time for questions (see Point 6 here), and remember Point 7, and you’ll have no problem fielding even the stickiest or most aggressive of questions. A few other pointers to help you in question time: (i) Listen to the bloody question; pause; think about it; answer — defensive answers rifled off even before the question has been entirely delivered are a sure sign that you’ll sound like an idiot or just a dick; (ii) Don’t be automatically defensive; you’re not on trial; (iii) Humour self-centred people who just want to disguise their own diatribe as a ‘question’. Don’t belittle them in public; just smile, say something polite, and move on; (iv) It’s entirely acceptable to say ‘I don’t know’ if you really don’t. Nothing screams ‘Bullshit!’ more than someone trying to answer a question for which they clearly have no answer.
  15. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, stay in the room after your talk/session so that those who didn’t get a chance to ask their questions or those who are genuinely interested in your research have a chance to talk to you. If you can (and you should), go for a beer with them afterward and hash out a good conversation. Who knows? It could lead to a wonderful collaboration!

Happy presenting!

CJA Bradshaw


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24 08 2015

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