A Guide to Scientific Presentations
I recently tweeted a doodle depicting vastly overgeneralized characteristics of slides from talks across different scientific areas of research.
The response was overwhelming relative to my normal twitter response (which is, to be fair, almost nonexistent). While this was fun to make, what I’ve actually been thinking about for a while is:
What makes a scientific talk good?
As a postdoc in a biostatistics department at a school of public health who did her graduate work in human genetics at a school of medicine but her undergraduate work at a liberal arts school in biology, I have been witness to many different types of presentations from lots of different types of scientists. Some have been incredible! Some have been less so. I’ve tried to keep track for a while now about what exactly makes those incredible presentations incredible.
To start, there is a difference between a good talk and an interesting talk. A talk can be good without being interesting, and it can also be interesting without being good. I’d argue that the goal, however, is to be both good AND interesting.
What makes a talk good?
- It tells a story
- Your audience can understand it
- The audience is able to ask questions
How to make a talk good
Making your talk a story (and in most cases one single story) is important. While you have spent months (or more likely years….ok, maybe decades?) thinking about the work, your audience likely has not. Taking the time to put a story together is important for the audience to be able to comprehend what’s going on. Including all the necessary details, but not every single detail is critical. Your audience should not have to work exceedingly hard to decipher the words coming out of your mouth or the information being conveyed by your slides. To make sure your presentation is understandable, it is generally safe to assume your audience knows less than you think they do and err on the side of simplicity.
As for presentation tips, here are a number I’ve received over the years:
- Chose a compelling title. The shorter the better.
- Use headers that make a decisive statement. (i.e. “Sex prediction is 96% accurate” rather than just “Sex prediction”)
- Limit the amount of text on your slides.
- If you absolutely need a slide of all text, use bullet points and avoid full sentences.
- If you use bullet points, leave an empty line in between them. (This makes it easier to read AND limits how much you may try to jam onto a single slide.)
- Do your very best to limit the number of figures on a slide to one (or maybe two).
- Make sure all axes are labeled!
- Make sure font size is big enough. (16pt font is the absolute smallest font size to be used).
- Use colors that project well. (Be mindful of color blindness.)
- Avoid frivolous animations. Utilitarian animations only!
- Aesthetics matter: consistent font, colors, and alignment get extra points! (If you’re short on time, skip this. But, maybe, you know, go ahead and avoid comic sans…)
- Speak clearly.
- Let your audience know where you’ll be going with your talk. Make sure this is clear and simple.
- Introduce your axes! (Remember: you’ve seen these plots before. Your audience likely has not.)
- Explain what your graph shows AND what your conclusion is from these data. (Simply stating your conclusion is a disservice to the audience. Walk them through the logic. It allows them to determine if they support your conclusion from the figure.)
- Limit what you’re saying AND what you’re showing.
- Practice what you’re going to say before you get up there.
- Keep within your allotted time.
- And for the love of God, pleae do not read directly off of your slides.
- Did I mention you should finish on time?
What makes a talk interesting?
Good talks are enjoyable to sit through. They can be comprehended with reasonable amounts of focus and do not exhaust the audience. Interesting talks, however, are the ones you remember. They cover topics of interest to the audience in the room and are often full of either novel information, a new and interesting technique, or an interesting story.
The most interesting talks I’ve heard have:
- Had a compelling speaker
- Discussed something helpful/interesting to the audience
- Made sense without a ton of work as a listener
How to make a talk interesting
From my perspective, making a talk interesting is harder than making a talk good. We’re not all naturally entertaining or superb public speakers. Regardless, we can work to be better presenters.
To accomplish this, we can draw our audience in with a good title. If you’re not great at coming up with such a title (like me!), thankfully someone near you is. Ask for help! Also, we must be mindful of our audience and do our best to cater our talk to suit those in the room. With a title and idea of the audience in mind, then it’s all about preparation. It’s critical to take the time and put in the effort to make both your slides and story good. Finally, it comes down to practice. Practicing before the actual gig (and maybe multiple times if you’re a novice) AND simply presenting more often with the goal of improving in mind are immensely helpful.
Why to spend the time
- Your audience won’t miss out on your awesome story!
- You’ll get great questions and suggestions!
- You won’t waste the time or underutilize brain power of those in the room!
- You are more likely to inspire or spark ideas in others!
- You won’t go way over your time limit, resulting in sincere appreciation from all involved!
To assess whether or not you’re meeting your mark, it can be helpful to watch videos from presentations you’ve made. Recordings are often taken during talks and can be watched later on. Watching oneself present is a horrible and cringeworthy process, but it really is beneficial. That said, maybe remember that you don’t have to necessarily watch the whole thing. Sometimes, the pain of watching yourself present is only bearable for ten minutes…
Bonus: if you have a friend/partner/family member who maybe isn’t in your field (or even science at all!) but who is willing to have a watch, they can offer helpful feedback!
While I argue it is the responsibility of the presenter to work hard so that the audience doesn’t have to, life happens. Sometimes presentations just go badly. Sometimes you simply don’t have the time to prepare as you wanted. And, sometimes, you misjudge the audience. I’ve seen it happen and it will assuredly happen to me. But, I hope that I look back on this post years from now (…when I hopefully have my own successful career…) and say that I still prioritize presenting well and have improved over the years.
I haven’t presented nearly as much as most people in the field, so others may be more qualified to pen this post. However, I made an explicit goal when I started grad school to stop hating public speaking, and it worked! I no longer shake and quiver when I’m in the front of the room. To reach that goal, I watched a lot of presentations and took careful note of what I like and what I don’t like. My preferences may differ from yours, and if that is the case, let me know! Maybe I’ll be able to get a feel of everyone’s preferences and write a better guide later (you know, by
stealing combining…all of our ideas)! Also, I’m definitely interested to see how my thoughts on this topic change over the course of my career!
I’m not the first person to write about this
Others have put some great thoughts on the topic too! Here are a few of them…