What Makes a Great Scientific Presentation?
May 22, 2017
Scientists keenly want to get their point across in presentations, but their interesting subject matter can sometimes fall victim to their presentation style. This is not a problem confined to scientists of course- presenting effectively is something that eludes huge numbers of people, with nerves about public speaking and a lack of clarity in their slides often interfering with the message of the presentation.
Luckily, there are many ways to improve your presentation style without having to sign up for Toastmasters.
Know what you want to achieve.
It is devilishly easy to confuse the audience by going off on tangents and trying to cram a huge amount of important scientific information into a short space of time. Set yourself a goal- what do you need to achieve in this presentation?
What must the audience understand at the end of it? What are the core points you need to get across? Sum up what you’re going to be talking about in one sentence, and use this as your guide for the presentation. If you find yourself wandering off on a side issue, pull yourself back.
Remember, you’re never going to be able to get the sheer extent of your research across in a short presentation; you’re just going over the highlight reel.
Know your audience.
The kind of presentation you give depends heavily on the existing knowledge level of the audience. Presenting pages of technical data and using scientific jargon will probably not work terribly well for the marketing team or sales team, and you must present your data in a way that people outside your specialist team will understand.
That sound may like a bad case of stating the obvious, but it is often very difficult to remember what it’s like to not know all about this topic. You’ve probably been working on this project so long that your expertise dwarfs that of people not involved- even other scientists.
Get someone like the audience demographic to listen to your presentation beforehand. As Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.’
Avoid ‘Death by PowerPoint.’
You can kill your presentation in the first few minutes if you load PowerPoint or presentation slides that are chock-full of information and thereby overwhelm the audience.
There should be lots of white space on your slides, with key points in bullet points rather than chunks of text.
A key point: Avoid putting more than 5 points on a slide, and have the same design theme through all the slides. Also, if you’re using colour on your slides and graphs, remember that statistically, 7% of your male audience will be red-green colour blind.
Speaking of graphs, take the time to consider if they’re all entirely necessary and if people are going to be able to read them from the back row.
Nervous presenters may feel they need to have lots of slides to support them, but it just distracts the audience. Don’t make the slides the star of the show: your audience are there to see and listen to you. Your slides are meant to back up what you’re saying, not drive it.
Tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
Presentations are just like stories: they open by introducing something of interest, they build upon the opening, then they bring everything together at the end. Humans are wired to understand that this is how a story goes, so if you model your presentation on this very clear template, your presentation will succeed.
Think about your audience and their knowledge level. What are they likely to find of most interest in your findings? Why is your research important? Life scientists have the advantage of being able to relate their stories to real health outcomes.
Pull out the things that will spark the audience’s attention, and after introducing yourself and the topic of your research, lead with a story that shows why the research matters, back it up with results, then conclude by tying it back to how you opened the story in the beginning.
Observe the scientific courtesies
Scientific presentations should always refer to the existing literature, and this is a great way to show where your findings differentiate from other research. Always cite sources. Also, a short acknowledgements section is expected, thanking supervisors, assistants, funding bodies, and the audience.
Know the venue.
Being familiar with the venue beforehand can help in a multitude of ways. Firstly, it reduces nerves a little, as you’ll know how to get there and what the room looks like. Clever presenters will also acquaint themselves with the presentation technology in the room- microphones, projectors, whiteboards and the like. [Time permitting of course]
Knowing the meeting space is also very handy for planning your presentation, as the way the chairs are set out will impact on how you run your Q&A’s or any group activities, as well as how big your slides will need to be with font sizes, etc.
If you are to be giving a presentation at a conference or unfamiliar meeting space, contact the organiser to provide information about the room layout, presentation tools, and ideally a photo of the space.
Use pauses to convey importance.
Often we skip through a presentation helter-skelter in a rush to get it done, forgetting how importance rhythm and cadence are to our message. When you’re about to say something important about your findings, pause for a moment.
When you’ve said it, pause again to let it sink in. The audience’s ears will attune to the importance of what you’re saying if you leave these non-verbal cues.
Rehearse 5-10 times.
You need to know how long your presentation is, and you need to be adept at skipping between slides if you need to go back and forth. The more you rehearse, the more things will come easily to you when there’s a room full of people staring at you. It can be helpful to memorise your first few minutes of talking before relying on points as you gain confidence.
Giving a scientific presentation that informs and fascinates (and even entertains) is well within anyone’s reach. After all, your passion for this work drives you to the top of your field, isn’t it time you brought some others in to share that passion?