How to make an impact with your presentations

We’ve all been to those seminars where you’re fighting to keep your eyes open as the speaker drones on about results. In contrast, we’ve also been to seminars where the talk is so captivating, you lose a sense of time and you come out feeling inspired and excited about science. So what separates the former from the latter? While the specific topic of a scientific presentation might be what initially piques your interest, delivery of the presentation ultimately plays a big role in how much you learn and how much you remember.

Presenting results is a critical part of being a scientist, and one of the most important parts of our job, no matter what career stage we’re in. Communicating findings and data is important for numerous reasons: it helps organize your thoughts and results, it is a way to get feedback from others, and it opens up the potential for new collaborations and ideas. Importantly, people pay more attention to you and your research when you present it well, which helps with getting grants accepted, manuscripts published, and recognition for your work.

I was lucky to have a mentor who took oral presentations seriously and actively mentored his students in proper presentation techniques. I also always seek out feedback on my presentation by asking peers and faculty members in my department for what was effective and what parts of the presentation need improvement. As a result, over the years, I’ve accumulated a “toolkit” of what works and what doesn’t. With that experience, my own personal observations from “awesome” vs “boring” talks, and help from the COMPASS communications subcommittee, I’ve come up with a list of how to give good scientific presentations. I recommend other resources as well to help with this subject (this is a good place to start and iBiology also has some tips). Bear in mind, these are just a few suggestions, not all of them will work for every type of presentation!

Preparing the presentation:

  1. Know your audience and cater your presentation accordingly. A minisymposium talk at the ASCB annual meeting is very different from a research update to your department. Keep in mind what your audience already knows and what they don’t know. For example, a specialized group like a minisymposium talk at ASCB will require less explanation of background and details whereas a presentation directed at a diverse department will require a more thorough background and explanation of experimental techniques. Build a story that involves your feelings and how it happened that a group discovered something. Side note: These tips focus mainly on talks for a scientific audience. Much more of the talk must be catered when presenting to non-scientific audiences, but that is for a different time. That being said…
  2. Introductions are IMPORTANT, and it is critical to provide the audience with a reason to care about your research. An established scientist in my department once told me, “you can never spend too much time on a good introduction.” The introduction gives your audience a common background, which is necessary to understand the rest of the talk. This is also the time to capture the listener’s attention or else any fancy data you have will be forgotten since their interests are diverted. Start with something interesting whether it is relevance to a disease, a beautiful image, or an analogy to a real-world scenario that your audience can relate to.
  3. Optional. I like having a “roadmap” or an outline of the presentation right after the introduction. This way, listeners know what to expect, and it helps organize the presenter’s thoughts as well.
  4. Remove unnecessary details and simplify complicated parameters. If the specific buffer conditions or concentrations you used in an experiment are not fundamental to understanding the result, do not include them. It also helps to simplify naming of specimens or conditions. For example: wild-type and mutant instead of the specific gene name (depending on the circumstance). Or X inhibitor instead of the 12 number ID code from the drug screen. Use correct units in your talk (not inches and feet, m and celsius)
  5. Layer your slides. It is overwhelming when a powerpoint slide pops up that has several figure panels on it at once. Often, I find my eyes divert to all of the different panels, and then I lose what the presenter is saying. By layering slides, or using animations to allow figure panels to come up one at a time and explaining them individually, the audience can remain focused on the specific data being discussed without being overwhelmed or distracted. Note: I recommend the simple “appear” or “disappear” animations. Less simple options like checkerboard, etc., tend to complicate and distract the audience.
  6. Fewer words, more models, animations, and diagrams. There are different types of learning: some learn by reading/writing, some by listening, and others are more visual. By hitting all three of these, you can ensure everyone can understand what you’re showing. Having a model, simple animation animation, or cartoon/diagram of your conclusions or hypothesis can help audiences grasp difficult concepts. It can help to also build up this model over the course of your talk, adding additional components as you describe the experimental results to support the conclusions depicted in your model.
  7. Be mindful of aesthetics. Slide layout, font, and color choices all factor into the effectiveness of your presentation. While this is a minor detail, it can really help audience members get the maximum out of your presentation. Avoid comic sans font. Blue background with yellow font is painful to read. If you’re showing beautiful cell images, sometimes a black background helps highlight the image. If you’re showing a plot, some colors like yellow don’t show up on a white background. Pay attention to these details.
  8. At the end of your talk, bring it back to the big picture and summarize your results. I like to put up something similar to my intro slide but updated with all the results I’ve shown. This organizes the entire presentation into a complete package. Also, this way, you come full circle and the audience can remember why the work you’ve done is so important. It can also help to finish with one major take-home message.

Delivering the presentation:

  1. Practice your presentation. Several faculty members told me they would run through their presentations out loud, even as mid-career scientists. Practice makes perfect, and this applies for presentations too. Say your presentation out loud and make sure you are explaining your data the way you want to with the optimal word choice. Make sure your movies play correctly and that the images look the way they are supposed to. If you can, practice in the room where the talk will be.
  2. Prepare your transitions and think of your word choices. It’s important to have fluid transitions between slides, so prepare what you will say when you switch from one slide to another. Word selection is also important, especially if you are giving a shorter presentation. Make sure you’re explaining results or ideas in the most clear and concise way. A final note: remember your audience and stay away from highly colloquial language. Many times, scientific audiences are international, and they may not understand colloquial language or references to local pop culture, which may ultimately alienate your audience.
  3. Talk slowly. This may be the first time people are hearing your work, and even if it’s not, the audience doesn’t generally think about your work as often as you do or they may not remember it. Take your time and don’t rush.
  4. Look at the audience from time to time. Make eye contact. IT’S HARD, but effective.
  5. Thank the people who helped you, but don’t be super obnoxious about it. It’s important to give credit where credit is due, especially if those involved are in the audience. But it is unnecessary to drone on about this and provide unnecessary life stories, especially when time is a limiting factor. Be respectful and courteous but also concise. Personally, I love pictures to accompany the names, but that’s up to you!
  6. NOT. GO. OVER. TIME. We all have busy schedules, and you must be respectful of the audience’s time. If someone wants to hear more, they will come and talk to you personally afterward.

After the presentation:

  1. Seek feedback. Ask your peers, advisors, and other faculty members for advice and suggestions. I always ask my advisor and peers about what they thought, how the talk was organized, and what I can do to make it better. It doesn’t hurt to ask a few other faculty members as well. The only way to improve is to ask several people what you can do better and what you already do well.

I hope these tips help, and I am certain that there are plenty of other suggestions and tricks. What suggestions do you have? Leave them in the comments!

About the Author:

Pinar Gurel is a postdoctoral fellow in the Alushin lab at Rockefeller University where she is investigating the role of actin structural plasticity in mechanosensation using cryoEM and other biophysical tools. Pinar earned her PhD in the Higgs lab at Dartmouth College where she studied the mechanism of actin filament severing by the formin, INF2. She is currently the co-chair of COMPASS. Email: Twitter: @pinar_gurel