June 2011

Nine quick fixes for scientific talks

Some tips on how to design and deliver an engaging and concise research talk. 


As a scientist, at some point in your career, you will be asked to give an oral presentation about your research. Whether it’s a thesis defense, a job talk, a lecture at a meeting, or just a simple presentation of results to lab mates, it’s important to be able to get your point across in a concise and interesting manner. The following is a simple checklist that will help you organize and prepare your talk.

1. Single theme

The theme provides the objective of the entire talk. It also can be referred to as the take-home message, gist or bottom line. It should be the single most important idea that you want the audience to remember. For example, “The female T-cells are immunized against the Y antigen during pregnancy” is scientifically specific, brief, and to the point. It omits explanatory material that would be defined earlier in the talk. Likewise, “GATA 3 coregulates with ER” does not need to remind us of the acronym for estrogen receptor. These examples also avoid using vague phrases such as “the role of” and “the effect of,” by using action verbs that actually describe the role or effect (i.e., immunized, coregulates). A precise take-home message is both more accurate and more interesting than a broad one and thus more memorable. For example, “Cytosol components directly participate in the membrane fusion between MLV and its host cell,” is more memorable than “Cytosol components are important in membrane fusion.”

2. Single focus

Despite its centrality to the presentation, the take-home message would be a confusing place to begin the talk itself. “Adult CD4 cells undergo partial polarization under CD3/CD28 costimulation with cytokine priming” clearly lacks context and a frame of reference. Therefore, to pinpoint the main question or focus of the talk, ask yourself the following questions: What was the aim of the study? What were the experiments trying to prove? Also, be cognizant of the time constraints – the take-home message should answer the main question in the allotted time.

A good main question typically is open-ended, beginning with “how,” “where,” “what,” “when” or “why.” Like the take-home message (theme), the main question (focus) is an information filter. Since a common speaking mistake is to cram too much information into the talk, both audience and speaker are relieved by a clear and defined scope.

3. The money slide

Presentation time always is a factor, so it is important to select images that are clear, accurate and most representative of the work. Unfortunately, most speakers are not particularly discriminating at this stage of preparation. Their impulse is to include every piece of data, perhaps on the assumption that a high concentration of information indicates thorough science. Alas, the opposite is true. Data that does not pertain to the main question is perplexing for the audience and runs the risk of clouding their understanding and overloading the talk. Therefore, I suggest beginning the selection process by picking the single most important figure or “money slide.” This is the one that would make grant adjudicators fund your project. The money slide could be the most important finding or one that encompasses all the results, but it should represent the most salient data point. This preparation step ensures that the most important piece of information is included in even the shortest of talks. During the presentation, the money slide also reminds you to give the central finding heightened emphasis.

4. Appropriate slide count

All other images, schematics, graphs, charts and photographs will in some way relate to or support the money slide. You should follow the two-minute-a-slide rule as a general precept for how many total slides should be in a presentation (not counting the title and acknowledgment slides). I’m sorry, but there simply is no such thing as a simple slide. Each one needs, and deserves, ample time to be described fully.

5. Minimal text

You need to make certain that all text is in bullet form, not in full sentences. The options in presenting text-heavy slides are to read the words aloud or hope that every member of the audience reads at the same pace. However, the lifeblood of a presentation is the contact between speaker and audience, and in a public speaking setting, we all would rather listen than read. Another problem is that you cannot easily deviate from scripted words. Even a minor adjustment forces the audience to hear one explanation while reading another. Above all, it is better not to commit to a precise set of words that will undoubtedly change for the better during the presentation. As you have no doubt noticed, text slides primarily are used for the presenter’s benefit rather than to facilitate the audience’s understanding. In other words, they function as cue cards. So I would recommend removing the verbs from all slides and using index cards with short reminders for yourself. For further explanation of this phenomenon, see the model of working memory developed by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch.

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COMMENTS:

Excellent ideas. Mr. Morgan has used the ideas he expouses in this article. Thank you for having this article.

 

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