Professional Development

Up your presentation game

These resources will help you give talks people want to listen to
Elizabeth Stivison
February 28, 2020

Throughout all the stages of a career in academia, you’re expected to give presentations about your work. These presentations happen during lab and committee meetings, departmental seminars, retreats and society meetings, events at other institutions, job interviews and so forth. Presenting is an aspect of an academic science career that is unavoidable. Yet, somehow, this central part of our jobs doesn’t seem to come with any real training.

This can be frustrating when you need to give a presentation that is make-or-break for your career, as in the case of a job talk, and even in lower-stakes situations. Take, for example, when you give a department presentation about work you’ve poured your heart and soul into for years, only to get a bunch of blank stares at the end, indicating people didn’t care or couldn’t follow what you were saying. Having some training in how to create and deliver meaningful, clear talks that get people’s attention would be useful! In any situation, the more clearly you can articulate your work, the better.

We’ve all been to talks that are just bad: jumping in with no background, font that’s impossibly small, paragraphs of text on the slides, no apparent reason for the experiments they’re talking about, etc. It’s not good for anyone on either side of the podium. And I hope we’ve all been to good talks that flowed easily, where everything was legible, and the speaker just carried their listeners along on their story, inspiring insightful questions and discussion at the end. While most people can easily recognize a good or bad presentation and pinpoint some key reasons for the talk’s success or failure, real training here is often lacking.

This week, I want to provide some resources for those who need them. I am an average presenter, so none of the resources/advice/tips here is my own, as my own advice would not be helpful. These are all external resources that are available to help academics give better presentations. 

Webinar: How to give a successful flash talk

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology invites you to attend a free webinar on March 12.

Effective communication skills are critical to your success as a scientist. We often only have a few minutes, or a few sentences, to impress employers, influence granting agencies, or provide a quote to journalists.

In this webinar, a panel of skilled science communicators will share tips and trick for giving a fast, informal presentation. Learn more about the webinar here.

Presenting and communicating science

Jean-Luc Doumont has built his career teaching others to communicate technical and scientific info clearly and accurately. His trainings include how to make your graphs more concise and clear, how to design slides, and how to structure your presentation to maximize audience comprehension. He often speaks at universities, so you might be able to attend an in-person session or even request one at your institution. If not, he offers video recordings of sessions on his site here and some other resources here.

Actor Alan Alda is a science enthusiast and is passionate about encouraging scientists to communicate their work clearly. He has started a graduate program at  the State University of New York at Stony Brook for scientists to learn to be better communicators. I don’t expect most scientists to drop what they’re doing and start on a new graduate certificate program, though. Luckily, he also offers two-day workshops in New York and California. His approach of using improv might make for a fun two days. You can also request a one-day workshop at your own institution.

Elie Diner, a medical writer and former research scientist, has a blog called Slide Talk dedicated entirely to helping people make good science presentations. This blog is a treasure trove of help. He includes topics like designing slides and presentation structure.

Liesbeth Smit at The Online Scientist has a short page with five simple tips for slide design. I am always skeptical of “Five simple tricks to ____” type articles, but as I was reading this one, I found myself thinking, “Presentations would be way better if everyone read these tips.” So, forgive the clickbait sounding title, and give it a look for some solid tips, including how (not) dense your slides should be and how slide titles should give the audience information.

Chris Andersen has a list of pointers in the Harvard Business Review for creating and delivering a presentation. While not specific to science, they include pointers about how to speak without reading off a script (or directly off your slides), how to narrow the scope of your talk so you’re not trying to describe everything you’ve ever done, and how to develop the elusive “stage presence.”

Coursera often offers classes about presentations. Here's one. 

EdX also offers many interesting courses. One that is available now is about using visuals effectively in presentations. This one is not geared toward only scientists.

Giving job talks

Science magazine collected tips for giving a good job talk here. They cover everything from not staring at the floor to how to organize the presentation.

PLOS Computational Biology published an article of “rules” for giving a good job talk. This includes tips like making a few extra slides that address probable questions, just in case, and making your take-home message “persistent.”
Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University studying mechanisms of DNA repair.

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