Tips for a successful talk

Here's some advice to take your presentation up a notch
Courtney Chandler
March 1, 2024

With Discover BMB coming up in just a few weeks, I wanted to offer tips on how to make your next scientific talk successful. To get a sense of what takes a talk from good to great, I spoke with Shelley Copley, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Copley has listened to hundreds of talks throughout her career and has picked up on what works. Here are her top tips for your next talk.

Shelley Copley

Tip #1: Consider your audience

Copley said the first thing you should think about is your audience: Who is attending this talk, and what will they know? You would present a very different talk to a group of specialists in your field than you would to the audience at a departmental seminar. “You should pitch the talk at the right level,” she said.

Tailoring your talk includes thinking about what background information and the level of detail is necessary. For a more general audience, a broader background may be appropriate, while also making sure they have the foundation needed to understand your research. Copley also said to be cautious about the use of field-specific jargon and acronyms: Will your audience know what they mean? If not, define or avoid them.

It can also be useful to explain techniques or experimental approaches that are specialized. “It’s important to recognize that some listeners won’t be familiar with a particular kind of assay,” Copley said. “If it’s not something universal for your audience, take the time to explain it.”

Tip #2: Tell a story — but keep it simple

When it comes to structuring your talk, Copley notes that the narrative matters. “Think of the talk as telling a story,” she said. “Try to engage the audience’s interest by telling them what is known, what is not, and what the possibilities are with your research in a captivating way.”

Copley also advised to not try to cram too much material into the talk. You shouldn’t compress a 50-minute seminar into a 25-minute timeslot. “Some speakers do a brain dump where they talk really fast and present a lot of slides, and it’s hard for an audience to process that enormous amount of data,” she said. “Keep the story as simple as possible so the audience can understand and appreciate it.”

Copley acknowledged that keeping things simple can be hard — most researchers love their data, and it’s easy to think everything is important. Ask yourself: Is it important to my audience?

Tip #3: Delivery matters

Copley also has advice about the nuts and bolts of what makes a talk successful. The first may seem simple: “Don’t talk too fast,” she said. This can be harder to execute in reality, especially if you’re nervous, but practicing beforehand and being comfortable with your slides can help (see Tip #4!).

Your slides are a critical part of your talk. Copley said to make things big — large images and large fonts will ensure that everyone in the room can see the information. Copley recommended having one major point on each slide and walking listeners through it. “One of the worst things you can do is put multiple panels with multiple images or graphs on a single slide,” she said. “It’s impossible for the audience to read the labels, and it’s very distracting.”

Make sure axes are defined, and guide the audience through complicated figures or graphs. Laser points can help direct the audience’s attention, but Copley said overuse may be distracting. Using animations to have specific objects on the slide appear or disappear can also help.

For example, a speaker presenting an image of a western blot with multiple lanes could display the control lanes first, followed by the experimental lanes to take the time to explain each result and its impact without displaying the entire image at once. “If you put up a complex slide with all of it visible at once, listeners may tune out as they try to figure out what the other parts of the slide are before you explain them,” Copley said.

Lastly, Copley urged speakers to make eye contact with the audience. “This connects you to the people at your talk and helps draw people in,” she said.

Tip #4: Preparing for success

Copley has advice about steps you can take before the talk to set yourself up for success. The first is to practice. “Practice your talk to make sure it’s the right length,” she said. “Audiences get offended if you go way over time or if you rush through the last few slides.”

Having been an audience member of many scientific talks, I second this recommendation. I distinctly remember a seminar series I attended in grad school when one speaker went 45 minutes over their allotted time and threw the entire day into chaos. At conferences, moderators normally help timing stay on track, but you don’t want to be rushed off the stage.

After you know your talk is the right length, Copley recommended, practice the first few slides or first five minutes over and over again. “The beginning is the most stressful time,” she said. “If you have the start solid in your mind, then you can get through any initial panic and relax and enjoy telling your story.”

I used this trick when I was giving talks in grad school and found it incredibly helpful. I felt like I was starting off with confidence, which helped set the tone for the rest of the talk.

Lastly, if you’re feeling nervous, remember that the audience is there to learn and is interested in your story. “I’m always hoping to learn something new,” Copley said.

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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