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.

6. Common ground

The best way to achieve an immediate connection with the audience is to address the collective problems that you share with the group: call it the common denominator, the collective puzzle or common ground. It may be tempting to start with definitions or statistics, but they are dry, generalized and bland. Common ground is a more powerful choice because it immediately concentrates on current topics and dilemmas in the field while respecting the audience’s knowledge base.

Ask yourself the following questions:
* What are the most relevant scientific issues that I share with this audience?
* Of these, what issue do I focus on? Why?
* What solutions are the most logical? Why?
* Specifically, what am I looking for?

Including the answers to these questions in the introduction will draw a conceptual link between the daily work of the audience and your own.

7. Brief title

 Identifying the main question and common ground also provides excellent headway for crafting an engaging title. Common ground acknowledges the bigger picture; the main question suggests your contribution. Here is an example of a title: “The Design and Application of Tagging SNPs in Neuronally Expressed Voltage-Gated Sodium Channel Genes to a Cohort of Caucasian Epilepsy Patients.”

In an attempt to be specific, the author has added too many details for a talk. “To a cohort of Caucasian epilepsy patients” implies that the presentation only is relevant to those studying epilepsy among Caucasian patients. “Epilepsy” is important, but the fact that they are Caucasian is not. “The design and application” and “patients” are implicit and can be removed. “Neuronally expressed” might be too detailed; “to a cohort” may be obvious, while the coolest part – tagging SNPs – is diffused by its length. An improved title would be “Tagging SNPs: Voltage-Gated Sodium Channel Genes in Patients with Epilepsy.”

8. Final thought

The final thought is a quick technique to help you end a talk gracefully. A fully memorized sentence can seem canned and overly rehearsed, so I suggest a single trigger word to remind yourself that the final comments should be as strong and well organized as the rest of the talk. For example, the final idea, “Our goal over the next several months is to test this single-chain protein in assays to assess human response. We will also insert this gene into the patients’ own B cells to test whether they are either tumor-specific or idiotype-specific CTL,” could be simply noted to yourself as “idiotype-specific CTL.”

9. Teach

Lastly, I would like to point out that a good scientific talk is not about you but about the education of the audience. These tools are designed to make the process of speaking less about lecturing and more about teaching. Good speakers are like good teachers – they are impressive because they possess knowledge about highly intricate subjects. But they truly are extraordinary when they can make complicated things seem simple.

Scott Morgan (Scott@MorganGp.com) is director of The Morgan Group and co-author of “Speaking about Science.”

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