A professor of mine from graduate school, who taught us to give scientific presentations, insisted that the best way to start one was to have a dramatic opening. Legions of students would follow his instructions during seminar hour and they helped us improve our skills at these yearly presentations. Here are some of those tips that have held me in good stead over the years, along with some others that I have picked up from my experiences.
Does having an impressive opening really help improve your presentation? How does one draw the audience’s interest to a largely pedantic subject than by starting the presentation off with an interesting fact or anecdote that grabs their attention? When one is explaining the science to a largely non-scientifically oriented group, a good opening also becomes essential to capture their attention and keeps them engaged for the rest of the talk.
Content and presentation: A good presentation banks on two important qualities, well organized content and first-rate visual aids. A well thought out strategy when it comes to presenting the particulars of your science is essential to the success of the presentation. In my experience, when a speaker covers the background of the topic in sufficient detail before leading into the scientific facts or data, one can follow the speaker’s findings even without a working knowledge of the subject being discussed. Good speakers therefore learn to connect the dots well and keep the fundamentals of the topic in perspective throughout their talk.
Summarize regularly: Often, the content of the talk covers multiple sub-topics or its duration may be sufficiently long to warrant the breakup of the talk with relevant summarizations. This will prevent the listener from drifting away and also allows for key findings to be presented at appropriate intervals. Eventually the talk should build up to a satisfactory climax, ending with future directions slides. This element is critical as it tells your audience that you have a dynamic and evolving project and know where the science is headed. It would certainly help gain that additional funding if the talk were in front of people from a funding agency!
Explain jargon: Scientists sometimes have to present their work to non-scientific audiences. Unless the content of their science is presented in a manner that is meaningful to this group, it loses its significance entirely. The approach to such talks should therefore involve an entirely different mindset. The talk should focus primarily on providing background information about the topic, followed by brief explanations about key findings, eventually ending with a summary of how the results may impact the audience. Additionally, the scientific information should be sufficiently couched in “lay-man” terms to be better understood, with the minimal use of scientific jargon. The presentation style becomes more important here, with appropriate “sound-bites” to make it successful.
Styling and visual aids for the presentation: Very few people these days present their scientific data without the help of visual aids such as slides, chalkboard drawings or PowerPoint presentations. Most of us rely on visual presentations to keep our “place” in the talk and to illustrate our findings. Good slides are therefore essential to the success of these talks.
Common visual aid mistakes: A lot of presenters forget that slides are meant to make their presentations more meaningful and complete. Here are some of the common mistakes committed during the creation of presentation slides. Slides with several lines of text on them, which the speaker invariably reads through to emphasize his/her point(s), definitely hurt the presentation and cause the listener’s attention to wander. Such slides are best used as summary slides.
Another very distracting feature in any visual presentation is the design forming the background of the slides. Embellished borders, very bright colors, over-done animations, fancy fonts and other frills make the presentations tacky. Most people pay attention to a presentation better when the visual aids don’t distract them from the science. Good slides typically have the right mix of illustrations and text on them. The speaker can then walk his audience through the slide by filling in the details, thereby keeping them engaged.
Prepare prepare prepare! Finally, a speaker should never go unprepared for their presentation. A lot of people might scoff at the idea of rehearsing for their presentation, but there is great merit in doing so. When discussing scientific data, if one were to forget to mention key points on cue, the subsequent details become confusing. Additionally, preparing for the talk helps to weed out either the non-scientific words, or scientific jargon, depending on the type of audience being presented to. Moreover, rehearsing ensures a better flow of sentences during the actual talk and makes it easier to complete it with fewer hiccups.
Written by Yamini Chandrasekaran for Chillibreeze