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How to Give a Great Presentation

A few weeks ago now, I hosted the Biotweeps Twitter account for a week. It’s an account with rotating hosts: every week, a different biologist takes over and posts about, well, whatever they want, but usually at least partly about their research.

I had a lot of fun hosting. I talked about research in the Arctic and climate change; I talked about stream biodiversity and why freshwater conservation is important; I talked about what an ecosystem is and how ecosystems are connected in cool ways; and I also talked about work-life balance and what I do for fun. I had great discussions with the account’s followers about what other jobs they’ve had, if they always knew they were interested in science, and how life experience shapes us into scientists.

(You can see my whole week of posts here– it will show up with someone else’s name because someone else is hosting now, but these are my posts from June.)

But some of the threads that got the most attention were about organization and what we might consider “transferrable skills”: the non-research part of how to do good science (these skills are very important for many other jobs, too, not just science!).

I had the idea to post about this because last year, Kevin Burgio shared his organizational system when he was hosting BioTweeps. I have since adopted part of his system and it has been immensely helpful. I wondered if some of the things I’ve learned could help others.

So I posted about how to organize and manage data, from pre-experiment planning to analysis, both to make your life easier and to promote reproducibility. I talked about general organization, and how to get the most out of going to conferences. These posts generated a lot of discussion and I learned a few things too.

Hosting BioTweeps was a lot of work, and it took more of my time than I would have expected.

At the same time, I was in a bit of a blogging rut. I had resolved to blog more this year, and for a while I did, but then I sort of ran out of steam.

I realized that I was talking about a lot of things on Twitter that earlier I might have turned into blog posts. This wasn’t just true in BioTweeps week, although it certainly hit a peak then. I have been trying to think about which venue is more important to put time into in terms of communicating. There are a lot of stories, especially ones about travel or my outdoor adventures, that I don’t think I could tell well on Twitter. I want the space of a blog post to compose and tell them.

But there are other things that could be either. It’s a bit easier to make a Twitter thread than a blog post, so maybe I have been leaning in that direction, and I now have enough Twitter followers that I feel like I might reach more people that way.

But blog posts have their own plus sides. They are a bit more permanent, and they are easier to find with a search or refer back to. I don’t think I should stop blogging.

And so, here I am: I’m going to make a blog post out of one of my BioTweeps advice threads, about how to give a good presentation.

How to give a good talk

Why do I think I’m qualified to give advice about this? First, I really enjoy giving presentations. What’s more fun than talking about work you’re excited about? Second, I’ve won a few “best presentation” prizes at conferences, so I think I don’t suck at it.

Those prizes are not all because of me. Especially in the last 4 ½ years, I have gotten a lot of advice from colleagues. In my (now-former) research group, we had a culture of giving practice talks and getting extensive feedback on them. It was sometimes brutal but we all gave as good as we got. As a result, everyone in our lab gave great presentations.

But there are other things that go into making a talk that I do myself. I was motivated to share tips after I realized last summer that people thought it was easy for me to give a good talk. Haha. Nope.

I first saw the mismatch in expectations when attended a conference with my boss. He was shocked that the night before I was scheduled to give my talk, I locked myself in my room and practiced for hours. He thought that I was just good at presenting and didn’t need to practice.

I’m sure that there are people who can wing it and do great. But that’s not most of us, and it’s also not me. Quite the opposite. One way to make your delivery seem effortless is to practice it until it is, at which point, the hard work becomes partly invisible.

Practice is a basic, but very important, tip. Here are some others that will help make a great presentation, whether it’s for a class at school, a meeting at work, or at a big conference.

  1. How should you structure your talk?

I’ve recently moved away from structuring my talks like research papers, with sections for introduction, methods, results, and then discussion. Now I just try to tell a good story. My talks are better for it – and I think this would be true for any kind of presentation, on any topic.

I try to think a bit about what I learned about constructing a story as a journalist: how do you draw the reader in, and then keep them reading?

Just as in a written story, start with a lead that grabs the the audience’s attention. This probably shouldn’t take more than a minute or two, although depending on how long the presentation is, it could vary.

Then, you get to what in journalism we would call the “nut graf”. This follows the lead and should be one slide, if you’re using PowerPoint. It’s the thesis and motivation of your whole presentation: what question are you trying to solve and what are you going to do? Give this to the audience early enough that they know where you’re going with the rest of the talk.

From here, there are lots of possible structures depending on the length of your talk and the material. You could have a bit more introduction after the nut graf, or you could get into the meat of your presentation.

Supplement your story with technical details, but not too many. You want to include enough that people trust that you are an expert and did things right, but you want them to remember the big picture, not that you had a lot of equations on your slides. Once you’ve demonstrated your expertise, just highlight the things the audience needs to know. Don’t distract the audience with some number or result that isn’t important.

(If you really think someone will want more detail, make extra slides that you can go to in Q&A. But don’t overwhelm or bore the 95% of your audience that doesn’t want that level of detail.)

For scientists, I find that using the traditional paper structure can lead to a lot of repetition, and if you have several analyses or result to present, the audience might have a hard time remembering what methods went with which results or why you are jumping from one topic to the next. Remember that this is a talk. It’s not a paper where they can flip back and remind themselves which method you used.

So if you have several sub-questions/results, explain each one separately. For three research questions, this would go, methods, results, methods, results, methods, results. Use narrative to link them together: “based on result x, we were interested to follow up with experiment y.”

Then, make sure to have a discussion and conclusion that ties all those sub-questions together.

  1. Content: what do you put on your slides?

This is not original advice, but it’s advice I swear by: don’t put too much on your slides. I like to have some that are just a photo, a figure, or a few words. I leave them up as an anchor/background while I talk about something. You want people listening to you, not reading your slides.

I also use visuals because then the audience has two ways of getting information. The text you write will probably be very similar to what you will say, so if they don’t understand your spoken explanation, additional text might not help very much.

There are a few more things you can do to make it easy for your audience to follow the story. For example, choose a consistent font throughout the presentation and make the text big enough to read from the back of the room. You think it’s big enough? Make it bigger.

Do you have charts or graphs? Make the text big. Don’t just recycle figures from a research paper or take them straight out of Excel. Make the labels and text bigger and easier to interpret from far away, and if possible use the same font as your slides’ text.

Choose a nice color scheme. I make my graphs in R (a statistical software) and I like to use the online tool ColorBrewer or the ‘viridis’ R package to choose color schemes that are more pleasing than the defaults. If you have multiple charts with the same set of variables, make sure the color scheme is consistent throughout all of them – this makes it easier to follow.

No matter what software you are using to produce figures, make sure that they are easy to interpret for people who are color-blind, of which there will probably be at least a few in your audience. ColorBrewer indicates whether a color scheme is colorblind-friendly.

In PowerPoint, you can use the same tools to choose a color scheme to apply to your layout.

There are also some good sources of artwork you can use to make your slides nice. Pixabay has some free images, or search Wikipedia or Creative Commons. Phylopic is great for free images of plants and animals. Government agencies often have free imagery too. IMPORTANT: attribute any images that are not your own!

Whether it’s a chart or diagram, I often go through visuals sequentially. For example, for the first graph, I will often start with a slide that has just the axes, and I will explain what they are before adding the data to the plot. I will sometimes add the data in a few different steps if it is a complicated figure. This can make your results much easier to understand. The same goes for a complicated diagram: adding elements sequentially can allow you to highlight and explain what’s important about each one.

Finally, don’t forget to have a slide thanking people who helped with your research (including funders). I don’t like to end on this slide, because during question time I want to leave a slide about my conclusions up. Recently I’ve tried putting my thank-you slide second, or in the middle.

  1. Delivery: you’ve made your slides, now how do you do the talking?

As mentioned above, my best advice is simple: practice, practice, then practice some more.

I’ve been working in Europe for seven years, and people often tell that presentations must be easy for me because I’m a native English speaker. And yes, it’s obviously an advantage to give a talk in your first language!

But they’re surprised when I say, “Well, I practiced this talk 10 times…”

I am incredibly lucky that I don’t have to do science in a foreign language, and I don’t want to downplay this advantage. But remember: we’ve all heard terrible talks by people presenting in their native language. This might be because they haven’t practiced, or they simply don’t care very much, or they are nervous and uncomfortable with public speaking.

Practice and enthusiasm can go a long way. If you aren’t quite done with your project but have to present about it anyway, you can absolutely give a good talk despite lacking a finished conclusion. If your results are disappointing, your talk can still be great – it’s all about how you present and deliver it. If you aren’t completely comfortable giving a talk in a non-native language, copious practice can help. If your slides are clear and your demeanor is positive and enthusiastic, the audience will almost definitely be on your side.

Practice also helps me fit a lot of content into a short time slot. My talks are dense with information, but most feedback I receive is that they are still clear and easy to understand. By practicing repeatedly, I can pare my language down, cut minutes off of the length of the talk, and settle on the most concise, clear wording.

So, practice. One colleague said he didn’t want to memorize his talk because he didn’t want to sound like a robot. I told him if you memorize a talk well, you can actually be quite dynamic. The trick is to practice until your delivery is more or less automatic, and then keep going. Once you know it 100%, you will become so comfortable you will begin riffing a little bit, and you won’t sound like a robot at all.

One you’ve practiced a bit on your own, practice in front of colleagues and friends. Even if they aren’t familiar with the content, they can still give great advice on delivery and slide design. Scheduling this ahead of time and some days/week(s) before your presentation will also force you to make your presentation before the last possible moment.

Two reminders that should go without saying, but apparently are needed. No matter whether you think your voice is loud or not, use a microphone. Your audience might not be able to hear you, and you actually aren’t the best judge of whether they can or not.

And finally, keep to time. If you don’t, you are inconveniencing everyone else, whether it’s by making a meeting run long or running into the next slot at a conference and possibly costing someone else the chance to communicate their project.

I hope these tips can help you nail it next time you need to talk to an audience about whatever you’ve been up to!

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