Scientific Presentation Pro Tips Part 2: The Presentation

A while ago I wrote the first part of a series of posts on scientific presentation tips to present your research in a memorable and interesting way. In part 1, I described the preparation process, now it’s time for the actual presentation giving: what to do, what to wear and other convenient tips.

Presentation Day – What to Wear

So you wake up on the day of the presentation. If you’ve prepared well, you don’t have to worry about your slides and things like this anymore, so just do your typical morning routine. There is one thing you should be thinking about at this point though. What should I wear? There are several things to keep in mind when selecting a proper outfit. First of all, what is everyone else wearing? This depends on the occasion, whether it’s a conference with peers of your field, a meeting with the people that fund your project or a small meeting of your research group. If you don’t know what other people will be wearing, ask someone that does. While this might seem like a weird question to ask (be sure not to phrase it in a ‘…. So what are you wearing?’-type of way), it sure beats showing up to an all-suit meeting in shorts and a t-shirt. The aim of this question is to pick something appropriate that doesn’t make you stand out in a bad way, where people will talk behind your back about your outfit. If you do like standing out, but want to do it in a good way, consider picking a nice color accent that suits you. A second thing to keep in mind is, what makes me feel good and confident in this situation? I personally really get into presentation mode when I wear some killer heels and dress quite formally, but everyone will have their own preferences. There’s a range of acceptable outfits for every occasion, so you’re free to pick the one closest to your own preference. In short: when selecting your outfit keep the occasion and personal taste in mind.

Getting in the Zone

If there are other presentations before yours, do not use this time to work on your own presentation some more. The time for preparation is over and it looks much more professional and is more respectful towards the other speakers to focus your attention on their talks. So pay attention to being an attentive audience member, focus on the story the current presenter is presenting and let them know you’re listening by making eye-contact and nodding occasionally.

Right before you present your work, you can do a couple of things to get into presentation mode. If you’re nervous or tense before, pay special attention to your breathing. Make sure you breathe from your belly and not the top of your lungs. Relax your shoulders and get ready to give a great presentation. It’s not a problem to have a bit of healthy tension before you start to present, but it shouldn’t get in the way of your speaking. When it’s time to give your presentation, ground yourself. Grounding yourself in this context is the act of making a connection between your body and mind and keeping yourself in the moment. It’s quite easy to do quickly by focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground, then feeling the muscles in your leg, straightening your back, lowering your shoulders and arching them back and stretching your neck to hold your head up straight.

During your presentation

When you are ready to give your talk, be mindful of the current situation you’re in. Do not get lost in thinking about what your next slide will say or feelings like ‘Let’s get this over with so I can leave.’. It’s better to focus on the content you’re currently presenting and the delivery of that content to the audience. Be in the moment and even try to enjoy this interaction between you and the audience, even though it feels a bit ‘one-way’, you’re taking the audience along the awesome story that is your presentation, so enjoy that privilege of having their attention and this opportunity to give this talk. Be sure to make a connection with the audience, by giving them the attention they deserve. When presenting, it’s easy and less intimidating to just talk to inanimate objects like the wall or an invisible friend right in front of you. When you do this though, the audience will feel you’re not addressing them and that your content is maybe not even important for them. In essence you’re giving them a free pass to zone out as they please.

To keep your audience enthralled, try to make a connection with every single one of the people listening by making direct eye-contact with them (real eye-contact, not looking somewhere above the eyes or pretending to look, people will actually notice!). When you are really addressing your audience instead of delivering your content into thin air, people will have a much harder time zoning out.

Bonus Tips

There are some things that you can do to make your presentation to go from great to really amazing. Here are some simple, but highly effective tips:

  • Powerful pauses. A dramatic pause between you introducing yourself and the actual content can really build tension. A pause between different content sections can emphasize also heighten audience attention and makes it easier to follow your presentation.
  • Speaking speed. Always remember that the audience needs to listen and think about your words while you talk, so speak a little slower to give them time to follow along. Of course too slow will have them fall asleep, but speaking too fast happens more often.
  • Feelings. Spice up the presentation by delivering your content with a certain feeling that matches the content. This one is admittedly hard, but extremely effective. Try to present your introduction in a welcoming way, your problem in a more dramatic way, your method in an interesting way and your conclusion in a convincing way for instance.
  • Movement. Add some more visual interest to your presentation by using gestures to further emphasise your points. Or walk a bit during a sentence, stop before an important point, pause, and deliver your point while standing still (the old walk-stop-pause).

Answering Questions

After your talk, people will typically have the opportunity to ask questions. If you have a rough idea of what questions will come up after your talk, it looks really professional to have a couple of slides with extra information available. You can store them after the end of the presentation and once a question like that comes up, you can quickly bring them up. There are several types of questions you might get, so be ready to handle these:

  • Content questions:
    • These are real questions that people ask simply because they want to know.
    • Typically fun to answer and not too hard, so take your time to answer them well. If you feel it would take too long to explain though and it wouldn’t be interesting to other audience members, offer to take it offline (talk in private later) or refer them to a specific part of your work.
    • Example: ‘Could you explain to me how this component of your approach works in more detail?’
  • Philosophical questions:
    • These are less directly related to your work and more related to topics open to discussion.
    • Can be fun, but can also seem a bit off-topic. If you think it will lead to a great discussion, feel free to engage, but again make sure that it doesn’t go on for too long if there’s no agreement in sight.
    • Example: ‘Do you think there is added value to 3D displays over 2D ones in all perceptual tasks?’
  • Show-off questions:
    • These questions serve no other purpose than showing off the knowledge of the question-asker to the rest of the audience. These questions typically are low on actual question-content, but very rich in technological buzzwords.
    • Keep it short, but sweet. Getting into highly technical stuff only to allow the other person to showcase his knowledge is not what you are here for.
    • Example: ‘You mentioned rendering, will you be using Path Tracing, Bidirectional Path Tracing, or Metropolis light transport, but also semi realistic methods, like Whitted Style Ray Tracing, or hybrids?’
  • Trolling questions:
    • Some men just want to watch the world burn and you in it. Others just want to bring you down to make themselves feel better. Sometimes these people are even in your audience asking questions with an aggressive undertone, blatantly attacking your work.
    • ‘Don’t feed the trolls!’ kind of applies here (unfortunately you can’t pretend you didn’t hear them though…). The quickest way out of it is not to launch a full-scale counter-attack, but to remain polite, composed and elegant. Point out that you’re taking their comment into consideration (say something like ‘thank you for your remark, I’ll look into it’) and keep your answer as short as humanly possible.
    • Example: ‘You’ve just presented work which I have already published in 1983 in Nature and in Science, so I don’t see how your work is relevant and also my method was better and more elegant than yours. Can you comment on this?’

This concludes the second part of my scientific presentation pro tips. I hope this was useful and that you are delivering awesome presentations already. If you’re still new to giving presentations, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day and getting really good at things requires tons of practice. Once again, if you have any more scientific presentation tips or questions, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Scientific Presentation Pro Tips Part 2: The Presentation”

  1. Great post! I especially like the part about question answering, because I typically don’t get a lot of questions (and therefore practice) for that.

    I think there might be a fifth type of questions, “Polite”. This is a mixture of Content and Philosophical, and asked by the chair so that you don’t feel bad there weren’t any real questions 🙁

  2. I would give a lot for these tips in the beginning of my research, especially after graduating from a strict engineering school wherein the content was appreciated much more than the shape. Still I would stress here the importance of the results themselves. When they are really good, originating from your blood and brains, then they are presenting you and not vice versa. Another irrational remark concerns a feeling of energy flowing from inside you to the audience. If that happens be ready for a prize! Success!

    1. Thanks. You’re right of course, if you don’t have good research results to present or it is not truly your research, you can use all the presentation skills in the world and it still will not be a great presentation. I’ve not seen this at conferences yet though, the situation I see more often is a researcher with great work who lacks the presentation skills to deliver it with the respect it deserves.

  3. Also true. That’s why probably conferences are considered as a hard full-time work for responsible people. Thanx for an incredible post anyway 🙂

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