Scientific Presentation Pro Tips Part 1: The Preparation

In this post I’d like to give you some scientific presentation tips to present your research well. Over the years as a student and now PhD candidate I’ve given many a presentation and had many a course on giving good presentations. In my first couple of presentations I was a complete nervous wreck and could barely breathe, later on this ‘evolved’ into smiling during the entire presentation combined with (bad) improvisational jokes and now I can even state I actually look forward to preparing and giving presentations. I’d have to say the course I’ve learnt the most from was definitely ‘The Art of Presenting Science’ by the awesome Gijs Meeusen and his team, so some of the tips I’m writing about, I picked up there. I cannot recommend this course enough, so do try and take it somewhere if you’re able to. If you’re not, I believe Veronika will do a nice write up about this course at some point (edit:Β She did and it’s glorious! Check it out here!)Β . This post will describe phase one in the presentation giving process: the preparation. Whether you’re presenting for your research group, at a conference or elsewhere, always be prepared πŸ™‚

The Preparation

Here’s a typical preparation situation that I experienced more often than I care to admit. One day before your presentation you start realizing it’s probably a good time to prepare your presentation. So you fire up the old Powerpoint, make some slides, preferably by harvesting content from whatever slides you already have laying around and Frankensteining them together into a monstrous new presentation that potentially fills the time allotted to you properly. Read those once or twice and you’re done! During your talk you are as surprised by the slides and their order as the audience is, making for a great and lasting impression on your audience members. Here’s tip number one: stop doing that!

The following approach takes more time, but makes for way better presentations. Start working on your presentation as early as you can. Even if you have presented the same material elsewhere before, you’ll probably have a new audience to address this time. Always keep your audience in mind, using questions like: Who are these people? What do they want from this presentation? What is relevant and interesting to them? What is their knowledge level?. Keep the other speakers (if any) in mind as well, what are they presenting? Make sure you don’t present the same thing or are able to somehow relate the topics in your presentation. Now take a closer look at the content of the topic you want to present: What is the problem I’m solving? Why should the audience care? What do I want the audience to take home from this? How can I explain this in the clearest way possible? Once you’ve answered all of this, then and only then, you can start to think about making slides.

Presentation Paths

Once you’re ready for the next step in your preparation, think about the approach you’re going to take. The way I see it, there are basically two paths before you. The first path consists of a well-explored completely straight highway that most scientists take. It involves structuring your presentation in the way millions have done before you: overview, introduction, related work, method, results, future work, conclusion and discussion or a small variation on this theme. The reason this road is used so often is that it works and is an easy structure to use. It is also really clear to the audience and they will completely expect everything that is presented to them. This is also the major drawback of this path, it has the potential to completely bore audience members out of their minds in a quick and orderly fashion, causing them to zone out and think about what they’ll be having for dinner later.

The road less traveled consists of a muddy trail through a dark mountain forest, with twists and turns, steep climbs and descents. This path involves presenting your scientific work as an actual story, including all the traditional storytelling ingredients. All good stories have certain key phases in common (here’s an example). To do this, you have to rethink your scientific work and fit it to these phases appropriately. This is challenging, but if done correctly makes for very interesting presentations that will keep audience members absolutely enthralled throughout the presentation. It can feel like quite the risk to stray from the traditional path of presenting scientific work, but the rewards if successful are also greater: the audience will be attentive, drawn into your story and will remember your presentation, your message and you. The major drawback here as that you really need to make sure your presentation doesn’t become too chaotic and that everything is explained very well, because if you lose them at some point it can be quite tough to jump back into the story.

Slides and Sensibility

I’m sure we’ve all seen some bad presentation slides at some point in our lives, slides that contain oodles of unreadable text, bullet point items that aren’t really related to each other, meaningless, but complicated looking graphs and in that same category: slides full of complicated math that serves no purpose other than impressing the audience. That’s not how we roll of course, but I still have some tips for creating slides that will support your story rather than distract and bore the audience away from it:

  • Keep them simple: don’t write out everything you plan to say or you’ll have audience members reading that instead of listening to you and becoming bored with you and your wall of text quite quickly. Just a couple of keyword summaries is really all you need.
  • Images/videos > text: pretty pictures do speak a thousand words (or more). When appropriate use strong imagery to support what you are saying instead of text. In my field of computer scientists, I always like including some surgical pictures to keep them on their toes πŸ˜‰
  • Slide-speed: get to know your personal presentation slide-speed. What I mean by this is how long you present per slide. I know that I typically take 1 minute per slide (rather fast), so if I need to give a 15 minute presentation, I’ll need to prepare 15 good slides.
  • If you need math in there, make sure to introduce it slowly and clearly. Be gentle, because the wall of math is an even faster route to audience zoning out than the wall of text is.
Audience member's brain on mathematical equation slides: 'Hmmm.... Lasagna or stir-fried vegetables with rice?'
Audience member’s brain on mathematical equation slides: ‘Hmmm…. Lasagna or stir-fried vegetables with rice?’

Rehearsal

The final phase of a good preparation involves rehearsing your presentation. Everyone has their own personal preference for this. Some people like to rehearse out loud beforehand for instance. If I do this my presentation will come out robotic and scripted, lacking in spontaneity and emotion, so I never do. I do have mental rehearsal sessions though. I just sit (or stand πŸ˜‰ ) behind my pc start up the presentation (and time it) and present the work in my thoughts. I pay special attention to the transitions between slides (I’m not talking about the animations, just the content switches) to make sure I have a smooth verbal bridge between them. The first time you’ll do this, note the parts where you trip up and take care of them. This mental rehearsal makes sure I don’t throw out anything too random during the actual presentation, because I’ve had the opportunity to let these surface during rehearsal. It also reduces the chance of getting stuck at any point in your presentation.

This concludes part 1 of my scientific presentation tips. In part 2 I’ll get into the actual presentation giving, which is (after a good preparation) the fun part πŸ™‚ If you have any personal scientific presentation tips, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Scientific Presentation Pro Tips Part 1: The Preparation”

  1. I like this topic because it took me years of unguided practice to arrive at a similar concept. Yet I don’t time my rehearsal and carry on with it until I get a clear feeling of readiness. That might take an hour per one run.. and usually I do 2-3 runs. A bit too long compared with the required 15 mins? That’s natural for training: just recall all those long slow sequences of fine moves in the martial arts.. In my most scientific presentations I include a few basic formulas not only for better clarity but also because of a law of genre. Sure, the amount of efforts depends on motivation. Respect!

    1. Thanks! Also for the great tip on taking more time per run in preparation than the actual presentation length to really work on the details. And yes, of course math is perfectly fine if it is used correctly πŸ™‚ Some people decide to use the power of math for evil, unfortunately ^^.

  2. Great post and thanks for thinking of me πŸ™‚ I will do my best with the post, as you see I already failed to keep to my posting schedule last week πŸ™

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