Making a good scientific presentation takes time, but awareness of common mistakes is the first step to improving performance.
Guest contributor David Rubenson
The slide presentation has become the most ubiquitous form of scientific communication and it is causing havoc. Scientists spend enormous amounts of time preparing presentations, travelling to conferences to deliver them, and listening to them almost every day. But most scientists simply aren’t very good at them – we should change that.
I previously argued that this problem underlies a significant communication crisis in research. As I’ve learnt as a scientific presentation coach at Stanford, there’s a broad understanding of this problem, but insufficient incentive for the time-intensive training many scientists need. Still, following simple lists of “dos” and “don’ts” is a great way to improve presentation skills.
In that spirit, and to supplement an earlier list of eight positive suggestions, here’s a David Letterman-like countdown of the 10 biggest pitfalls in creating and delivering a scientific presentation:
- Rushing through all your slides, no matter what
Talking faster is not a good response to time constraints. At a recent talk, after 40 minutes and about 60 complicated slides, the speaker announced that he would have to “speed up to get through all my slides.” He did; it was incomprehensible. Formulate a strategy to deal with time issues.
- Not leaving time for discussion
The key advantage of a slide presentation is getting an audience reaction. Don’t miss this opportunity.
- Not doing dry runs
Always practice with tough, honest critics. Each dry run will unveil problems and you’ll learn to speak more concisely and effectively. You’ll understand which slides, and which parts of slides, are superfluous.
- Not understanding what can (and can’t) be achieved
Don’t overwhelm the audiences with data in an effort to “prove” results. The role of a slide presentation is to tell your story, inspire collaboration, evoke questions, and encourage other scientists to learn more about your work. Leave “proof” to journal articles and replication of results.
- Using journal article graphics
Don’t be lazy and copy journal article graphics into a presentation. The fonts are too small, there are too many graphs on a page, and they divert the audience from the flow of the presentation.
- Trying to surprise the audience
Don’t build toward an unexpected conclusion. Your science is complex, so the audience needs to understand the narrative at the outset. As communication consultants say, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”
- Failing to develop insightful visualisations
Always develop visualisations of raw data that convey the key message. Data tables and other raw forms are fine in a journal article, but they’re incomprehensible in a presentation. Every slide should have an overarching message, supported by your visuals. An interested audience member can always look at your raw data later.
- Not understanding how hard it is to gauge your audience
“Know your audience” is typical advice, but it’s not so easy. Audiences usually have members with varied expertise and you may not know who will attend. Before your talk, define the least-expert audience member you care about reaching. Be sure your overall story and structure would work for that individual, even if some of the details are for experts.
- Failing to put yourself in the audience’s shoes
Most people hate complicated slides, but those same people present them. So what’s going on? People behave and think differently when they’re in the audience and when they’re speaking. The presenter knows what slide is coming up next, what part of the slide is critical, and can read the microscopic fonts. Every slide needs to be evaluated from the perspective of the audience.
And the #1 mistake a presenter can make is
- Thinking a collection of slides is enough
Your 50 slides may allow you to talk for 50 minutes, but that doesn’t mean you have anything to say. Always have an overarching scientific question and narrative. Slides fragment even the most coherent story, so make sure each slide supports the narrative.
Developing an effective presentation can be as difficult as the research that underlies it. But presentations can make an impact on a scientific career and are the key to assembling the multi-disciplinary teams needed to solve the most challenging problems. Start thinking more purposefully about what you are presenting – your audience and your career will thank you.
David Rubenson is the Associate Director for Administration and Strategic Planning at the Stanford University Cancer Institute, where he teaches a class on scientific presentations. He maintains a blog on presentation techniques that you can see here.