Scientific culture and insufficient training in public speaking leads to dull, text-heavy talks. Put more effort into presentations, say Andrew Gaudet and Laura Fonken
As postdocs with a combined 20 years of experience in neuroscience research, we’ve attended hundreds of talks and delivered dozens of presentations. We’ve realized it is imperative to perform your best every time you present — whether at a weekly meeting or at a job interview.
Your preparation and organization will help the audience understand your main points, and this professionalism will boost your reputation, which could lead to further opportunities. Ultimately, a presentation is one of the ways of influencing how others perceive your science and your competence. Here, we’ve put together some ideas for creating polished presentations.
Building your presentation
Think like your audience
Identify your audience: are they expert researchers in your field? Undergraduates? Non-scientists? When speaking to experts, you should focus less on background and more on data.
When presenting to non-scientists, speak more broadly about your interests without boring anyone with highly detailed data. Tailor your talk to your audience.
Start with an outline and stay focused
Clarify from the start what you’ll cover: if the audience remembers one or two points from your presentation, what should they be? The very best presentations we’ve attended have been focused, effectively paced, and on time. To achieve this, carefully refine your presentation’s story arc. Maintaining this focus will empower your audience, and will potently reinforce your main point.
Use repeated slide templates
Slide templates provide invaluable guideposts to re-orient the audience. First, outline slides, re-used throughout the talk, remind the audience about the flow of your presentation. Second, anchor slides can integrate concepts at the end of a section and/or the conclusion of your presentation. By bringing up an anchor slide at the end of each section, you can highlight an important concept and reinforce with information for the audience. For example, Laura uses a schematic of a microglial cell that she builds on as new data are revealed.
Limit words; use visuals!
Avoid Death by PowerPoint: That dreaded presentation where the presenter reads off slide after slide after slide after slide, each with more words than a copy of War and Peace. Use images (and a few words when you need them).
Think about pathways or flow charts. If you do have slides with words: enlarge the font and aim to limit each sentence to one line. You should be describing information verbally in enough detail that words on your slide are more-or-less unnecessary.
Optimize your scientific delivery
Hypothesis slides are a must. For methods and timelines, visuals can help clarify. Simplify results by presenting only the most important data points. Distill your paper’s bar graph into the important bits — don’t just copy-and-paste. To emphasise, consider animating data points to guide the eye.
Use the “Slide Sorter” PowerPoint view to understand the big picture
The Slide Sorter view in PowerPoint is ideal for re-ordering the presentation or removing unnecessary slides. It can also highlight if your slides are too text heavy. For a physical equivalent, use sticky notes (one per slide) to map out the presentation from the start.
Engaging your audience
Emphasize your two main points
As mentioned above, you’ve built your presentation around one or two key points. This is so important, we’ve said it twice.
Dress for success
Clean off and spiff up for your presentation. It will put you – and your audience – in the correct mindset before you even say a word. When determining how dressed up you should be, consider your audience: is this a casual local meeting or an international conference? If you’re still not sure about attire, err on the side of being overdressed.
Never express uncertainty at the start your talk; rather, maintain a positive tone
When nervous, it is tempting to make excuses or act negatively. As a graduate student, Andrew began a Journal Club presentation by apologizing for being underprepared; he was immediately chastised by an attending professor for being unnecessarily negative. If you begin with an unconstructive statement, people will immediately view you with a critical eye. Instead, stay upbeat and project confidence.
Looking constantly down, at the computer, or at the projector screen are presentation killers. The presenter must look up and engage the audience while presenting. Ideally, look at people at the back of the room – or at the back of the room itself.
Use your laser pointer effectively
If using a laser pointer, do not overuse it to the point of distraction. If you’re pointing at a slide, you’re not looking at and engaging your audience.
Speak slowly and modulate your voice
Nervous presenters may speak more quickly or use a monotone voice. Another common issue is upspeak – rising intonation at the end of sentences – which projects an air of insecurity. These problems can lead the audience to become disengaged or disinterested. Practice speaking more slowly, and shifting your voice in an engaging manner that flows with the presentation – when you want your audience to be excited about your big result, you should sound excited too.
The star of the presentation is not your slides – it is YOU
In a good presentation, the audience focuses on the presenter – not their slides. Presentation slides should not be used as a crutch; they’re just a reference for the speaker. This may be uncomfortable, but confidence will develop with practice. To hone your mannerisms, practice in the mirror or using videos.
Overall, we’ve recognized that creating polished presentations requires practice. Your goal is to create an engaging presentation that is well balanced, on time, and tailored for the audience. Putting effort into presentation structure and performance will ensure that your delivery is effective. This effort will pay off: your audience will be left with a lasting impact that could bring opportunities years later.
Andrew and Laura are postdocs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Andrew has taught five courses and studies neuroinflammation and regeneration after nervous system trauma. Laura explores the relationship between neuroinflammation, circadian rhythms, and aging. Both are putting their presentation expertise to the test on the job market.