Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

The art of presenting

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Fabian Carson, who is a PhD student in the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University, Sweden. If you agree or disagree with anything — or want to share your own presentation tips — let us know in the comments.

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Let’s face it, most presentations are bad: too much information; unreadable fonts; monotonous speaking and poor slide design. It can sometimes be a struggle to follow the speaker through a seminar and some audience members will succumb to sleep. And yet it shouldn’t be this way. A talk should be engaging, informative and motivating. Talks can be good — even spectacular. The TED series demonstrate this (ref. 1). Yet many speakers can’t present well and don’t even realise there is a problem.

Scientific presentations seem to be particularly poor; perhaps because chemistry degrees stress little importance on rhetoric. Instead, the focus — with good reason — is on exams, experiments and coursework. In an age where communication is everything, poor presentation skills are unacceptable (ref. 2).

It’s not only students who struggle to present, but professors too. There has been much focus recently on chemists communicating with non-scientists and the general public (refs 3,4). Yet most chemists can’t even communicate among themselves. How many talks have you attended recently that tick the boxes in Bad Presentation Bingo (pdf link here)? This game was developed by Monica Metzler at the Illinois Science Council to highlight the importance of communication skills in science (ref. 5).

So what is the secret to presenting? Storytelling. At a recent RSC event in London about science communication, the broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis was eager to extol the virtues of storytelling. If you want your audience to listen, you have to connect. Make it personal and tell a story. They are there to be educated and entertained. Of course, it’s not just about jumping around the stage; the content has to be good. But it must be told in a captivating manner.

So how does one prepare, create and deliver an effective and engaging presentation? Start by brainstorming. List the topics, the key points and the main issues. Then filter. You shouldn’t talk about everything. If you want your audience to remember anything, then you need a story and a core message. It can’t just be a random collection of facts. It needs a plot with characters, heroes and villains.

The key to slide design is simplicity (ref. 6). Less is more. Many make the mistake of filling the entire slide with data, words and images. The audience will be overloaded. If something is complex, then build up the slide with animations (but not too many). Don’t be scared to fill the entire slide with one image; space is there for a reason. Chemists are blessed, since we have an incredibly visual language. Crystal structures, molecular orbitals and reaction schemes can be stunning when used appropriately. As for font size, take the age of the oldest audience member and divide by two (or don’t go below 30) (ref. 7). This will stop you including too many words and will enhance your talk because it will force you to select the most important points and explain them well. And avoid using too many bullet points. They may be useful for stating your aims, but slide after slide of bulleted lists will quickly bore your audience. A slide is a canvas, not a word document, so think visually.

You’re not limited to PowerPoint or Keynote. Prezi (ref. 8) is a relatively new cloud-based presentation software that is based on a zooming user interface. The speaker is provided with a map, or virtual canvas, on which to sketch his or her presentation. You can zoom in or out and pan around — similar to Google Earth. This offers a far more lateral perspective rather than the linear progression of classical presentation software. A basic account is free and those with educational email addresses can get an upgraded Prezi license here.

Presenting is closer to acting than writing. Treat it like a theatre. How often does the presenter speak to their slides? Face the audience and connect with them. Make eye contact and speak to everyone, like it’s a personal conversation. Your voice is important. If you want people to listen for longer than 10 minutes, you can’t be monotonous. Of course, we can’t all sound like Sir Michael Gambon, but having a natural, flowing voice helps. If you’re enthusiastic and interested about your subject, your voice will naturally develop.

Finally, we arrive at the biggest killer of all presentations: jargon. Chemistry is filled with jargon. Correct terminology is necessary and useful for explaining specific ideas. But if you want to alienate your audience, use jargon. If you want to reach them, avoid it. Use simple language. At the same time, explain important terminology to the audience — they’re here to be educated, right?

Presenting research results can be difficult and challenging — especially when you haven’t been trained. The science shouldn’t be dumbed down, but it has to be accessible. Content is important — you need to know your topic — but so are style and format. Engage with your audience — challenge them! If you’re creative, informative and motivated, people will enjoy your talks. Above all, tell a story. People want to hear stories.

1. http://www.ted.com/
2. İşsever, Ç. & Peach, K. Presenting Science: A practical guide to giving a good talk (Oxford University Press, New York, 2010). (Amazon link)
3. Hartings, M. R. & Fahy, D. Nature Chem. 3, 674–677 (2011). (Link)
4. Smith, D. K. Nature Chem. 3, 681–684 (2011). (Link)
5. http://illinoisscience.org/docs/badpresentationbingo.pdf
6. Reynolds, G. Presentation Zen 2nd Ed. (New Riders, Berkeley, 2012). (Link)
7. http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2005/12/the_102030_rule.html#axzz25IK1Kx6I
8. http://prezi.com/

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