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How to rock your scientific presentation

Science positive Ph.D. Life
Dieser Inhalt ist nur in der Sprache Englisch vorhanden.

by Elmar Laistler
Photo by: Elmar Laistler

In a related article, you learned about how to get the most out of a scientific conference. Here, you will read about how to successfully get the key message of your research across in a presentation, be it at a scientific conference or elsewhere.

Preparation is key

A lot of work should go in the preparation of your slides or poster, they are the visual cues for your audience and will either help you greatly in bringing your message across – or, if badly done – will distract the audience from what you really want to say.

Here is my personal list of the most important points:

Define and follow “Your Story”. Take your time to think about the main message of your work – this message should be identical to your conclusion at the end of the presentation. Develop a story you can tell getting there – and stick to that story throughout the presentation.

Pay attention to structure. For most presentations it is advisable to follow the classic scientific presentation structure: Title – Introduction/Background – Methods – Results – Discussion – Conclusion – Acknowledgements. Sometimes it is tricky to separate methods and results, in particular if the development of a method is actually part of the result. In such a case, try to make it as easily understandable for the audience as possible.

Keep it clean and simple. Keep your slides as clean and simple as possible. You should critically question every single character and image on each slide and ask yourself: is this word really necessary for conveying the main message of the slide, or will it be sufficient to mention it while talking? Remove meaningless filling words and don’t write full sentences – this distracts your audience from following your talk. Use bullet points wherever appropriate. Don’t use fancy effects such as jumping or rotating text, and keep animations to a minimum in general.

Create high quality visuals. Avoid overly complicated graphs and remove unnecessary lines, text, or data. JPG artefacts, blur, screenshots from texts with red zigzag lines from orthography correction are a no-go. Make sure the text labels are big enough and line graphs are thick enough to be visible on a projector and from far away. Stick to a predefined color scheme, use consistent fonts and font sizes for the different text levels (headings, subheadings, normal text). Use the alignment tools to position your text and graphics.

Design your posters. Traditional paper posters have become rare in the past years and are more and more replaced by “e-posters” or digital posters, that are quite similar to the slides for a talk. Therefore, pretty much the same preparation rules as above apply. In a digital poster, you can add a bit more of written explanatory detail, that you would only give orally during a talk. Traditional posters usually contain more text and can be quite similar to the abstract you submitted before the conference. Take care to use high quality graphics, nicely arrange your images and text to avoid overcrowding or blank holes in the overall layout.

Anticipate questions. For oral presentations and poster presentations alike, there is room for questions by the audience. Try to slip into different types of audience and ask yourself what they might be interested in – on top of what you already showed in your presentation. Ask yourself these questions from the perspectives of different prior knowledge levels. Ideally, you will leave room for the questions you want to get and intercept critical questions in advance by including the respective answers faithfully in your Discussion section.

Perform a last check. At the conference, be sure to have uploaded your presentation in time, as indicated by the conference organizers. Usually you can view your presentation in the “speaker preview center”, check for layout/font changes due to software version differences, and verify if your videos work.

"Define and follow “Your Story”. Take your time to think about the main message of your work."

Elmar Laistler Associate Professor at MedUni Vienna's Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering

Speaking in public

Depending on your personality, speaking in front of a big audience can be quite intimidating. So, here are some recommendations on how to overcome this feeling.

Quite some time ago, I stumbled over a really helpful article about different preparation methods for giving a speech in public, which I found quite amusing to read. In a nutshell, it describes three approaches:

  1. Wing it
  2. Talk through a set structure
  3. Follow an exact script
    1. Read off a script
    2. Just barely memorized
    3. Happy-birthday-level memorized

The happy birthday recital (approach 3c). For your first talks or really scary presentation settings like a big plenary lecture or your PhD defense, I highly recommend preparing your presentation word by word and then practicing it until the audience does not notice you are actually reciting a set text – just as naturally as you can recite the text of “happy birthday” when woken up in the middle of the night. When writing the script, read it out loud and make sure it sounds like natural spoken language rather than like a lexicon entry. This is time-consuming in preparation, but will give you confidence when you are on stage.

Structured free speaking (approach 2). When you are more experienced, speaking freely but holding on to the structure given in your slides is the best choice – you will need much less preparation, and it will still sound natural and interesting for your audience. Use individual words or graphics in your presentation as milestones for your speech.

Don’ts (approaches 1, 3a/b). I would definitely keep my hands off the other options, nothing is more boring for the audience than a speaker obviously reading a text to the slides (3a) or loosing track of the text in the middle of a sentence (3b). “Winging it” (1) is typically not possible for scientific conferences, since you will be asked to prepare slides.

Stick to the time limit. An often encountered mistake is improper timing. Time slots in scientific sessions are short and usually strictly enforced by the moderators. It rarely happens that your presentation is too short, so focus on reducing your content to the most important points. Rushing over slides, skipping slides, or having the moderator remind you of the time during your presentation is unprofessional and unpleasant for yourself and the audience.

Practice your talk. Test your talk in front of your colleagues and get their feedback – they will help you identify weaknesses in your argumentation or structure. In addition, either imagine or really give the talk to your spouse/parents/grandparents/friends that have nothing to do with your research. Often their feedback (or your imagination of it) is a great indicator whether you are following a convincing story or not.

The first sentence. I found it useful to pay most attention to memorizing the very first sentence of your presentation – this gives you something to hold on to and overcome the first awe when standing in front of many people.

Be confident. If you followed all points above, you should have already gained quite some confidence by the thorough preparation. In addition, although it might be intimidating to know that many in your audience will be knowledgeable about your topic, remember that you know best what you did in your work!