5 Tips: How to Present Your Research and Live to Hear the Applause

Over the last few months, the friendly staff at Labguru has been out and about, with attendance at various prestigious conferences, including AACR, EB, and AAI's Immunology2012, with an upcoming appearance at the ASM 2012 conference in San Francisco, CA.  In addition to interacting with scientists and helping them learn about and improve their efficiency with our research and lab management system, it’s an opportunity to listen to seminars and talks across a diverse range of fields and disciplines.  Having seen it all—the interesting, the good, the bad, the boring and everything in between—we want to help our readers and clients prepare the very best seminars whether for a conference or group meeting.  And if you feel that giving talks isn’t necessarily your greatest strength, don’t fret, you are not alone.  A recent Science magazine article lamented that even the science advisor to the President of the United States of America gives boring lectures. Giving a great seminar or lecture isn’t elusive or impossible.

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It comes down to several basic principles that anyone can work on and improve, regardless of their field or skill set:

1.  Start with a smart PowerPoint presentation

Your PowerPoint presentation is the make or break aspect of your talk.  It will be both the focal point of attention throughout your talk as well as your audience’s sole source of visual information.  Avoid certain basic mistakes that can doom your seminar before it’s even begun.  Use bright background slide colors that will make text easy to see and will keep people awake.  If you must use a darker color, consider a gradient, or a vibrant color like blue or green.  Limit text on slides to only minimal, key talking points, using pictures and/or figures as much as possible to convey ideas.  Finally, adhere to the Golden Rule of PowerPoint slides:  approximately one slide per minute of your talk.  If your talk is 15 minutes, DO NOT try to cram 25 slides’ worth of information.  Likewise, if you languish 25 slides into a 45-minute talk, your audience will quickly fall asleep.  Microsoft provides some great tips and guidelines for preparing better PowerPoint presentations.

2.  Keep the content exciting and compact

While we applaud your passion for every remote aspect of your research project, remember as you are preparing your talk that not everyone will share it, even if you’re at a conference solely dedicated to your expertise.  People at conferences will take in so many talks and posters that they become unable to absorb too much information.  Pick the most important takeaway points of your discovery, its larger-scale impact, and how it will influence future directions in your work.  Try to have your audience leave having learned one or two things they didn’t know from your lecture, and it will be a success!

3.  Elocution and delivery matter

We’ve all had to endure the conference nightmare at one time or another:  the 30-minute monotone drone, a talk so quiet even the front row can’t hear it, or the person who is literally tripping over every word so much that you question whether even they know their subject matter.  Nothing will make the content of your presentation matter less than a poor delivery.  Remember to keep eye contact with the audience, only occasionally looking down at your notes, if you have them.  (Notecard tip:  Print out talking points in large-block letters so they are easy to read when you glance down.)  Project a large, clear voice so the back row of the room can hear you, and speak with a comfortable rhythm that doesn’t feel either too rushed or too slow.  If you are more soft-spoken, borrow a microphone from the conference or symposium organizers.  Finally, if you feel uncertain about your speaking skills, practice with a labmate or even a family member.  Give your seminar as a group meeting and ask for feedback.  In a greater context, consider taking a public speaking or communications course at your university to gain confidence.

4.  Express enthusiasm for your research and it will rub off on the audience

My graduate school advisor, a very famous California chemist with multiple side business ventures, was and is notorious for catching up on much-needed sleep during group seminars.  So imagine my shock when he not only stayed away through my 4th year hour seminar, but also asked for a copy of the PowerPoint slides!  What was my great secret?  Nothing more than sincere enthusiasm for the subject matter.  If you think expression levels of p53 in C. elegans knockout worms is the most fascinating thing in the world, show it, and tell the audience why.  You’d be surprised how engaged an audience can be if you make your work and results sound as fun and exciting as you think they are.

5.  Tell a great story

In his terrific University Affairs Magazine post about ways to energize lectures, Professor Dalton Kehoe talks about the central importance of telling a great story.  If you think science lacks great storytelling or creativity, you should read our latest post about misconceptions of the field.  Conveying a great discovery is all about storytelling, albeit with more technical terminology.  Start with a beginning, a middle and an end.  Introduce your research and why it’s important in a greater scientific context.  Talk about some of the stumbling blocks and experiments that led to the discovery, and, because science lacks a “the end,” the future directions of your research.  Always leave enough time afterwards for a Q & A.  With this simple framework, along with our tips above, you should be able to prepare a memorable, informative seminar that will leave everyone applauding and talking.

Tell us what you think of our seminar tips in the comment section below. And if you're at ASM in San Francisco later in June, by all means, come say hello!