Do's and Don'ts of Presenting Research in a Seminar

One day you will go up to the podium and give a lecture about your studies. Scary, isn't it?
While it might be a frightening experience, delivering a lecture in front of an audience is an important skill that every student and scientist should nurture and improve as much as possible.

First remember the purposes for which you give your lecture:

  • Showcase your work
  • Discuss your research with colleagues
  • Receive critical feedback on your work
  • Training

What you should DO?

  • Prepare ahead – sounds obvious, right? Amazing how many people postpone their slide and material preparation to the last minute as if they are postponing a torture session. Taking the time ahead (i.e. at least two weeks ahead) will enable you to build a solid presentation and rehearse it (see below).
  • Limit slides number – How much time do you have? 15 minutes or a full hour with question session? Plan accordingly with the aim to limit your slides to between one slide per 1-2 minutes, depending on your tendency to talk (later on that later).
  • Choose your most exciting topic – if you have several projects I would go for the one that most excites you. Recruit this excitement to engage your audience. Most will remember your presentation even if the data presented is limited. The "how" is much more important than the "what".
  • Write a script – Prepare a text of what do you want to say at each slide. It'll help you capture quite quickly how much time you need for every slide.
  • Tell a story - A presentation is basically telling a story (hopefully an interesting one!). A story can make your talk interesting and captivating so think how to approach the audience in such a way that will draw them and keep them fascinated rather than nodding down with their head bowed.
  • Practice, practice and…practice – Yeah, practice. And not in your head. Run the slides in full screen, stand up and start telling your story in a clear voice as you would do in front of an audience. It's not such fun, at first, but as you repeat the practice you will find the confidence and the slides will flow without the need to read from them all the time. When you think you're ready, practice one more time, and then, give a lecture in front of your friends/spouse.
  • Prepare for the question session – People will ask you questions, even if they found your  topic boring partly out of courtesy,  or because they want to show off their cleverness. Either way, analyze your presentation and locate its weak points, areas where the data is not strong enough or your motivation is not clear enough. Plan what and how to answer each question, it will make you sweat less behind the podium.

What you SHOULDN'T do?

  • Stand still & talk in monotone – You want people to listen to your talk right? Being idle is a good way to make people go to sleep, especially after lunch time in a dark auditorium with the heater on. Walking a bit to this or that side of the stage, changing the tone of your speech to highlight a point or generate tension can make a difference. Look at people's eyes, talk to them, and convince them your story is interesting.
  • Use a wide variety of slide colors – Visual aids are important in presentation because our eyes are the most powerful sensing tool we've got. Make the best to keep the same slide background for all slides, make them a pleasant color and limit your font's color gamut to 2-3 options. You are not promoting a circus, right?
  • Talk too much/ slow/ fast – Either one of these will make your audience either move uneasily in their chairs or worse, go to sleep. Make sure you're talking to the point, at a normal pace (ask friends/colleagues for this feedback).
  • Tell your new joke – Humor can break the ice, recharge interest and make people engaged. However, use humor wisely and according to the atmosphere. You can plan a place to insert a humorous comment, but if you feel people are already engaged you might want to pass it. You're presenting a scientific talk not stand-up comedy.

Do you have additional tips for giving a lecture in a departmental seminar?