Career Advice

Cultivating Your Scientific Presentation Skills

Kelly Boatright

One of the most important skills a researcher can cultivate is the ability to effectively present research results to the scientific community. It is important to note that this is a “skill,” rather than a “talent.” The ability to give a great presentation can be learned, and developing your scientific presentation skills should be one of your top goals during graduate school. It will serve as a key to landing a job in industry, academia, or a nontraditional job down the road, and it will help you make the most of your opportunities throughout your career.

Here are some of the best practices I learned throughout my years as a graduate student and postdoc. Although your own unique presentation style will evolve naturally, the following principles ought to provide some solid guidelines in the meantime.

Don’t Be Afraid To Break With Chronology To Tell the Story

When you begin preparing your presentation, your first instinct may be to revisit your lab notebooks and develop slides mirroring the order in which you obtained your results and arrived at your conclusion. Instead, stop to reflect on your purpose. What is the most important aspect of your presentation? What is the point or story you want to convey to your audience? Considering that, as well as your audience’s level of familiarity with your topic, ask yourself how you can explain your research project in the clearest manner possible. Sometimes the last experiment you performed may belong in one of your first slides as a way to help explain your results to your audience.

Avoid the Data Dump

People enjoy presentations they understand, which is why it is crucial for you to limit the amount of data in your talk, presenting only what is critical to following your story line. You can accomplish this by evaluating each piece of data in your presentation as if you were not familiar with the topic. This will enable you to decide whether or not it helps you tell your story. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. If you think someone may ask to see the data you are removing, put it in your slide queue after the “Acknowledgements” slide.  That way, if anyone raises the question, you will have the data ready to show where you can find it, but it will not interfere with your presentation’s flow.

Great Places To Hone Your Presentation Skills

  • ACS National Meetings        
  • Local Section Meetings
  • Regional Meetings   
  • Science Cafes
  • Division Meetings

Limit the Amount on Display

No matter how sharp your audience, they can only focus on one thing at a time. On any given slide, show only the amount of data they can assimilate easily while you are speaking. Rather than displaying a single slide with all 50 steps of your synthesis or 5 Western blots, start with a smaller chunk of data. This might consist of the first 5 steps of your synthesis, or 2 lanes from your Western. Once you have properly explained this information, then you can use animation (please see warning below) to bring the rest of your schematic or data onto the screen. Alternatively, you can move onto the next slide.

Use Animation Wisely

Tasteful use of animation can provide a powerful tool for helping your audience understand your data. However, if poorly used, animation detracts from your talk just as much. Your audience should be thinking about your information, not your effects. Keep it subtle. At a minimum, avoid presenting figures that swirl or fly in from offscreen. Another thing to consider when you are setting up animation is whether it can help you emphasize some of your ideas more effectively than a pointer might. If you are practicing your presentation and find yourself using a pointer to highlight a particular piece of data, think about editing your slide to use animation, color, or a simple bold font to accomplish the same thing in a more engaging way. Pointers have their place, but they, too, must be used judiciously. It can be helpful to hold your pointer by your side and plan in advance when to raise it to the screen.

The next time you enjoy a talk, think about what you liked about the presentation, then try to incorporate some of those elements into your next lecture...

Know Your Audience

Pretend you are talking to your mother. This might be an oversimplication, but the way audiences received my talks improved drastically once I took this advice from a senior researcher. It is not safe to assume that every member of your audience is an expert in your scientific niche. When you are planning your presentation, think about the general level of expertise in your audience. Always strive to put your research project in context for them during your introduction, and briefly explain any terms or techniques that are unique to your field as you go through your talk.

Practice!

You ought to practice your talk several times by yourself beforehand. While you are doing this, make an effort to memorize the key points you want to convey with each slide; if necessary, ensure that you have some reminder embedded in the slide. This way, you can avoid the mistake of advancing to your next slide, only to realize that you did not properly set the stage for it. Another key to a good presentation is practicing it in front of another human being so he or she can provide you with feedback. It is ideal to ask for input both from someone familiar with your research and from a scientist from another field, as they will share different perspectives.

Finish on Time

While practicing, time your talk to ensure that you do not run over your scheduled slot. People appreciate it when a talk ends a few minutes early, leaving ample time for questions and keeping the program on schedule. Conversely, it shows a lack of respect for your audience and those scheduled to speak after you to run long.

Dress for Success

You should always own at least one professional outfit to wear whenever you are invited to make a public presentation. You do not have to purchase a fancy suit—a simple but tasteful professional outfit will suffice. For women, consider wearing a simple style with basic lines and solid color combinations. Navy, white, black, khaki, and brown are good colors to choose from. Avoid overusing loud colors. For men, a white or light blue shirt (with a collar), khaki or dress pants, and a tie are acceptable (with or without a jacket).

Mind Your Manners

Your presentation should always include an acknowledgement slide, and it is a good idea to specifically acknowledge and thank individual lab members or collaborators who provided data or guidance that helped propel your project to a successful conclusion. This only takes a few moments, but it really shows those individuals that you value their contributions.

Learn From Others

You can also learn a lot about the art of making scientific presentations through regularly attending research talks. Although it may be difficult to pry yourself away from the bench, going to talks is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the exposure to different presentation styles the speakers offer. The next time you enjoy a talk, think about what you liked about the presentation, then try to incorporate some of those elements into your next lecture. Style, a cohesive storyline, and a polished delivery can make a lasting positive impression.