Respectful Insolence

Short scientific talks for dummies

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I’m reprinting a number of “Classic Insolence” posts to keep the blog active while I’m gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I’m guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts.) These will appear at least twice a day while I’m gone (and that will probably leave some leftover for Christmas vacation, even). Enjoy, and please feel free to comment. I will be checking in from time to time when I have Internet access to see if the reaction to these old posts here on ScienceBlogs is any different from what it was when they originally appeared, and, blogging addict that I am, I’ll probably even put up fresh material once or twice.

As readers know, I had to give a rather big talk at a national meeting (big for me, anyway). Fortunately, it went well. In fact, I was inspired to write rare brief followup to my career advice to young scientists (not rare for being a followup but rare for my actually being brief), in which I recommended doing whatever it takes to get good at public speaking. So, without further ado, here are a few words of wisdom for giving 10-15 minute scientific presentations, learned over 15 years of giving these presentations. (As I’m still at the meeting, the very fact that I’m blogging should be an indication that there isn’t much to do around here, and for some reason, none of my friends here wanted to do anything tonight–leaving me in the hotel room to write this.) So, here it are some of my tips:

  1. Pace yourself for approximately one slide per minute. This is not a hard-and-fast rule and depends on the content of the slide. If, for example, the slide is a one-liner or just a picture that needs little comment, then you don’t need a minute (or even 15 seconds). However, if it’s a data-dense, information-dense slide you might need way more than a minute to march through it. However, in general, a good rule of thumb is that it all averages out to around one minute per slide. So, if you have 30 slides for a 12-minute talk, you have a problem.
  2. Be utterly brutal in editing your slides. There should be no more than two figures or five lines of text on a slide. Any slide that is not absolutely essential to telling your story should be eliminated with prejudice.
  3. Don’t just read off of your slides. The audience can read them well enough and doesn’t need you to do it for them. Use them as a guide? Yes. Read them verbatim? No.
  4. Control yourself and don’t speak too fast. If you’re afraid of public speaking, or very nervous, there is a natural tendency to talk faster in order to get it over with faster. Avoid this temptation. You don’t want to sound rushed or nervous, even if you are nervous and do want to rush. (This was one of the most difficult tendencies I had to overcome; I still do it occasionally–but fortunately not at this talk.)
  5. On the other hand, don’t talk too slowly, or you may find yourself coming up against the time clock and risking having your microphone turned off (unless, of course, you are an influential member of the society, in which case you can drone on as long as you want). Either that, or you may put your audience to sleep. What you want to aim for is a nice, natural, conversational pace.
  6. Practice your talk. Practice it at least 5 times, paying special attention to whether or not you can finish it in the time allotted. (It’s very difficult to summarize many months–or even a couple of years–of your life’s work in 10 minutes.) Practicing it 10 times is better. It’s only a 10 minute talk, so you should be able to practice it 10 times in 2-3 hours easily. A lot of practice will assure that you won’t freeze or have a brain fart and forget what you wanted to day. It will also make it easier to recover from equipment malfunctions, should they occur, as you will be so familiar with your material that you can continue even without the slides as the AV tech guys scramble to fix the problem.
  7. No jokes. There’s almost never time for them in a 10-15 minute talk anyway; every minute spent telling a joke is a minute you can’t present your data. (If you’re giving a 45-60 minute talk, that’s another thing entirely.)
  8. No cutesy slides or cutesy pictures on data slides.
  9. Thank the audience and/or the society hosting the meeting.
  10. Thank your mentors/collaborators, the workers in your lab, etc.
  11. Don’t clutch the podium as though you are on a ship in a hurricane
  12. Look at your audience as much as possible. Minimize your looking at the slides or the monitors. At national meetings these days, there is usually a monitor for you to see your slides, and the actual screens are parallel to you, so that you can’t see them very well even if you try.
  13. If there’s a spotlight on you (as there was on me), it’s disconcerting to realize that you can’t really see the audience very well at all. In these cases, just look in the direction of the audience and scan over where you think they are.
  14. Avoid the temptation to keep revising at the last minute. Get the slides ready to your satisfaction at least the night before, if not sooner. Fiddling with them too late will only mess you up.

All of these are simply tips I’ve found useful. I’m sure my readers can provide more if they’re so inspired. In fact, I may submit these to Tangled Bank.

This post appeared originally on the old blog on March 5, 2005.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    August 31, 2006

    Good points. Let me add a resounding “huzzah!” to number 8, in particular.

    I just recently gave an eighteen-minute talk at the sixth International Conference on Complex Systems. This was enough time for a twenty-second one-liner I used to illustrate a key point, but I certainly wouldn’t have gone for any longer joke.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    September 1, 2006

    To amplify on #2, do not put any content on a slide that you do not intend to explain. It will only serve as a distraction.

  3. #3 Samantha Vimes
    September 2, 2006

    If you are going to be doing presentations often, or just want to improve your speaking, check out a local chapter of Toastmasters International.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.