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Thursday, April 14, 2011

After attending a conference a couple months ago and being forced to sit through some pretty bad presentations, I had in mind to discuss the importance of grad students learning how to put together and deliver a good presentation. This skill is critical and I can't believe how many scientists struggle with presentations.  I know it's tough and I know when you're nervous it is easy to forget some things you wanted to say. But there are ways of making your presentation easier for your audience to understand, and make it so it triggers reminders for you, so when the nerves come in, you don't forget what you wanted to say.

My most recent experience really highlighted this problem because as soon as the speaker was done, a man behind me raised his hand to ask a question. He said, "I COULDN'T HEAR A WORD YOU SAID AND I CAN'T READ ANY OF YOUR SLIDES!" He was pissed off. I was too, but I wasn't going to stand up in a room of 100 people and yell at the speaker.  But it was true. So many things were wrong in every talk presented.

Honestly, if I pay several hundred dollars to attend a conference and I get up at 7 am to make your 8 am talk (which is waking up at 4 am for me on west coast time), and I get to the room, and now I sit through what seems to be a totally unprepared presentation? I'm not a happy girl. At the very least, be prepared. Every talk was too long. No one had readable slides. All the speakers spoke too fast and were too quiet. And the data they did show was poorly explained.

So yeah, come on now. Part of your Ph.D. experience is giving talks. Learn how to do this well. It will be worth the time and anxiety to force yourself to give a few extra presentations as practice for when you are invited to speak at a big conference one day. You want to make a good impression, right?

There are several blog articles around that really address the do's and don'ts of presentations. I've listed them here for you.

Check out:

Noob's First Talk by The Hermitage

Your First Presentation by The Adventures of Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar

What Makes a Great Scientific Talk? by the atavism

When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention by Finite Attention Span

These posts cover quite a bit of the information I wanted to give you.

Regardless, I'll give you a list of the top problems I am seeing when I am watching people speak live about their work. These are some of my own rules for presentations and problems that I often see when I go to talks.

1. Make sure that you designed your talk for the time alloted. If it is a 30 minute talk, DO NOT try to squeeze 40 slides of information into that time. Plan accordingly. Going over the time shows that you didn't prepare for your talk by designing it specifically for that meeting and it is disrespectful to the speakers who have to go after you now who have less time because you didn't take the time to design a 30 minute talk.  And there is no way you can do a good job explaining the data when rushing through that many slides.

2. Make sure people can read the slides. Don't cram too much data on one slide so that the writing is so small, no one can see the X and Y axis on graphs or the legend. If people can't see the data, I guarantee, they are going to start doodling, or playing with their phone.  It is better to make the data visible on the slide and show less data than to try and cram it all on one slide and not see it.

3. If it is unavoidable that the writing is too small to be seen on the slide, then you must tell your audience what they are looking at. Don't just start babbling about your results without explaining the figure that no one can see.  Tell the audience what they are looking at before you make conclusions. Tell them what the question was and then how the data answers the question.

4. If you decided to use a dark background on your slides, the writing needs to be only white or bright yellow. DO NOT use colors like purple, red, or anything else on a black background. When the lights are out and the slide is expanded on a large background, you can't see it. No one can see what it says. It blends. How frustrating for the speaker and the audience to be in a seminar and not even be able to read the slide at all.

After you've finished preparing the presentation, go into a conference room and pull your talk up, turn off the lights and stand in the back. Make sure everything looks good and is easy to see.

5. Even if your talk is at a conference where everyone knows your field well, or a departmental seminar and you think everyone is at the same level of knowledge, still explain the data thoroughly. You cannot assume that everyone can look at a qPCR image or flow cytometry data and immediately know what it is saying about your question.  For each data slide, explain:

a) What was the question being asked or that this data was trying to answer (ex. We wanted to know if expression of the NFkb gene was upregulated in cells treated with drug so we performed RT-qPCR.)

b) What the experiment is and the conditions (ex. In this experiment, we used a dual-labeled probe assay for NFkb in cells treated with increasing amounts of drug. We used the GAPDH gene to normalize the data between replicates.)

c) What are we looking at (ex. The concomitant decrease in Ct value with increasing drug is shown by the curves here and here. We see that expression of NFkb was upregulated 100 fold in the presence of drug as demonstrated by the 6 cycle decrease. )

d) Conclusions for the figure (ex. NFkb expression peaks with moderate doses of drug but then is down-regulated at doses that cause cell death. We conclude that...)

6. Slide transitions are important for the flow and for keeping your audience with you. So at the end of the previous slide, you want to use that for transition. In this case, you might say "...the next question we wanted to ask was, what genes regulate NFkB, so we looked at the likely candidates first, those being...".

7. This directly goes to the point that you should know what your next slide is. You need to know your slides. If you do not know what your next slide is, then you are telling the audience you didn't even bother to practice your talk. As an audience member, it makes me think that the person doesn't care about their presentation to the point where they came unprepared and unpracticed. If this was such as waste of your time, why did you accept the invitation to speak? PRACTICE YOUR TALK.

8. Use the microphone please. It doesn't matter how loud you think you speak. Trust me. No one can hear you in the back.  Do you really want to do a 30-45 minute talk and have no one hear you? And re-adjust the microphone for your height so you are speaking right into it.  I can't tell you how frustrating it is to be in an audience and not be able to hear the speaker.

9. Take your time with each slide. Don't rush. Take slides out and do a good job with the best data. But do not try to present more than you have time for and rush through it. You can tell people with questions on data not shown: "We did that experiment and I didn't have time to show those slides but if you'd like we can look at those later...".

If English is not your first language, then please go even slower than normal.  Your audience will enjoy your presentation much more and will learn something if they can assimilate what you are saying and showing on the screen.

10. My personal approach is to have an "Overview" slide where I give an outline of what I will talk about. I think this helps the audience to follow the talk so they aren't wondering "is it almost over?". Depending on the audience, I may do a methods slide to visually show people how an experiment is done. The data slides are next. Each one gets an introduction as to the question we wanted to ask, then the figure is explained, then interpreted, and then a summary statement. At the end I'll usually summarize the main points I want the audience to take with them.

Depending on the length of time for the talk and how long it might take to explain each data slide, I would plan for 30-40 slides for a 45 minute talk. For a data heavy presentation, err on the side of less slides. Practice it and then decide if you want to add slides.  Figure you need 2 minutes to speak per data slide to do a good job.

I am sure I could come up with a book full of presentation advice but I think this hits the key points.  When you attend seminars and conferences, notice what the people do who give the best talks and try to incorporate some their techniques. Also take notice of what you don't like in a poor presentation and make sure to avoid those mistakes.

Oral presentations are tough on the nerves but being prepared and knowing your data and your slides will greatly reduce your anxiety.  And the audience will respect the fact that you took the time to make it worth their while to sit through your talk.

If anyone has other links to blog articles on public speaking they like, I can post them in the article.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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There's so much win here I don't even know where to begin.  Great post, Jade.

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Thanks! I was going to skip this topic when I saw the other articles come out, but this is a subject that is worth repeating.


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Also remember

Animations...with moderation.

I remember once seeing one presentation where






so the presenter had to click 20 times in each slide. Horrible!

And if you are using more than 2-3 types of animation in your slide, and it is mainly are over doing it.



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oh yeah.  agree with all of it and i'm sure i've been guilty of some of them over the years.  my biggest lecture pet peeve is reading directly from the slides.  ack!!!

Dub C Med School
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I cringe when I go to a talk and it's obvious the presenter is not prepared. It's not that hard to practice, or drum up an audience to practice on. You just have to actually do it. If nothing else, constantly practicing and fine tuning the talk can alleviate so much of the nerves new presenters face and fear.

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Yannis- haha, that presentation must have been made by a marketing person.

Proteinwrangler- that is the worst- direct reading. Of course, we all get nervous and probably speak a little too fast or flub a transition between slides. Maybe forget that you inserted a slide of data at the last minute. I think it's fine. The problem is when it is clear the person has no idea what they are going to say next and this leads to a lot of stuttering.

We all can be understanding of someone who is nervous. But if the person knows their data and slides, then it won't matter. I have a hard time when it is obvious this is the first time they are giving the talk- that it was never practiced in front of people or even alone.


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I think it's important to have these types of posts even if the territory has been covered before.  Nice job!

I would also add remind the audience of the question/s you are asking.  Some of the best talks I have seen tell a story.  They had very few slides with text and it was not jargon-filled!



Khalil A.

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Nature Education's Scitable has a great resource on communication for scientists. Oral presentations are covered and is well worth a read.

University of Florida
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Just for the record, I'll paste what I posted to FB, too: "OMG -- thank you thank you thank you! We teach these skills to our students (along with poster presentations), so I appreciate the recommendations but what I really like is your up-front explanation of why it sucks to sit through a lousy presentation and how frustrating it is to have paid $$$ for the experience."

There are TONS of resources on presenting, including whole courses designed around them. For me, it was pointing out how it feels to be an audience member -- especially a paying one -- when someone delivers a bad presentation that makes this post particularly valuable. The audience feels snubbed, as though the presenter has told them they weren't worth the time, and that hurts the credibility of the speaker and acceptability of potentially good information. So glad you put the teaching points after you wrote why they exist in the first place:-).

I agree with your observation in the comments  that we'll forgive nerves, even help encourage a speaker on, when it's clear that this is information they've really prepared, really worked on. Now, if you could only post something on poster presentations...but it'll likely have to target PIs, since most of the bad posters I've seen students present were made that way after their PI forced them to shove a gazillion words into the text boxes with huge swathes of table data because "that's the way our lab does it". Arg!

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Thanks CGP. I agree that keeping the flow by introducing each slide as a part of a story works best.

Msscha: In my case, what made it worse was that I fly out a day early to attend this early morning seminar on a Saturday. So I gave up my Friday night with my guy in addition to my Saturday to attend this workshop. It was really disappointing to waste 2 hrs of my time in a room and not hear or learn anything. I could have had the extra day at home.

Yes, I think as a speaker, we need to be aware that people's time is precious and even an hour away from their experiment to hear you give a departmental seminar must be treated with respect.

I also should mention, these talks I went to were not presented by students but by PIs. I was really disappointed. But my hope is that students bring trained today will take this advice to heart and take public speaking seriously.

A post on posters is a good idea. I'll see if we can get a couple LabSpace bloggers to cover that topic!

Rhett Laubach

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Great concrete, transferrable post! A few resources you might add to your share list:My speaking skills blog - http://www.AuthenticityRules.comThe Slides section of our huge Delicious database -, thanks. Rhett
Mary Canady

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Dear Jade,

GREAT post! I've gotten spoiled by social media presentations which are light on text and heavy on imagery, I keep wondering if this would be possible for scientists. I'd challenge you to give a talk with images only (not data either)!

Putting all links and references in tagged delicious links would be great too--I just went to a conference where every reference was in a different format and difficult to write in the time allotted. Also, every presentation uploaded to slideshare would help--then scientists wouldn't feel like they have to cover every point during the talk.

I also have a new rule for my presentations: 2 minutes per slide, period. Also, encouraging the audience to interact with engaging questions directed towards them, if it is small enough. Maybe we could get crazy and take questions at the end from Twitter! I dream. We've thought about biotech unconferences, it could happen!

Thanks again, this is fantastic!


Thomas Joseph
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Creating good slides is a skill that is just as important as giving a good talk. Also, another rule that should be followed in giving a good talk is DO NOT MEMORIZE YOUR TALK.  If you do that, it's too easy to be thrown off the first time someone interrupts you with a question. Also, it'll sound memorized and people will lose interest.


Oh, and folks ... try a little humor. Probably the best talk I ever gave was at the CDC. They invited me to give a talk on a system I had developed and that they wanted to adapt for a different purpose. I opened with a statement that I was not an expert in their system, but I had stayed at a Holiday Inn Express that night (which was true). The room erupted in laughter and the talk flowed quite nicely from that point forward. It never hurts to have fun with your work.

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Thanks Mary. You have a lot of interesting ideas. I think twitter is a great interactive medium but too many scientists aren't using it.

While I will give out copies of the slides, I think if the person hasn't heard the talk, they won't get as much out of it, because if it is light on words, then the main points are lost. Recorded seminars might be better.

Thanks TJ: I agree on humor. It is a good way to break the ice. It definitely helps to put yourself at ease.  Definitely agree on slides. I try to make the slides help myself- so the transition is natural and doesn't require memorization.

Chris Atherton

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Hi Jade,

Really like this post; thanks for writing it. I particularly dig your point about practicing: my students (and many other presenters I see) have clearly spent a lot of time making their slides but rather less time thinking about what to say (and still less actually saying it to see what it sounds like/how long it will take. I also get frustrated when people stick too rigidly to guidelines/prescriptions of any kind, chiefly because it usually means they haven't thought about the information content of their material or the ways in which they can make it accessible. I got sufficiently exercised about this last year that I wrote a post about it: when giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention — it's been one of my more popular posts.



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Thanks Chris! I added your link to the list in the body of the article so people will see it.

I agree that practicing is important when you do not have a lot of public speaking experience. It is so true that even though you may know what you want to say in your head, the first time you speak it, it often is very unorganized and doesn't flow. Just getting the flow down is what is needed.

I find also that if I put a statement at the bottom of each slide that is basically the next question, I can flow so much easier without memorizing the slides. I can keep my story together without abrupt starts and stops.

Thanks for finding this post and for your comment!



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Great topic and I couldn't agree more with the need to work at developing the skills for giving a good presentation.  In all fairness, it is not just the grad students and new scientists who lack these skills.  I attended an all-day symposium recently with 8 prominent speakers...7 of whom TURNED THEIR BACKS ON THE AUDIENCE and talked to their slides.  I was gobsmacked.  These are senior people who should know better.


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So true Kaylen. I think these people are a lost cause. I am hoping that the up and coming prominent scientists will pay attention to things like this and do a better job. Communication skills are underestimated.

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