Dr Becca can now be found at http://scientopia.org/blogs/drbecca .
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I may have acute impostor syndrome like 85% of the time, but there's one aspect of academic science in which I'm solidly confident in my talents, and that's the art of the seminar. Giving a seminar combines two things I very much enjoy: public speaking and making something pretty. First you get to make something pretty, and then you get to stand in front of your pretty thing and talk about it! Does life get any better? Well, perhaps.
Having just put together and given a talk for my interview on Monday, all of my PowerPoint skillz were recently put to the test. I was very pleased with the final product and got some lovely feedback, so while it's all fresh in my mind, I thought I'd share some of what I think are the most important considerations when getting ready for a talk. Please add your own in the comments!
1. Tell a story. This is huge, and so few people do it well. Trust me, nobody in your audience is there to witness a data barf-o-rama, and nobody is going to think you're hot shit because you have 150 figures. Instead, they will be confused and/or think you're annoying and probably tune out. Pick your data that genuinely make sense to present together, and build your story around that. Start out by telling them why they should care about your topic, and take them through your thought process for how you decided on the experiments you did. If your talk is a two-parter, tell them that right up front; that way when you switch gears it won't come as a surprise. People love it when the things they were told to expect actually happen.
2. Pick a clean, simple look for your slides. All of your slides. The same look. This means no gradient backgrounds, no patterned or photo backgrounds, and keep the font continuous throughout. Sans serif (but obvs. no Comic Sans). Dark-on-light is far easier to read than light-on-dark, and the inexplicably popular canary yellow on royal blue makes me want to rip my eyes out. Don't do it.
3. PowerPoint slides are free! In other words, there's no need to cram six graphs (or a ton of text, for that matter) into one slide. Don't you want people to be able to see your data? If the answer is no, don't f%*king present it. If yes, blow that shit up, click "Insert New Slide" and spread it out. It will help keep your talk nice and paced, and it will keep the flow going better, as you won't have to start each slide with the maddening "I know these graphs are kind of hard to read, but if you look at this tiny data point on the 3rd panel from the right..." The more talking about data and the less making apologies you do, the more your audience will like you.
4. Come up with a concrete intro. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people start their talk by saying, "the title of my talk is blah blah." People can read, dude! Your title is there in like 74 pt. font. Tell me why you're here!
5. Plan your transitions. Whenever I feel like I have my talk basically done, I go through slide by slide, and write down what I think I'll say to move from one to the next. Nothing says "amateur" like a person who looks surprised to see the next slide that pops up. You know what else looks amateur? Animated slide transitions. Every time I see a talk where someone decided to have each slide "fly in" or do "venetian blinds" or whatever, I want to punch them in the face. Why are you trying to distract me? I'm a scientist, not a newborn.
6. Summarize along the way. Whenever you've presented a good chunk of data, it's a nice idea to have a slide to recap, because people have probably forgotten already. State 2 or 3 main findings for people taking quick notes, and they might actually remember what they learned from your talk after cookie time is over.
7. Lay off the laser pointer. Another one of my pet peeves is people who feel compelled to point at every word on every slide, like a bouncing ball in a sing-a-long. Not necessary! As noted in No. 4, People can read, dude. The laser should be used only to point at something that actually needs pointing at.
8. Practice for timing, you egocentric asshole. We've all witnessed the following: "Just 2 minutes left? OK, um, I'll just fly through these next 20 slides then...oh, but I really just want to show you this great new data we just got..." By the time 15 minutes have gone by, the entire audience is shooting eye-daggers at the speaker. Do you want to be the target of eye-daggers? I didn't think so. Practice your talk out loud--in front of your lab, your roommate, your significant other, your dog--I don't care. Practice it and make sure that you end when you're supposed to. You're telling a story, remember? Finish. The fucking. Story.
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Nice. Want to come here and teach some of my colleagues how it's done?
The story, so many people forget the story. It's nice to have a lot of data, but it's gotta connect, be relevant and freaking mean something.
I find all of this to be true. What's frustrating is how many presenters don't pay attention to these points. Especially the part where you have a story.
"Nothing says "amateur" like a person who looks surprised to see the next slide that pops up. You know what else looks amateur? Animated slide transitions."
Lawyers do this. All. The. Fucking. Time. I hate lawyer talks worse than I hate physician talks.
Amen! A fellow postdoc is presenting at Neurosci, so she gave a practice talk today. She was promptly ripped to shreds for just about every violation you posted. Better here than during the actual seminar though.
Acute imposter syndrome - yes, THAT'S what I've been suffering from, it's good to have a name!! Why doesn't Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil or another one of those TV quacks talk about this debilitating condition?!
Excellent points Dr Becca, I like you am a lover of public speaking and presentations (though I'm a keynote girl myself, once you Mac you can't go back!). Weird since I'm actually a bit of an introvert, but something about public speaking strangely thrills me, and I can project like the best of em!
What IS with that stupid blue background and yellow writing business, anyone? Drives me equally insane. As does the inexplicable phenomenon that the amount of time spent prepping a presentation and the general crappiness of said presentation seems to be proportional to the number of years spent doing science? Am I right? I get that you're a busy super impressive publish in Nature all the time Prof, dude, but COME ON, I do not want to sit through you're rambling excuse for a presentation. It's called PowerPOINT for a reason dude, now get to yours!
@Tideliar : My Chief Resident does it all the time, too. Every MMR. I feel like I'm back in my undergrad years suffering through Human Sexual Deviancies or Microeconomics.
Actually, he violates every single one of these rules. Especially #3. I already wear contacts, do I really need opera glasses too? I may have to sit him down with this list and a crowbar...
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Glad to know I'm not the only one who "gets it" and cares about this stuff. I'll tell people until I'm blue in the face "You have to know your audience when you're making your presentation" (among other things) but that still sails over some heads for who knows why...
After the Nth violation of these rules, my attention is lost - and a good presenter is rare to find, sadly. The "experienced" tend to try and shove 5 years into 50 minutes while the nOObs are so busy trying to prove they did science they forget the whole "story" part. I don't know that I've ever seen a post-doc seminar though. Hmmm...
Yes yes yes to all!!
And really, if YOU are surprised at what pops up on the next slide, then not only are you violating rule #5, but it always always ALWAYS means that your story makes no sense (#1!) and you are toast.
I have another seminar pet peeve - I work in an (obviously) multi-disciplinary department, and I hate it when speakers (job applicants, departmental people, visiting senior faculty) who give a talk directed at experts within their own specialty. If you don't clearly explain concept, methods and relevance of the findings for non-experts in their field lose at least 50% of the audience in the first 10 minutes. (The other half of the audience makes use of their spare time by answering emails/texts/writing blog posts/looking at porn from their phone.)
At recent conference one present kept using the laser pointer to set up a perimeter around the data she wanted to show and kept circling it a wild and rapid fashion. I almost had a fucking seizure.
oh I like this! Number 6 is very important imho, especially if you tie it to the story. I mean, you might (hopefully) know all the data inside and out and what it means, the audience - not so much.
I got the advice a long time ago "tell them what they will here, what they are hearing and then what they have heard then maybe they'll remember one or two of your main story". it feels like you repeat yourself ad nauseum but it's not to them.
As for the font sizes and number of graphs on one slide... I still don't understand why people never seem to care about checking this,. I mean, what's the point of having a slide that NOONE can read? Why put it up there in the first place?
Awesome dude! Awesome! This article needs to be read by every grad student BEFORE they interview for a postdoc position!
@GRM I think the next talk you give, you should see how many seizures you can induce. We can make it a game!
Thanks, guys! NatC, great addition to the list: don't assume expertise on the part of your audience. For the talk I gave Monday, I knew that most of the audience wouldn't be all that familiar with some of my techniques, and so I took special care to explain the ideas behind them. If your audience doesn't understand, they're not going to take anything away with them.
What drives me nuts even more than laser pointers is people who still waft around those stupid wooden pointers. I'm sorry are we still living in the dark ages? I can't see any of your data because you're obscuring it with your stupid stick!
I think that a lot of the bad talks that are given are the fault of the PI. I know that I received a LOT of training in how to give talks. Including the painful practice talks. These general lessons aren't obvious to n00bs, but they can be learned. It is also very difficult to self-correct.That is why you need to get feedback and always work to improve.
JdL, at some places the giant pointing stick is important. For instance, at my postdoc U the big screen was rear-projection. This makes laser pointers invisible. The big stick was the only option if you actually wanted to point at something. That being said, poor use of either kind of pointer is a problem.
Great post, Dr. Becca!
Actually I like the blue background and white/yellow writing. I find white backgrounds are too bright and give me a headache. Plus a dark background allows for better contrast of immunohistochemical images, it means that the fluorescence is more easily visible.
Apart from that I completely agree with you. Especially about the story!
ooooh. Can I add one? Laser tagging your audience by waving around the pointer with the button still depressed.
Acute imposter syndrome? Sounds more like chronic remitting imposter syndrome (CRIS).
That's a good one antipodean. I get distracted and follow the beam all over the room instead of listening to the talk.
Human Sexual Deviancies? They do a course on me now? How flattering!
Jane- "busy super impressive publish in Nature all the time Prof, dude" knows his subject inside out and can give a very good talk ((most of the time). What is really annoying is that he would only need to spend about 20-30 minutes going through his talk and thinking about it to make it really good. Surely that wouldn't be too much to ask.
@Tideliar Uhhh...not sure if that was you. God I hope not.
@Will - I agree, I've seen some really amazing talks by super impressive Prof dudes, don't get me wrong. But I just seem to have seen a disproportionate number of them who give the same amazing talk time and time again and don't actually both to read through the contents of said talk prior to giving it so that you get lots of "oh, I wasn't expecting that slide next" or "oh, I seem to be running out of time". Like you said, if they just spent a little bit of time reviewing it then it would be truly awesome every time I'm sure.
And that's the problem with being super big dude. You give so many talks you often give the same one over and over. As soon as a gap is introduced into your schedule you don't have the practice you assume you do, and it derails. Same comes from hurridly entering new data with out 'making space' for it.
Worst talk I ever heard was from a big super dude It looked like a case of someone from his lab handing him the presentation, and him giving the talk without even looking at the slides on the plane. The best part - he was presenting work in the sub-specialty our lab works on (though he has never published a paper in said field). It was a shame really - there was some potentially interesting data buried in the hot mess that was his talk.
He CLEARLY had no idea what he was talking about and couldn't explain the data at all (until the last graph which was in the subspecialty he usually lives in).
The problem with super dudes' talks is that they often just have their trainees send them slides of their work. The presentation then is a poorly-cobbled patchwork of mismatched slides, colors, fonts, etc., with nary a transition or fitting segue to be found.
Oh I hate that, Becca! Can't you take the 20 minutes required to sync your stuff so that it looks like one talk??
Dr. Becca- There is no excuse for that. It is so easy to change the slide colors and fonts, it would only take a matter of minutes. Surely there is time on the way over to present or since these are normally at conferences the night before, look it over for 20 minutes, that is all we are asking for!
Are you copying me, Will?
Ah, but why would I be working for the enemy then? He's helping Jane get points, and I would rather have the iPad to myself!
I'm the puppetmaster, of course.
Hey! That's my laugh! I used it in the other thread. What's with you two copying me today??
I didn't see your post Nikkilina. I apologize for plagiarizing.
Ha ha, I know I saw that just a minute ago! Sorry, I wasn't involved in said thread so I didn't see that. Perhaps this is evidence of the mind reading we read about in Rift's blog post? Quick call the journal of parapsychology!
Good call. I'll get them on the phone.
Total agreement! The lack of an enticing story, horrible transitions, and READING STRAIGHT FROM THE SLIDES is presentation death! Thanks for reminding us all of the key points :-)
Best of luck at the interview! Keep us posted.
It can actually get worse than the infuriation of the slide reader. I have seen one humanities idiot get up at a scientific conference and actually read through a paper. No slides. No attempt at communication in the spoken word. Just stood up and read through some sort of essay.
Apparently this audience abuse is standard practice.
I always put a little notice in the lower-right corner of the slide; "18 slides remaining", "17 slides remaining" and so forth. It lets them know how much more of my drivel they have to suffer.
I've seen that few times George and I truly apprciate it.
Of course having someone stand up for an hour and their opening slide says "1 of 119" is very disheartening :)