This post is the second in a short series that I am doing on what I have learned about effective scientific communication, and it will also be featured as its own page. For this post, I will be focusing on oral presentations, but I also have an existing page on grant writing. Like most people, I hate public speaking, interviews, and sometimes even just talking in general. The thought of a presentation two months away is enough to cause me heart palpitations. However, strangely, I have actually done well during conference presentations. I have won oral presentation awards at two conferences and been selected for a special, competitive oral presentation section at a conference before. Probably the greatest compliment that I have ever receive though was from one of my committee members, Dr. Bernd Würsig, who said that my thesis defense was one of the top five he had seen in the past 20 years.
That being said, let me tell you the story of my first conference presentation… My friend convinced me to present my preliminary data at a small conference of probably 50 people. It ended up having over 150 people. Presenters were given a microphone and a slide clicker/laser pointer to hold and no podium to hide behind. I was shaking uncontrollably the whole time and kept getting distracted by people because it was not all that dark in the room. I clicked the laser pointer when I wanted the next slide and vice versa (this happened multiple times). I could not hold the pointer still, so trying to circle a small object on my presentation turned into what could only be expected from someone hopped up on 20 Red Bulls trying to play with a laser-happy cat. The only part I thought I handled well was the question section. After my talk, I returned the microphone and clicker to the session moderator, who gave me a reassuring smile and nod and then mouthed, “It’s ok.” I then sat in complete terror and embarrassment for the remainder of the session. In a shocking turn of events, I was awarded the best talk in my division and received a $400 prize. From people that I talked to later, the general consensus seemed to be that obviously I was a nervous wreck, but I kept going, handled the questions well, and had solid slides and research. This experience was important to me because the researchers were incredibly supportive and also because it proved to be a strong motivator for me to improve my public speaking skills before my thesis defense. Consequently, over those next two years, I applied for all the conferences and symposiums that I could to practice my speaking and eventually earn that compliment from Dr. Würsig. So, I give you my painfully-learned, overly honest oral presentation tips:
- Get Started Early
- This is really a tip for any major project you do. You do not want to be struggling to throw together a good presentation the day before you give it. It leaves you with haphazard slides and no time to practice. However, if you are someone who is naturally gifted at “winging it,” do what works for you I guess! I just do not highly recommend this method.
- Have Solid Slides
- As I mentioned earlier, my first presentation got selected as the best NOT from my public speaking skills alone. Make sure you have solid slides to back you up. This means few words, good pictures/diagrams, and a logical flow. I also found it comforting to know that what I was presenting was worthwhile and displayed well.
- Open with a Picture
- This was a tip that I got from my Scientific Communication course. The majority of the time at conferences, your title slide will be up for a while before you actually start talking because the moderator introduces you and you introduce your presentation. It is good to have a picture or something on your title slide to capture the attention of your audience instead of having them stare at just your name and title. Luckily, I study seals. Who does not like to stare at a fat, fluffy seal? This tactic also helps me a lot because most people are already smiling at my slide when I get to the stage. It helps decrease my level of panic and puts me in a more relaxed state of mind.
- Avoid Prezi
- This is more of a personal preference than an actual tip. I am sure Prezi presentations can be amazing, but I have yet to see a good one. While I was a graduate student, the undergraduates were really favoring this presentation format, so I watched many Prezi talks. However, Prezi combined with nervous, fast-talking undergraduates usually results in me being nauseous from the rollercoaster-esk slide transitions. Even if you are nauseous from nerves, please do not make your audience nauseous as well.
- Make Appropriate Presentations
- I feel like this point could have its own post, but mainly what I mean by this is to know your audience and what you are trying to accomplish with your talk. If you are giving a presentation to the general public, do not use scientific terminology. If you are giving a thesis defense that is 45 minutes long, you may need to follow a presentation format that includes an “Overview” slide. You do not really need an Overview for a 15 minute talk. During longer talks, you may also want to give little “Main Point” slides at the end of each major topic section to make sure you do not lose your audience’s attention. For my thesis defense, I also used slide “tabs” in my presentation (shown on the right-hand side of the slides below). This allowed the audience to visually see where they were in my presentation and what topics to expect. Furthermore, if they temporarily zoned out of my talk, the slide tabs allowed them to pick the topic back up immediately. I had only seen this format done once at a conference, but the feedback that I got on my defense format with the slide tabs was all positive. You will also note that I added slide numbers at the top right corner of my slides. I have found this helpful for longer presentations because if an audience member has a question, they can write down which slide it was on. This removes the whole, “It is was on that one slide with the seal face…no, not that one…no, keep going…” situation.
- Add Extra Slides
- I did not usually need to do this, but it can be a good idea. This basically means that you add graphs, diagrams, tables, charts, etc. on extra slides at the very end of your presentation. You do not actually present these slides, they are just there to help you during the Q & A. For instance, you did not have enough time or space to talk about a specific dataset in your dissertation, but now someone asks a question that could be easily answered with your bonus slide! Oh wow! You just happen to have this perfect graph on hand! How fortunate! This goes over a lot better than saying, “I have a really great graph, but…” It also makes you look super prepared and on your A game.
- Practice with Supportive People
- I think that I practiced every presentation that I gave in graduate school in front of someone else at least once before I actually presented it. “Supportive” here is really up to you. I, for one, know that I cannot practice in front of my extremely close friends. I get distracted by them and their facial expressions during my talk. Consequently, I often lose my train of thought and end up with awkward pauses in my presentation that can be difficult to recover from. During my defense, my close friends sat in the very back of the auditorium in the very far corner. I think at one point they might have even been obscured by a wall column. They told me afterward that some other graduate students thought it was weird that they had not sat at the front of the room to be super visible and supportive. My friends had to explain that them being in the extreme back corner of the room was the most supportive thing they could have done for me. 🙂
- Time Yourself
- Most presentations are timed. Depending on the conference, the session moderators may be strict about your allotted time. At smaller symposiums, this is not a big issue, but it is good to get through all of your slides in the allotted time. Once I saw a graduate student attempt to present 70 slides in 15 minutes. Needless to say, he ended up skipping more than half of them. This made for a particularly disjointed presentation that left the audience extremely confused.
- Check Timing Settings
- Also related to timing, double-check your slides to make sure your “Play Narrations” and “Use Timings” boxes are unchecked under the “Slide Show” tab in Powerpoint before presenting. If you practiced your presentation timings by using the timing functions in Powerpoint, sometimes it saves those times. Consequently, during your actual presentation, your slides will advance before you want them to, and you may end up looking very confused/frazzled to your audience.
- Power Pose!
- I have had multiple friends tell me about this, so I tried it before my talks. I think it actually does help a lot, but that might just be in my head (whatever works!). You can learn more about Power Posing in this TedTalk. If you have trouble feeling confident before your presentations, try doing some power poses beforehand and couple them with some positive phrases about yourself.
- Dress the Part/ Be Confident
- I know some people who could rock a presentation in their pajamas. I am not one of those people. Dressing nicely for a presentation helps me feel more confident in general, which is subsequently reflected in my actual talk.
- Have Realistic Expectations
- I am frequently described as a perfectionist, which has its pros and cons. One major con is that I want every slide to be perfect, and I want to say everything exactly the way I want to, and I want to remember everything that I want to say. One of the most difficult things for me to grasp with presentations was that, unless you read directly off your slide, you will likely forget something. Accepting this fact was challenging for me, but it also helped relax me quite a bit once I did. Knowing that I may eventually make a mistake during my talk made it easier for me to recover and move on, rather than fixate on this mistake and become frazzled. Remember, if you forget something, it is not the end of the world. If people are curious about it, they will ask you about it in the Q & A, and you can address it then.
- Give Question Hints
- If you do not handle questions well, you could try this tactic that I recently discovered. Usually, during 15 minute talks at least, you do not have adequate time to mention everything in your study. So, sometimes I drop “question hints” into my talks (where appropriate) by saying something like, “…this was an interesting aspect of my project that, unfortunately, I do not have time to get into now, but I would be happy to elaborate on later.” This should really only be used for tangential information to your topic, maybe method techniques or something. I would say you have a better than 50% chance of someone bringing up that point again in your Q & A session. This gives you a chance to use some of your Q & A time answering a question that you are 100% prepared for. Furthermore, if you have a good session moderator (or you are in an oral presentation competition), they will not want to let you finish without any questions. (It is also the general consensus that getting no questions at the end of your talk is never a good thing.) So, by giving question hints, you help your session moderator/audience come up with something to ask in the Q & A.
- There are Pills
- If you are super desperate, there are actually pills people take for public speaking. Because I am against most medications, I would not recommend this option unless you are really struggling. Although I usually present my talks well now, the level of stress and anxiety leading up to the presentation can be extremely overwhelming for me. After my thesis defense, I saw a doctor and received a prescription for these “public speaking” pills because the lead up to my defense was insane. I had trouble eating and sleeping a week out. I had constant heart palpitations and felt like I was on the cusp of a panic attack 24-7. The pills seem to help somewhat, but I usually do not take them anymore. Again, I am not a doctor, but I did not know about this option until a friend of mine who works for an oil company told me. He gives presentations that involve million dollar deals and contracts, so he frequently uses the pills to calm his nerves before his important presentations. So, I just wanted to make people aware of this option. I know other people take alcoholic shots before their talks, but I cannot offer any guidance/advice on this tactic, having never tried this method before.
- Do What Works for You
- On that last note of taking shots, I leave you with my final and most important tip: Do what works best for you. Unfortunately, one has to give multiple presentations before they figure out what works best for them. For example, I always wear my glasses during big presentations because for some reason it tricks my brain into thinking there is some sort of a barrier between me and the audience, thereby making me somehow “safer.” (I’ve also heard stories of people not wearing their glasses, thereby making them physically unable to see the audience until they put their glasses back on during the Q & A session!) I NEVER use the laser pointer (but for some people, they rock it). After my horrible experience with the laser pointer/clicker, I format all of my slides now so that a colorful box or arrow pops up on the slide to highlight the item that I want to talk about instead of me pointing to it. Most people tend to think this is a better idea than the laser because many times the people in the back of an auditorium cannot clearly see the laser pointer anyway. So, try not to make slides that require you to have a laser pointer. I find that having boxes or arrows pop up on my slides is also extremely helpful for my presentation flow because I am less likely to forget the points that I want to make if they are physically highlighted on my slide.
That is all I have for you! I am sure there are other tips out there, but these 15 were the ones that I found most helpful to me. Feel free to share your own tips below. I leave you with a picture of the seal-themed refreshments that my friends brought to by thesis defense. Remember how important it is to have supportive people around you!