The scientific community has a problem.
No, I'm not talking about funding, policies, political climates, reproducibility, or peer review. Those are all problems that we recognize and are working to address. The problem I'm talking about is the dreaded slide deck—the PowerPoint presentation.
It's a problem we like to joke about a lot, especially after witnessing a particularly horrible example. Yet, we seem not to be doing much to bridge the chasm between how really awesome modern science is and how our scientists talk about it. Things have gotten so bad that even Retraction Watch, the blog that tracks retractions in scientific literature, has recently had to cover the topic.
Research talks are incredibly important. They're given to audiences eager to learn and be taken out of their intellectual comfort zones, inspired, and intrigued as well as audiences who may not agree with you. Regardless of where I'm coming from, as a member of your audience, my eyes are on you, the speaker, and I'm looking to walk away from your talk with at least one new thought.
One thing that I don't want to do when I'm in your talk is spend time reading your slides. I'm also not in the mood for a literature review, and I don't want to know everything you've ever done or tried to do. You have me for anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes, right there in front of you, curious and waiting to hear—not read—what you have to say. You probably have only about two minutes to get me to pay careful attention to your every word, so proceed with caution and remember that, with the advent the of WiFi and smart phones, there are millions of other things competing for my attention while I'm there sitting in your audience.
Now that you know what I don't want to do, here is what I would like you to do for me. The type of scientific talk that I want to hear from you is a talk that takes me by the hand and gently leads me through a single, yet interesting, idea. You shouldn't assume that I find your idea to be interesting, so help me appreciate the wonder that motivated you to go after that one idea, and let me feel the delight that you must have felt when you made your discovery. I also want to see the genuine pleasure that you feel being in front of me and having this opportunity to guide me through your work.
You may be thinking that all this is a bit bogus and irrelevant, especially if you've been giving talks for some time and have published a good number of papers. But I suspect that, deep down, if we're honest with ourselves, one of the reasons why we say that the best time at a scientific conference is at the bar is because the scientific talks that we sat through all day long were not that great.
Most scientists, despite being pretty awesome and awe-inspiring, are not good speakers, nor presentation makers. But that is not an excuse.
Poor presentation skills can be fixed. It's not easy, and it does take time, but you owe it to yourself, your trainees, your colleagues, your audiences, your funders, and your science. A starting point in your process of stepping away from the PowerPoint precipice I can recommend is some cool advice from David J.P. Phillips. In his entertaining and informative TEDx Talk, David shares five design principles that will cognitively and psychologically optimize your PowerPoint slides. These design principles are:
- One message per slide
- Use slides as props for you to deliver your message, not the other way round
- The most important part of your slide should be the biggest
- Use contrast to focus the viewer's attention and a black slide background
- No more than six objects per slide
Try these principles, and I bet you'll see an improvement in your slides. But slides are only one component of your talk. Two bigger and more important factors in all this are you and your audience. To tackle the challenge of giving a great scientific talk in front of the others, I can offer some pieces of advice I've collected over the years that have helped me improve the way I give talks.
1. Put your audience front and center
Put yourself in your audience's shoes. Who are they? What are their interests? Are they likely to have heard you talk on this topic before? You need to understand what they want from you in order to be able to deliver it to them. They want to get something out of it. The thing about an audience is that you are there for them, and not the other way around.
2. Practice, practice, practice
To make your ideas stand out and stick, you do need to practice and experiment with both the content of your presentation and your delivery. The stickiest messages are apparent, supported by well-composed slides, and delivered with clarity. This does not just happen, and you can't just wing it. The less prepared and practiced you are, the more likely you are to run into things that will annoy your audience like reading off the slides, fidgeting with equipment, and, worst of all, running over time.
3. Show your passion
Being able to engage with the audience on a personal level is the most difficult thing to do. For people who dwell in the world of cold, hard facts, personal engagement is a big obstacle. But passion is infectious. If you're able to speak with the same drive and desire that motivated your work, you'll appeal to your audience in a way that'll help your message stay with them.
There are many places to get inspiration, suggestions, and hands-on tips on how to avoid being used as an example of a good scientific idea sunk by the PowerPoint. David's TEDx Talk is just one useful resource that will hopefully get you going. But if spending 20 minutes on a video is too much commitment for you, then you can start by paying closer attention to talks you go to and making a mental note of what works and what doesn't.
Give a practice run-through of your talk in front of an audience of at least one other student. Stand in a room for 30 minutes (or the duration of your talk) and talk through all your slides (out loud). This should be a timed dress rehearsal. Don't stop and fix slides as you go and don't let your audience ask questions or suggest fixes until your practice talk is over; you want to force yourself to talk through your entire talk.
You should assume that there will be about 5-10 minutes worth of questions during or after your talk. If your talk is too long, you should cut out some material to get it to fit into the time slot (your audience will not mind if your talk ends 5 minutes early, but they will mind if it goes 5 minutes over).
As a practice talk audience member, you should jot down notes of places in the talk where you have suggestions for improvements, or where something seems unclear. After the presenter is done with his/her practice talk, you should talk through the things you wrote down. It is also good to give the presenter some practice answering audience questions.