101 Tips on how to give a good scientific presentation

101 Tips on how to give a good scientific presentation
Dr. D.L. Thomson
1 Scientific presentation is an important skill – make sure you devote time, effort, care and thought to it
2 Seminars should be given so as to be understood – you will get no credit at all for confusing people
3 Your audience will be made up of intelligent people – if they can’t understand what you say then it is
you who is being dumb
4 Science should be as simple as possible (albeit no simpler) – unnecessary complexity is just inelegant
5 Be clear in your own mind what it is that you want to communicate – if you don’t understand it clearly
yourself then there is little hope your audience ever will
6 Start your seminar preparations early – seminars are themselves a good way of disciplining your mind
and organizing your thoughts but this means you may need time to straighten out your own woolly
7 Science is not a doctrine – don’t talk as if you are advocating a dogma or defending your conclusions
8 Science is a process of inquiry – if you want your talk to be interesting, you need to have a single line
of investigation running all the way through from your initial question to your final answer
9 Remember your sense of purpose – if you want people to understand what you did, you need to
explain to them why you did it
10 If you want to arrange information in the minds of human beings, you first need to create a place to
store it – answers make much more sense after you have set out a question, solutions make much more
sense after you have set out a problem.
11 If you want people to savour your science, then make them hungry before you feed them – start by
evoking their curiosity and letting them see what your question is and why it is interesting…
12 …but your seminar is your chance to tell your audience about your investigation and you should only
give enough background for people to understand your question and your approach – don’t spend half
your time rambling on about (irrelevant) general knowledge
13 Don’t lose people along the way – you need to take your audience the whole distance from your
initial question right through your methods and all the way to your final answer, so hammer your
argument home throughout, showing people the logic at every step of the way and recapping to
emphasize the points which are critical to your argument.
14 Salesmanship is much easier when you have a good product – make sure you have a question which
is novel, interesting, well-conceived and important
15 Salesmanship is much easier when you have a good product – make sure you have methods which
are robust, elegant and innovative
16 Salesmanship is much easier when you have a good product – make sure you have solid, interesting
results which yield revolutionary earth-shattering conclusions on issues of great importance
17 Rehearse your seminar with yourself until you are happy with it…
18 …then rehearse it with your friends until they are happy with it…
19 …then rehearse it with your critics until they are happy with it
20 Your mother may not be a biologist, but I’ll bet she is an intelligent woman so present it to her – if
she doesn’t understand then remember it is you who is being dumb so work out how to explain it more
21 The effective use of slides and other visual aids is an important skill – devote time, effort, thought
and care to it
22 Your visual aids are there to help you get your message about your work across to your audience. You
control the slide-show – don’t let the slide-show control you
23 Everything you put on your slides is there to help you take your audience all the way from your
question through your methods to your answer without losing them along the way – the slides are your
way of making sure they not only understand but are enthralled by the logic and brilliance of your
argument from beginning to end
24 Don’t clutter up your slides with information which is not necessary for the comprehension of your
25 Don’t put too much information on any one slide – you are showing that slide in order to hammer
home specific points so find clear, effective and efficient ways of doing just that
26 Make sure your slides can be easily seen and read
27 Make sure your slides can be easily seen and read from the back of the room
28 Make sure your slides can be easily seen and read from the back of the room by your grandmother
29 Make sure your slides can be easily seen and read from the back of the room by your grandmother
even when she forgets her glasses
30 If you use a light background then use a dark font
31 If you use a dark background then use a light font
32 Don’t use intermediate backgrounds or intermediate fonts
33 Don’t use fonts which are too small to read
34 Don’t put important material too near the edges of the slide – it may be lost off the edges of the
35 Don’t use busy fonts with unnecessary twirls or accoutrements - Arial is good, Tahoma is good,
Calibri is good, Times New Roman is ok, Harlow Solid Italic is not ok, Algerian is definitely not
ok, and Old English Text is the absolute pits so just don’t even think of going there unless it is somehow
essential for making a point which is critical to your argument.
36 Make sure all graphs, tables, lines, data points, error bars, significance levels, legends, axes, axis
labels, etc etc etc can be clearly seen.
37 Don’t make figures smaller than they have to be
38 If you can make the points which you need for your argument without placing two graphs next to
each other, then do so – don’t squeeze multiple graphs onto one slide unless it is necessary
39 If you do need to compare graphs on the same slide then make sure they are comparable – if you are
comparing absolute levels then try to show them using axes on the same scale
40 Ask yourself critically what point it is that you are trying to make by showing a particular graph, figure
or table and ask yourself whether the point is indeed clear and whether the graph, figure or table is
indeed the best way to make it
41 If it is important, you can make the same point twice for emphasis or clarification, but avoid wading
through repetitive reenactments of the same analyses if this leads to loss of clarity in the argument –
“here is a graph and you can see some things, like A is bigger than B for example, and now here is a table
showing some things, and A is bigger than B in that as well, and now here are the P-values of the tests I
did showing the results, and A is bigger than B here too, and this is a picture of all the equipment in my
lab because I always thought A would be bigger than B”….
42 …no don’t do it like that, do it like this “as I explained, if everybody else for the last 2000 years has
indeed been right, and if the conventionally accepted hypothesis X is indeed the case, then I think you
will agree that B has to be bigger than A. BUT IT ISN’T! Just look at this graph: B is NOT bigger than A, it is
the other way round - A is much bigger than B; in fact it is more than twice the size and the difference is
very highly significant. What that means is that hypothesis X cannot possibly be true; we’ve been
clinging on to hypothesis X for 2000 years, but it is wrong and I propose we should consider my
hypothesis Y instead. If hypothesis Y is correct then A should be bigger than B and that is what we see in
this graph.”
43 Use colours which offer good contrast and which are pleasing on the eye.
44 Remember that red-green colour blindness occurs with a frequency of 5% among Asian men, and 8%
among Caucasian men so unless your audience is very small or very female, there is a good chance that
someone in your audience will simply not see your red data points on your green background.
45 As a rule of thumb, plan for about 2 minutes per slide, so if you are giving a 20 minute talk then 10
slides is enough
46 If you use slides with animation then allow for the fact that these take longer - count them as extra
47 Don’t use animation styles which distract attention from your argument – at the end of your seminar,
you want people to go away talking about the fascination of your science, not talking about how they
are still dizzy from the bullet-points which spiraled round the screen, flashing and changing colour
before settling on your slide.
48 As seminar-day starts to approach, just take a few practical precautions – check out the room where
you will be speaking and see for example that…
49 …the computer there is not say a Mac when you’ve been developing your presentation on a PC…
50 …or that it is a PC when you have been developing on a Mac…
51 …or that you’ve been using the latest and coolest version of Powerpoint but the dusty old PC in the
lecture room has been there since 1842 and doesn’t actually support the video-clip format or indeed
any of the fonts you were planning to rely on…
52 …and that the cable you need to bypass the antique computer and plug directly into your own laptop is actually there…
53 …and does actually fit…
(53a …at both ends…)
54 And think about the layout of the room, for example…
55 …decide where you will speak from – choose a point where you will be visible and audible to your
audience, where you can see them and interact with them, where you can show them the slides, but
where you won’t obscure the slides by standing in front of the screen…
56 …find out where you will plug in your own lap-top if necessary…
57 …familiarize yourself with the gadgets for going forwards and backwards through your slides – even if
you are a techno-whizz-kid it will take you a while to get the hang of a new system, so find out which
button is for forward, which is for back, which is the laser pointer…
58 …find out where all the various switches and controls are in the room so that everything is smooth
and people can concentrate on your scientific message and not on the antics of an incompetent
comedian who accidentally plunges everything into darkness without turning the projector on, trips over
and disconnects all the cables, fumbles around in the dark with all the switches, before finally getting
himself escorted out the building by security for accidentally pressing the panic alarm …
59 …check out the microphone – do you need it? How does it work? How do you switch it on? Do you
need batteries? How close should it be to your mouth? Can people still hear you if you turn your head to
look at the screen? How do you clip it on (to your collar? To your button-hole? To your nose?) How far
can you walk without ripping the microphone out of its socket? If it is hand-held, do you have enough
hands (for a microphone, for a laser pointer, for a thing to click your slides forward, for your enthusiastic
hand-gestures, for catching the bouquets of flowers which may be thrown, for deflecting any eggs which
may be thrown)
60 And your files should all be backed up regularly anyway, but just make sure you have safe copies of
the newest version just in case
61 And to protect against version-incompatibilities or missing software, save a copy of your presentation
not just as an editable ‘PowerPoint presentation’ file but also as a pack-and-go ‘PowerPoint show’ file –
you can run that on pretty well any machine even one which doesn’t have PowerPoint.
62 On seminar-day itself, turn up well in advance of time and just get everything set up and working –
there will always be little glitches which can easily be overcome but they will take a few minutes and it is
much better to look after all that before the expectant audience arrives and starts fidgeting impatiently
in front of you.
63 Get the slide show opened and ready to go, get the projector switched on and warmed up, get the
pointers, clickers, mice, mic’s and everything else you need set up switched on and ready to go, get
yourself a glass of water.
64 When you stand up in front of your audience, just take a moment to compose yourself. This is your
chance to take your audience through your logical argument, and convince them, so don’t bolt off like a
blinkered race-horse being whipped from behind.
65 If you feel stressed when you stand up, then ask yourself what the worst thing is that could possibly
happen and ask yourself if it is actually all that bad. It won’t be! By any standards, you are on top of the
world so feel good about yourself and your situation. You are surrounded by friends and team-mates
who want to help you (or if they don’t then I want to hear about it and I want to fix it because they
definitely should). This may feel like the high-dive, but remember the high dive is always fun, you’ll get a
buzz, so take the plunge and enjoy the moment.
66 If you can start by getting the audience on your side then you will be able to engage them and take
them through your argument much more easily. Smile at them, and start with a joke or a funny story if
67 If you are confident and relaxed then your presentation will be much more convincing.
68 You have been through the talk lots of time in rehearsals, so remember all the points you have been
over already.
69 Get the pace right. Too slow is always better than too fast, but just right is even better.
70 Speak loudly and clearly in a way that can be heard
71 Speak loudly and clearly in a way that can be heard at the back of the room
72 Speak loudly and clearly in a way that can be heard at the back of the room by your grandmother
73 Speak loudly and clearly in a way that can be heard at the back of the room by your grandmother
even if she forgets her hearing aid
74 Nearly every lecture room will have some appliance which buzzes or hums, (a projector, a coffee
machine, the air-conditioning, a photocopier, or whatever). You can’t hear it from the front of the room,
but the person sitting next to it can, and they can’t hear you as a result so speak up
75 Use the sort of English which can be understood to everyone in the audience. If you are a native
speaker then don’t use slang, dialect or words which will be difficult for foreigners. If you are a nonnative speaker then get feedback in the practice sessions and make sure that what you think you are
saying is what you are actually saying and that it is good, grammatically correct English. Language is not
just a means of expression, it should be a means of communication – don’t just use English to vent your
message, use English to get your message across.
76 Don’t speak in monotones. The intonation is important for engaging your audience, emphasizing
important points, and getting your argument across.
77 By all means be prepared, but speak as if you are speaking – don’t speak as if you are reading
78 Engage with your audience – they are living, breathing, intelligent people so don’t speak to them as if
they were a brick wall. If you can engage with them then that means they will engage with you. Make
eye-contact with them, make each individual feel as if you are speaking directly to them, trying to
convince them personally of the importance of your work and the logic of your investigation.
79 Keep to time. You have been through several practice runs, so you know how long it should take. If it
is too long then you are attempting to say too much, so cut something out; don’t try to squeeze it all in
by talking faster.
80 After you finish, remember that the Questions&Discussion session can be almost as important as the
talk itself, so…
81 …if you get lots of interesting questions then it is a sign that your audience is still awake and you
probably gave an interesting talk
82 …if you get no questions at all then look to see if people’s eyes are open – if they are then at least
they probably are still awake
83 …if you get no questions at all then look to see if people’s mouths are open – if they are then
(provided they are not snoring as well) it means you blew them away with jaw-dropping science and you
have stunned them into silence; if they are not then they are probably silent because you have given a
talk which was dull, incomprehensible, or both (either way it was you who was being dumb so next time
you need to make it clearer and more interesting)
84 …if you get no questions at all, then put the lights back on and just check the audience is still there.
Before your talk, some of your friends might have apologised that they have to leave early because of an
important appointment. If they have indeed gone, you shouldn’t be offended, but if they are still there
(and still awake) then feel good because it means your talk was so exciting that they just couldn’t leave.
You want people to be so enthralled by your objectives and so fascinated by your unfolding argument
that they feel compelled to stay until they have heard your answer.
85 Listen carefully to the questions which are asked. If you don’t understand a question, then ask for
clarification - you won’t be able to give a good answer until you know exactly what the question is.
86 Don’t be afraid to start your answer by recapping or paraphrasing the question, especially if you are
not sure that you or your audience really heard or understood it correctly. “So, if I have understood the
question correctly, what you are asking is whether A really is bigger than B under all circumstances, or
whether it is just an artifact of using method X under conditions Y in these experiments?”
87 Always recap and paraphrase questions if the questioner did not formulate the question clearly in
their own mind. Recapping and paraphrasing questions is in any case a good way to organize your
thoughts – once the question is clear to you the answer will follow much more easily
88 Always recap and paraphrase questions if the questioner actually covered 3 questions (even though
he thought he was only asking one)
89 Try to be polite in your responses – this seminar is an opportunity for you to get input and feedback
from lots of intelligent people and even if you don’t agree with them they are actually trying to help you
(or if they are not then I want to know about it because they should be and I want to fix it)
90 If you want to be a good scientist, then take pride in the process of enquiry – don’t take pride in your
conclusions. It is the quality of your science, not the correctness of your conclusions which will
determine your credibility. If someone has an alternative viewpoint, then by all means reiterate and
discuss your reasoning, but don’t dig in and defend your conclusions just for the sake of defending your
conclusions. You are not in science to preach the truth – you are there to pursue the truth, so listen to
the argumentation of others and use it in that pursuit.
91 If people have an alternative viewpoint, then don’t be afraid to disagree with them if you think they
are wrong, but don’t be afraid to agree with them if you think they are right
92 Don’t be afraid to open up discussion on alternative viewpoints
93 If people ask a question, then give them an answer
94 If people make a comment, then give them a response
95 If people make a helpful suggestion, then say ‘Thankyou very much’
96 The things you say should have a tight bearing on the question/comment/suggestion given, so make
sure you understand what is being said and make sure you respond appropriately – don’t go waffling off
on tangents. You want to show that you are smart enough to understand the logic of what someone is
saying, and logical enough to respond precisely
97 If you don’t know the answer to a question, then don’t pretend you do
98 If you don’t know the answer to a question, then ask if someone else in the audience does
99 If the answer to a question is unknown, then suggest ways in which we could find out. Think about an
experiment that could resolve the matter. Think through what people are saying, identify some
predictions from the hypotheses under discussion, reflect on how those predictions could be tested.
100 Ok, time’s up so well done for all the effort you put into the talk. Don’t forget to take your memorystick with you; you put it in the USB-port when you were transferring your presentation to the desk-top,
but close it down now and take it with you so you don’t have to rake through the 10000 unclaimed
memory-sticks in the lost-property office.
101 Take some time to feel good and relax. If you went to the effort of following all these tips then you
probably gave a good seminar. In any case you must have put a lot of work into it – scientific
presentation is not a triviality, it is an issue you need to think about a lot. Even issues like how you
format your graphs, your slides, your tables, how many slides you use, what colour schemes you use,
the fonts, the lines, the backgrounds, the animations – they all require thought and effort. And then
there’s your pace, your tone, your volume, your emphasis, your eye-contact, your English, your
microphone, your pointer, your clicker, your computer, your light switches. Oh my goodness; we
thought there was already enough to think about in a postgraduate degree with the literature, the
hypotheses, the experimental design, the methods, the statistical analysis, the interpretation, etc etc etc.
Still, the science is the substance – if you understand what science is and if you do that well then you will
have an interesting question, robust, elegant, innovative methods, and interesting results leading to
earth-shattering conclusions. If that is all in place then you will have an exciting topic and a strong logical
argument and your chances of giving a great talk will be much higher. Bringing all this together and
presenting it clearly is a lot of work, so as I say, take time to feel good and relax (and reflect on how to
do it even better then next time!).