Giving an interesting talk takes practice. You don’t want to be vague and leave things out, but you also don’t want to bore your audience with details that detract from your main message. Learning what to leave out and what to include is the key to good science, art, and everything else. Begin by asking yourself these key questions: What is this project about? Why is it interesting? Once you can answer these questions in your own words, you will know how to assemble your talk and tell your story.
The purpose of your talk is to give the other students an overview of your research project. Because the audience is composed of students and faculty with very diverse scientific backgrounds, it is crucial that your talk is accessible and free of technical jargon. Make sure you explain the motivation of your research and how it fits into the big picture. Give a brief overview of the key concepts needed to understand your project since most of the audience will not know even this basic information. Don’t go into the details of your experimental methods unless there is something novel or interesting about them.
The time limit for your talk is 20 minutes (17 minutes for your talk and 3 minutes for questions & answers). Most talks run a minute per slide, so figure on approximately 20 slides total. Leaning to distill your presentation down to 20 minutes is an important skill; many scientific meetings impose tight time constraints for speakers.
Visuals. Build your talk around the figures and diagrams you want to present. These figures will serve as cue cards, reminding you what you want to say and in what order. Don’t put too much information in each figure. Rather, just have one idea per image. For example, a schematic of your equipment should be simple and easy to follow. Graphs of data should have the axes clearly labeled. Use large type so your slides are legible from the back of the room. If you want to talk about an equation, or a chemical structure, use colored type to highlight the part of the equation or structure that you want to discuss. Never—unless you want to get a good laugh, or to turn people off—put up a whole page of equations or chemical formulas and expect the audience will be able to absorb it in 30 seconds. If you want to include digital photographs or movies and don’t have a camera, you can borrow one from Media Services or Steve Attinasi in the science shop.
Test your PowerPoint presentation in the lecture hall you will be doing your actual presentation in. Sometimes there are glitches in crossing computer platforms, so you may need to use your own laptop if you have problems with the lecture hall computer. Be sure to work out the bugs ahead of time so there are no surprises on the day of your talk.
Pointers for making a good presentation:
- Time your talk by rehearsing it. This will help you organize your information for speaking, as well as let you know if it is too long or short.
- Before giving your presentation, project your visuals and look at them from the back of the room. If you can’t read them, neither can anyone else. Give the audience at least 30 seconds to view a figure. If the image is very complicated, use a longer period of time.
- Analyze the presentations of other speakers to improve your own talk. Notice what they did that worked well; avoid their pitfalls. Be self critical.
- Include compelling demonstrations to illustrate what you are talking about. Think about the best time in your talk to do these to capture the attention of the audience. For example, you might start your presentation with a “take a look at this” and then go into the theory. Or you might build up to the demonstration to make your point stick.
- Provide a summary slide that lists the salient points and their significance.
- If you have additional slides that you will not use in your talk but might need to answer questions, stash them after your summary slide so they don’t interfere with your prepared talk.
- Face the audience. Speak to them, not the projection screen.
Relax. Speak slowly. Enjoy your moment in the spotlight.