There is no single way to present science. Everyone’s presentation style is unique and there really is no right way of getting the story of your research across to a room full of people during seminars and conferences. So this blog is not intended to be a one stop shop for how to deliver a presentation as such a thing cannot exist. Instead this blog is designed to give some insight into my personal experiences of presenting my work and some tips that may be of use (I hope).
Prior to my PhD I had only done one presentation during my undergraduate studies, so I was not accustomed to talking in front of people. What I remember from my first PhD talk, which was a 20 minute presentation to the department, was the build up and introduction to my talk was the worst part. Because this was essentially my first ever talk I had rehearsed a lot and the talk felt more like a performance. By this I mean I knew exactly what I wanted to say, where I wanted to point the laser, and when to click for the next animation. After presenting my opening slides exactly as rehearsed I started to feel pretty comfortable, I dare say I even enjoyed it by the end. I recall sitting down after wishing I could do it again as the nerves had completely receded and I knew I could deliver the first couple of slides in a less nervous manner. I had planned to take this post-talk feeling of it wasn’t so bad into my next talk, but it was a year later before I next got asked to do another presentation, at a medical conference in Greece. By this point, the nerve-settling memories of my previous talk were lost in a storm of nerves, fear, and uncertainty. This was to be my first international conference, the first conference I attended solo, and the first conference I would do an oral presentation.
It is one thing feeling okay after a talk to a supportive audience in my home town, where my local Geordie dialect might be more easily understood and many of the onlookers were close friends, but to present to an international audience consisting overwhelmingly of medics, was daunting. I am not suggesting medics are less supportive than fellow researchers, just different. I realised the context of the talk would need to be completely reconsidered. The audience would care less about the methods used to generate the data and my pretty pictures and stats; they would instead want me to stress the clinical importance of my findings. Like every other researcher out there I feel my research is super important and can offer amazing guidance to clinicians, but to articulate this in such a way that would convince them I had shown anything of genuine merit was, in my head at least, rather difficult.
Once again I spent a long time (too long) rehearsing. Nevertheless, remembering the worst part last time out was the introduction, I made sure I knew exactly what I wanted to say in my opening couple of slides. After this I had an idea of the points to make about each slide, and it was less of a performance and more off the cuff than previous. The talk went well and I fielded all questions successfully, another aspect of the presentation I was dreading. I again made the conclusion that speaking about my research is not so bad, in fact it is enjoyable. I am passionate about my work and enjoy telling people about the data I had worked so hard to generate. So I left Greece telling myself next time I do a talk I have no reason to be nervous and to remember the post talk it wasn’t so bad feeling. Then my next opportunity to present came another year later. I struggle to remember how I felt last week, yet alone 1 year later.
I went into my next presentation with more optimism. This was at a microbial ecology meeting so the context of the conference was highly specific to my research. Thus everyone in the audience, for the first time, really knew what I was talking about. I realised this made me more nervous. It is alright feeling you know more than other people in the audience but there was something strangely fraudulent about me talking about techniques and stats to people in the audience who would know more about it. I had rehearsed less for this presentation but made sure I knew at least what I would say in my first couple of slides then to just discuss my results as felt appropriate on the day. Given the size of the audience, in terms of bodies and academic credibility, and the fact I was feeling the previous late night slightly, the talk went really well. I answered the questions well and received lots of interest in the coffee break after. I realised by not having such a rigorous plan of what exactly I was to say, I could interact with the audience a bit more and, dare I say, introduce a little humour into the talk.
Since these initial talks I have got involved with more teaching and demonstrating within the University. Standing in front of undergraduates every week and introducing lab classes has helped me a lot and I feel less nervous now about talking in front of people. Don’t get me wrong, there is still the inevitable nervous energy, especially when presenting to a high calibre audience, but I try to channel this nervous energy into my talk. Going to the departmental talks every week, even when they were not relevant to my research and dissecting the presentation styles of the speakers really helped me incorporate what aspects I liked into my own presentations.
As in any science writing I feel I should end with a kind of summary, so here goes. Attend as many talks as you can and really critique the style of the presenter and their slides. What do you like about the talk? Were the slides well designed? What do you remember from the talk the next day? The best presenter I have seen was Jennifer Gardy (twitter @jennifergardy) at an SGM conference. She was energetic, charismatic, passionate, funny, and really delivered the message well. I learned a lot from her about talking and engaging the audience. Jennifer will regularly give presentations and this will definitely help. I try to keep my slides easy to read with short bullet points and use of pictures, which is a style I like when attending talks, but each to their own. For results I typically present the figures with minimal text and try to explain these and I like to have my laser pointer to show the audience what exactly I am referring to.
I probably can’t stress enough the importance of trying to regularly deliver talks. If the opportunities are not there to do so at conferences or by teaching, look for other ways. Within your research group or as a group of PhD students it might be good to take it in turn to present for 20 minutes on a Friday afternoon. The presentations can be anything; the important thing will be getting accustomed to standing in front of people and talking. Remember the worst bit is usually getting into it, so have a good idea of what you want to say in the initial couple of slides. Feeling underprepared will only lead to more nerves. As a concluding remark I will suggest trying to enjoy it. Science, in general, is a supportive environment and especially as a PhD student. It is arguably the best time to present as people will be more supportive, they won’t expect presentation skills to be perfect, and if you can’t answer a question then it is usually more excusable. Further suggestions are welcomed in the comments.
The world needs to hear about your amazing data, so give it to them! Good luck!!