How to make a killer scientific presentation

Read this blog post to avoid this.
Read this blog post to avoid this. Credit: tom-b on flickr

I have been lucky enough to see some great presenters.

I remember some of their talks years later and the best of them have influenced how I think, what I do and how I do it.

Not all presentations have such grand aims, but all presentations aim to change things, even if it is only in a small way.

Most science presentations aim to communicate new findings and convince people of their importance. However, I see people fail at this time and again.

I have ranted about this to friends, colleagues and anyone else who will listen. I have given presentations about giving better presentations, tried to get more presentation training for students and sounded off on twitter about it many, many times. Naturally the next step was to write a blog post.

So this post is partially a public service announcement and partially something to save my eyes and ears in the future.

So, here, step-by-step, is what you should do to produce the content of your presentation. This is not the only way, but it works for me.

1. YOUR PRESENTATION IS NOT YOUR PAPER

First, it should go without saying that watching a presentation is not the same as reading a paper. Yet time after time I see what is essentially a paper put onto slides. This should not happen.

Start with a completely open mind when planning your presentation, but use the next rule to guide this process:

2. WHAT IS THE BIG IDEA?

I see a lot of work that people present without saying what the big theme of their work is. This should be one of the most important things about your presentation.

You should be able to say this in one sentence to sum up the message you want to get across.

Anything that gets in the way of this message shouldn’t be in your presentation

The big theme might be ‘logging impacts are more severe for carbon than biodiversity’ or ‘functional extinction of birds leads to reduced seed dispersal’ or whatever. Usually the big message will be related to your results, but not always. Focussing on the one big message allows you to get rid of all the extraneous detail that you might be tempted to put in a presentation.

Once you have your big message, you should focus on answering:

3. WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?

Your audience ultimately determine the success of your presentation. You have to aim to change them in some way in order to achieve what you want.

Before you generate your content take a moment to think about your audience.

Who are they?

What do they do?

What are their values?

A couple of weeks ago I saw a student (who will go unnamed) present slides that were extremely complex and full of equations to a bunch of scientists who were not specialists in his field. Apparently he couldn’t be bothered redoing a presentation he gave at a lab meeting.

Doing this is just shooting yourself in the foot. You will lose the room and they won’t care about what you are doing. You might as well not give the talk at all.

Once you have worked out who your audience are, concentrate on the:

4. WHY?

I see lots of people jump straight into talking about what they are doing without saying why it is important. This. should. never. happen.

You need to make me care about your work. If you don’t I will switch off.

What is the ultimate aim of your work?  Be explicit about this, don’t leave people to  join the dots for themselves.

You can use this to introduce as well as finish your presentation, in much the same way as paper introductions and discussions are linked.

The more personal you can make the why part of the presentation the more people will engage with it.

My last presentation was about recovery of biodiversity and carbon from forest disturbance. First I talked first about how many people live in degraded forest landscapes putting it in terms of the populations of countries so that people could visualise what I was saying. Then I moved on to why these landscapes are important for biodiversity, carbon and various ecosystem services.

Once you have your theme and your beginning:

5. GATHER YOUR CONTENT

To be honest, the meat of your presentation – your work and how you did it – is the thing that scientists tend to get right.

Even so when you are planning this part of your presentation don’t just dump in everything from your paper/chapter. Not all of it is relevant and since the standard presentation is 10-15 minutes long you would do well to cut quite a lot, given how long figures can take to explain. Always try to explain figures properly and if that means losing a couple of figures from your paper – so be it.

There, I feel a lot better about that now. If you are putting together a presentation I hope this helps get you started. When designing slides you’d do well to see what Tom Webb and Todd Reubold have had to say, they do it so well that I thought that a post on design might be a bit redundant.

Now go out there and make better presentations, if only for my sake!

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3 thoughts on “How to make a killer scientific presentation

  1. Thanks for the mention! I’ll be co-presenting a workshop on building better presentations at the 2014 AAAS meeting, so hopefully that will help improve a few more science talks.

    1. A pleasure. I really liked your guide and have used to it to help me give better looking presentations.

      Well done getting the AAAS gig, hope you can convert a few people!

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