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Janet B. W. Williams

How to Give a Sensational Scientific Talk

Posted on February 22, 2006

Janet B. W. Williams (bio) provides tips for presenting your research at a scientific meeting.


Q: I'm planning to submit a proposal to present my findings at a scientific meeting. Where do I begin my preparation?
A: Make your title catchy, yet informative. You can get some ideas of what works by taking a glance through the program of any meeting and paying attention to the titles that "grab" you.

Know your audience. Who will be there? Mainly researchers or mainly clinicians? All professionals of the same type, or a mix of mental health professionals? How familiar are they with the topic to be covered? What is of interest to them? The failure of many talks to hit home is due to the speaker's failure to gear the lecture to the interests and backgrounds of that particular audience.

Outline the main ideas you want to cover. Initially these can be listed as broad statements, not necessarily yet in logical order. Once this list is completed, cut the number of ideas in half. The biggest mistake made by beginning public speakers is to overload their talk with too many main ideas. Once you have determined the final list of ideas, organize them into a logical sequence for presentation. Do not overestimate the audience's background or ability to absorb new ideas.
Q: How can I work on my delivery?
A: Your style of delivery is a crucial factor in determining how well your talk will be received. Will you read your paper, or speak from notes?

If at all possible, don't read. When reading a paper, the presenter keeps his or her eyes cast down and is not free to gesture with the arms and hands, since they must be ready to turn the page. The speaker who is not tied to a sheaf of papers is free to move out from behind the podium to be in closer contact with the audience. In normal speech our rate and inflection vary greatly, whereas reading tends to be steady in pace and monotonous in tone. In addition, spoken language differs in its sentence construction from written language, and it is easier for an audience to follow the generally shorter, more simply constructed and more emphatic sentences of spoken language.

Many presenters, however, still read their papers. Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to organize your presentation so that you can talk from notes, and still minimize the chances of a disaster. One conservative strategy is to have your written paper in a notebook on the left-hand pages. On each right-hand page, outline corresponding points you would like to make. With this approach, you can feel confident speaking from the notes, knowing that if you panic, the proper place in the written text is right there to fall back on. Many lecturers find that slides can provide an outline for their talk. One or more slides can be presented for each main idea introduced, ensuring proper sequencing of the flow of the talk. This helps the audience follow along, and allows the speaker to be less dependent on written notes.
Q: What are some strategies for getting my talk off to a good start?
A: Your first few words are crucial for relaxing and engaging the audience, so don't be timid. Develop a powerful beginning.
  • Tell a joke or show a cartoon.
  • Begin with a bold, challenging statement.
  • Ask the audience a question.
  • Recount a personal experience.
  • Relate the lecture subject to a topical event.
  • Use a quote.
  • State an informative but little-known fact that is of special relevance to the topic.
  • Relate your topic to a well-known research study or program.
Q: What is the structure of a typical talk?
A: Following the introduction, the speaker should draw a "verbal map" for the audience that indicates the sequence of the main points to follow. Then during the talk, at each major crossroad, the map should be reiterated. Each point should be clear to the audience before the next one is introduced.

When the purpose of a talk is to present the results of a study, the speaker should begin with the initial hypotheses, follow with a description of the observations, and then present a summary of the conclusions. Unlike a published paper, in most cases methods should be described only briefly, with the talk concentrating instead on the results. The audience can always ask questions about details of the method during the discussion period.
Q: How can I effectively use PowerPoint slides?
A: Audiovisual aids are useful only when used correctly. If misused, they can actually detract from an otherwise great talk.

If you're using slides, the first slide you show should be simple and relate to your introduction. It should appeal to your audience, being neither too complicated nor over anyone's head. As a general rule, during the talk itself, the more complex the data represented on the slide, the simpler the slide should be. In presenting straightforward demographic data, for example, several rows and columns are acceptable, whereas in discussing the three-way interaction of biochemical variables, a simpler approach will be more helpful in getting your point across. With very rare exceptions, tables from journal articles should never be copied onto slides. They are not only difficult to see, but are far too complex to be grasped quickly during the course of an hour-long talk.

All slides should be as simple as possible. Each time you work out a slide you think is good, try to make two slides from it to see if it can be simplified further. Don't challenge audiences to read lengthy text and listen to your lecture at the same time. Either read aloud a long statement on a slide, or pause long enough for the audience to read it themselves. A useful rule of thumb is to limit slides to seven (double-spaced) lines with no more than thirty letters or seven words per line. Use lower case letters rather than all upper case, because they are much easier to read.
Q: How can I make use of audio or video during a presentation?
A: The interest of an audience is easily captured by a live demonstration, so a surprise guest will always be a hit. Even an audio recording of a patient interview can be surprisingly effective. (Of course, be sure you have proper permission from the subject.) Alternatively, one can read quotes from clients, such as from letters or from interviews.

The next best thing to a live patient is a video. In general, for an hour-long lecture, 15 minutes of video is the limit. This may be divided into two or three "clips" for intermittent discussion of key points. Careful editing of the footage must be done to focus on the issues you are illustrating. When determining the length of each clip, remember that the audience won't know the context of each section of the interview, so the clip may have to run longer than you would like in order to orient your listeners. In addition, if the subject has an unusual way of speaking, or a strong accent, listeners may need some extra time to get used to the dialogue. Whatever technology you use, make sure the audio track is clear and loud enough to be heard in a room the size of your lecture hall.
Q: I'd rather not have slides. Can I use a whiteboard or flip chart?
A: Using a whiteboard or flip chart to illustrate points of a talk has the advantage of being dramatic, dynamic, lively, and flexible (since parts can be erased and redrawn). Whiteboards should be used, however, only when they can be easily seen by the entire audience, and only if there is a moveable microphone so that you can continue to be heard by everyone. Whiteboard drawing takes practice and planning what you will draw takes as much time as preparing slides. You may choose to write key words or main headings as you present them, or to draw diagrams to illustrate the topic.
Q: What are some tips for concluding a talk?
A: A strong finish to your talk is nearly as important as a strong beginning. The ending is the climax and should be planned with care. You want the audience to know that you are changing pace, winding down the presentation, and preparing for the discussion period. They should listen with a different kind of attention to your concluding statements. Several different strategies can be used:
  • Change the tempo of delivery by slowing down your speech or by pausing before you make your final comments.
  • Use signal words such as "finally" or "in conclusion," or refer to the audience as you move to your final statements ("And so, as I've tried to show you..."). This helps the audience keep in tune with the pace of the talk, and prepares them to pay a different kind of attention to the ending.
  • Summarize what you have said, enumerating your conclusions. If you have been using slides, you should continue with a few phrases after the lights have been turned on, as your listeners readjust to the light.
  • Return to the opening statement. If your opener was a controversial fact or quote, you can now readdress it in light of the new information that you have presented.
  • Introduce a quotation that confirms your conclusions or sheds new light on the issue now that you have presented relevant data.
To carry your closing words through to a strong and definite finish, it is helpful to follow your final words with "Thank you." This gives the audience a clear signal that the talk is over, and it is time for them to clap. It avoids the uncomfortable situation that occurs when the speaker knows he or she has finished talking, but the audience thinks it is only a pause. Be sure to end on time so that there is adequate time for discussion.
Q: How can I facilitate topical discussion at the end of my talk?
A: Prepare for the discussion period ahead of time by trying to anticipate the most likely questions. When the talk is finished, you should remain at the podium looking confident and relaxed (but undoubtedly breathing a huge sigh of relief). Listen to the questions as they are being asked, nod approvingly to indicate that you have understood them, and take notes if necessary.

Never interrupt the questioner, even if you are certain you know what is being asked. Besides being perceived as rude, such interruptions rob the audience of the opportunity to hear the full question, and of course, you will be embarrassed if you have wrongly anticipated its content.

Repeat each question, unless the question is asked from a microphone or can be very clearly heard. This also ensures that you have understood the question, and gives you a bit more time to organize your response. When answering, pay tribute to the question if it is deserved ("That's a very good question..."). This is also useful in disarming a questioner if the question is challenging or critical. If possible, reply with the questioner's name, and look at him or her as you answer.

Be brief and to the point in your replies, but not abrupt. If the answer to a question is lengthy and not of interest to the general audience, provide a brief response and invite the questioner to discuss it with you after the talk.
Q: What if I don't know the answer to an audience member's question?
A: If you do not know the answer to a particular question, don't be afraid to acknowledge ignorance. Such a disadvantage can sometimes be turned into an advantage by asking if anyone in the audience knows the answer to the question. If a question is asked that clearly demonstrates a misunderstanding or misperception of your lecture, accept blame by beginning your response with "Perhaps I didn't make clear that..."

A good non-antagonistic reply to an obviously irrelevant question can begin with "I think your question relates to..." and then you can discuss in greater depth the part of your lecture that is most relevant to the question.
Q: Any final tips for preparing for my talk?
A: The most useful preparation for giving a talk is practice. A good program of practice can be divided into three phases:
  • 3-4 weeks before: You should have a provisional outline or script of your lecture, along with drafts of the slides (and other audiovisual aids) that you plan to use. Practice alone or with a significant other. Use a tape recorder to listen to yourself, and a clock to time the talk. The purpose of this early practice is to smooth out the outline of the talk and revise the audiovisual materials, and to work on your grammar, the coordination of the verbal and visual components of the presentation, your timing and body gestures, and voice intonation. During this stage you should ensure that your talk fits within the necessary time limit. If you are using written text at this stage, it is helpful to know that one double-spaced written page takes about one and a half to two minutes to read.
  • 2-3 weeks before: Rehearse with family, friends, or colleagues. Some academic departments require rehearsals within their own groups, each followed by critiques from the audience on the text, audiovisual aids, and manner of presentation. Put your ego aside during this stage and accept criticism on any aspect of the talk, remembering that it is best to have deficiencies exposed by this small familiar group and have a chance to correct them, before presenting to a large audience of relative strangers. The ability to accept and make use of such critiques is a true strength. At the end of this phase of practice, the slides should be finalized.
  • 1-2 weeks before: Practice in private, referring to notes only minimally, and concentrating on the introduction and conclusion to get them just right. The last week before the talk, if not before, the final speaking notes should be prepared.



Based on presentation at the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Conference, Antonio, TX, January 2006, and personal communication with the researcher in February 2006.


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