10 Steps to a Perfect Science Talk

Posted by Joanne Kamens on Aug 23, 2016 10:30:00 AM


Like graphing data, choosing controls, or mixing clear solutions—public speaking is skill that any scientist can learn.  Any time you give a science talk, you are also giving a job talk. Even if not being interviewed, there could always be a future boss in the room, so it is a good idea to start thinking about public speaking early and often. Two of my jobs have indirectly resulted from someone seeing me speak in a non-interview setting. There are many resources on self-promotion (how hard it is for some people, especially women), visibility (how to get it, especially if introverted ), and networking (how to get people to remember you). What better way to accomplish all of these things naturally than to give a dynamite presentation?  To that end, let’s chat about giving science talks and how to make them serve you well. The happy byproduct might just be a career opportunity.

Check out Joanne's Reddit AMA

The focus of this article will be talks for non-academic settings. Many of these guidelines will apply to any type of science presentation, but, for more detail on the job talk for an academic position, see this very good article at NatureJobs: Interviews: The All-Important Job Talk.

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1. Watch Other People Give Great Talks

We are not talking about lab meeting here. Lifeless presentation of experimental results in the order they were performed does not make for a memorable presentation anywhere but in a lab meeting (maybe not there either). Think Keystone Keynote presentation or Ted Talk. You want to give the audience something to think about, argue with, or learn from. Some of the best talks I have seen by early career scientists are those in the Young Scientist Seminar Series. Watch how these speakers talk without looking at their slides or notes. Listen to their stories and narratives (see below “Tell a story”) and note how they build suspense. Notice the simplicity of their slides and how the slides complement the spoken message. Learn from their level of explanation in presenting data. Finally, let me take this opportunity to recommend all the science and career talks at iBiology which hosts an amazing amount of useful, entertaining science lab, career, and policy content.

Watch Joanne give her "Not" Networking 101 Talk

2. Tailor Every Talk to the Occasion

Don’t just plan to reuse a prepared talk unless it perfectly fits the occasion.  I speak on the same topics many times, but I always seek out information about the particular audience and venue before tailoring each presentation appropriately.  Find out who will be listening.  Are they early, mid, or late career?  Will many non-scientists be present?  Always ask the hiring manager or host for topic advice. An added bonus to knowing your audience is that it can help you avoid making mistakes. I once made a joke about social science to an audience that I thought consisted of all biologists. The social scientists in the room were quite offended. I felt terrible when the host told me and wished I had been more careful.

3. Tell a Story

We are biologically programmed to listen and remember better when we hear material delivered in the form of a story. Using stories is one of the best ways to make you and your presentations engaging and memorable. If you read my story above about the presentation faux pas, you are more likely to remember the point.  

What makes a story? A story is a narrative connecting cause and effect. Stories can and should be very simple. The goal is to get the listeners to be thinking “What happens next?”  Describe how you pushed to a solution or overcame obstacles. Take time to consider the order of your narrative. Scientists do this all the time, you just need to figure out how to make it suspenseful.

4. Start Preparing Your Talk Early - Like Today

Don’t wait until you need to speak to start creating slides or thinking about content. Create a Google.slides or Powerpoint file right now to capture interesting key results, striking images, creative ideas, and engaging stories as you encounter or experience them. Drop content in this file over the years and a talk about your research or work will write itself when the time comes.

5. Choose Interesting Content

Talk about something you know a lot about and that you care about. Don’t try to present topics that are unfamiliar to you because the company you are visiting works on them. Of course, if some of your work does relate, make sure to include that material, but don’t force it. You can always relate to scientists by explaining how your work fits in the bigger science picture. Scientists especially like to learn new things, so rehash common knowledge as little as possible. Don’t use a lot of jargon in your talk, unless you are certain that the audience will be familiar with the terms. If you feel you need to define a term, but are worried that this might sound condescending, consider explaining the term on a slide but not reading the explanation. The people that need the information will find it. Experienced speakers present useful protocols, geeky science details, products that resulted from their research, “aha” moments, and future research directions. Don’t worry if your work hasn’t been commercialized, just talking about the possibility is interesting.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice in Front of A Real Audience

Good, even great, speaking skills can be attained by almost anyone with enough practice. I always take a poll of scientists in training to see how many in my audiences have given a 50 minute talk (not a lab meeting) in the previous year. Usually fewer than 10% have done so. How can you expect to deliver a great public presentation if you are doing it for the first time? Practice talks also help a speaker determine how long the talk will really take and to adjust content and slides to better suit the target time frame.  

I suggest that all graduate students and postdocs form peer mentoring groups to practice giving talks and getting feedback. Wouldn’t you rather hear it from your peers than a less supportive audience?

7. Hone Your Slides

Sample Slide
Use big images that are easy to see (and for heavens sakes, label all graphs and data professionally). Do remember the fine points of visual aids. Here’s a great slideshare with more details on visuals in science presentations. There is just no excuse for poor quality slides with sufficient time to prepare (and it does take time). For important talks, ask your peer mentors to check your slides for typos and clarity in a big room.  Finally, don’t pass up opportunities to show cool visuals, but don’t overdo the effects. It may be a bit unnerving to use video for a job talk, but if you can get it working well, everybody loves a great animation.

8. Predict Questions, Prepare Answers

Speaking pros always have a few extra slides in their back pocket. During your practice rounds, encourage your listeners to ask questions and record those that were asked. Reflect on the questions and come up with clear and concise answers. This preparation will help you avoid giving only yes or no answers in front of a crowd. Having answer slides ready after your formal conclusion slide will also help with your confidence. It is best not to be asked something that you don't know the answer to, but if you are, never make up an answer. Just say you will get back to them with an answer, and do so if you can.

9. Resist the Urge to Say Everything

I allow 1 slide for every 1 minute of talk length, and then I cut a few more slides. Do not run over your time—the audience’s attention will start to wander when you are supposed to be done. They will start looking at their phones. Speaking longer just makes you seem unprepared or arrogant. A bit short is always better than too long, and ensures time for questions. Don’t be tempted to cover too many things. One good topic or story is all you need, if you do it well.  Resist the urge to show all or even a lot of data.  I can’t say this enough…more is almost never better.

10. Be Enthusiastic

You don’t have to emote beyond your comfort zone, but if the speaker sounds bored, the audience will be bored. You must show that you are enthusiastic about the problems you are addressing by using an energetic tone of voice. Your goal is to be conversational - the audience should feel engaged and not like they’re sitting through a pre-recorded lecture.This takes practice (see above) and a deep familiarity with your content. If at all possible, practice enough so that you can deliver most of your talk without notes. Don’t be hard on yourself if you stumble or make a mistake. Move on, the audience doesn’t really care about these details, but does follow the general structure and flow of the entire session. I myself have a terrible habit of saying “so” and “um” a lot. I hate it when I watch myself speak, but others tell me that I keep the talk moving enough that they don’t really notice.

With sufficient experience you can experiment with other ways to engage the audience. Take an informal poll by asking for a show of hands on a particular question. I like to ask about how many people use plasmids in their research and then see how many of them have requested from Addgene. It is always gratifying to see all the hands go up. It makes a great point when I then ask “and who has deposited to the repository?” When most or all of the hands go down it is a great segue to talk about how the sharing model works.

See if you can elicit helpful comments from your audience as in “Does anyone else have a good answer for this?” This doesn’t detract from the speaker, but actually makes for a more engaging session. The best speakers use no notes and can concentrate on delivery, rapport with the audience, and their own excitement about the topic. Don’t be fooled by thinking that fabulous speakers don’t have to work at it. You have to put in some effort to be the best speaker you can be. Seek out opportunities to practice and over time you can master this important science skill.

Listen to a Variety of Talks on Gender and Science from LabLinks


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Topics: Career, Science Communication, Career Readiness

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