I’m at a conference this week, so for the next few days I’m going to be talking about extracurriculars, the things that go on when you aren’t wearing a lab coat.[1]

Sharing the results of your research is second only to actually doing the experiments in terms of importance, and the skills required for giving a good group meeting talk are just as valuable at a conference or during job interviews.  Too much groundbreaking work has gone completely without notice during, only to be repeated or discovered long after the original researcher has passed on (look to Gregor Mendel if you need an example).

There are several (contradictory) ways to give excellent presentations, and I recommend looking here and here for some quick tips.  Here I want to focus on something that I think is almost always applicable.  Pacing.

Not necessarily a matter of simply speaking energetically, quick movement through your slides helps keep the audience interested and focused on your talk.  This is why virtually every speaking guide suggests that you limit your slides to fifty words or less -not because text is inherently evil, but because it takes a lot of time to move through that much information, and most of the audience can read faster than you can speak (unless you moonlight as an auctioneer, I guess).  By spending more than about ninety seconds on a text heavy slide you let your audience rush past your conclusions with time to spare, and a certain percentage of them start playing with their phones, daydreaming, etc..  Between sixty and forty seconds per slide seems best (make sure you don’t move too quickly), but try to think in terms of the volume and complexity of the information.  Several simple ideas will fit together on a single slide easily, but a nice juicy conclusion or difficult concept should have all that space to itself and probably a lot of words besides, to slow down the presentation and give everyone time to take it in [2].

In a similar vein, present a Cliff notes version of your work.  It’s important not to omit key data, but leave a few little hops of logic for your audience.  If done properly, this both improves the flow of your talk (because there’s less minutia) and increases audience participation, as they fill in what you aren’t saying.

As an example, compare two discussions of the same NMR spectra:

1)      “In this figure you can see that Peak A from compound 2 has been cut in half.  One half shifted upfield 0.2ppm while the other moved downfield 0.1.  Similarly, Peak B moved 0.15ppm upfield and 0.05 downfield and C was divided in half, with the peaks shifted upfield 0.3 and 0.1ppm, respectively.  Taken together, this suggests selective alkylation at D, confirming the potential of our [special sauce].”

2)      “As expected, when we exposed compound 2 to [special sauce] symmetry was disrupted, indicating successful alkylation at D.”

In 2) the same information is on the screen, but now the audience has to look for themselves to see the regions where symmetry is lost, and there’s no longer any need to mention the specific shifts, which can be ignored without affecting the strength of your conclusion.  Giving a presentation is all about telling a story, with the data used to segue from one conclusion to the next.  Cut off as much fat as you can and what’s left is a smooth, memorable talk.


[1]  Not those extracurriculars.  Let’s keep this professional.

[2]  Just a little sidenote here.  I tend to focus heavily on images in my presentations, spending hours in gIMP with a real focus on colour and composition of the final product.  This makes everything pretty, but I’m not sure it adds a huge amount to the presentation otherwise.  The real strength of an image heavy presentation is in the quick transition between slides, which just naturally keeps everything moving along.