If you find yourself stressed or nervous about an upcoming research presentation, you are not alone. Here I’ll discuss 10 simple ways for life science undergraduate and graduate students to improve their public speaking skills. Tips for a more seasoned researcher can be found in this article, and it provides deeper information on how to sound compelling to your audience.

10 Steps to a more Effective Scientific Presentation

During the last semester of my undergraduate education, I took an introductory pubic speaking class. I have to admit that most students took this class during their freshman year and got it out of the way, but as a science major, this was the last class I wanted to take.

I remember thinking that pubic speaking was not applicable to my future and that my major courses were much more important.

It was only three months after graduation that I began to realize how wrong I had been. I started graduate school and learned that I would be giving a minimum of two presentations a week. I thought there was no way I was going to make it through the 64 presentations I would have to give that year, but I did, and I learned a lot about public speaking in the process. Here are 10 simple strategies I learned for public speaking on scientific topics to any audience.

1. Define your audience.

When it comes to any challenge, I often find the hardest part is knowing where to start. I have found it easiest to start working on a presentation by determining who my audience will be. Will I be presenting to a group of my peers or professors? Will I be presenting to someone who has a strong background in the subject matter or someone who may not be familiar with it at all? Determining the familiarity of the audience with your topic will allow you to determine what level of detail you should provide both in the introduction and body of your presentation.

For example, if I was going to present research on the effectiveness of a newly synthesized antibiotic, Antibiotic X, against gram-negative bacteria to a group of undergraduate students, I would spend some time introducing types of antibiotics and the differences between gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. However, if I were presenting to a group of my professors who have a background in microbiology, I would not need to include those types of details and would start with the specific details of Antibiotic X.

It is important to cater your talk to your specific audience. It would be ineffective to discuss a topic to a group of people who are unfamiliar with it without giving them a decent introduction to the subject matter. At the same time, an audience who is already familiar with a topic will quickly lose interest if you spend time going over information that they already know. Taking the time to think about the background of your audience will allow you to effectively communicate with them throughout your talk.

2. Define the purpose of your presentation.

Even after defining who your audience is, it can be difficult to dive right into mapping out your presentation, especially if you don’t have set goals on what you want your audience to gain. Taking some time to think about what the purpose of your presentation is will make it easier to prepare an effective presentation. What works best for me is to write down all the goals of my presentation and then to summarize these goals into a statement of purpose that encompasses the big picture of the point I am trying to make.

For example, when it comes to my talk on Antibiotic X, some of my goals would include educating the audience on what Antibiotic X is, the mechanism of action of Antibiotic X, the adverse effects of Antibiotic X and how well Antibiotic X works. After jotting these goals down and remembering who my audience is, I would formulate a purpose. In this case, my purpose may be to make the audience aware that there is a new antibiotic that shows more efficacy against gram-negative bacteria than currently used medications. It is important to recognize that my purpose may change for different audiences, however. If I was presenting to a group of physicians about Antibiotic X, the purpose may be for them to consider prescribing the medication, but if I was presenting to a group of graduate students, my purpose may be to interest them in doing further research on Antibiotic X.

3. Organize your presentation from the end to the beginning.

At this point, we have already defined our purpose and our audience, so it is time to begin organizing what we are going to present.

I have found it easier to start from the end and work my way to the beginning. You’re probably thinking that sounds silly, but let me explain.

Our minds have been trained since we were young to do things in chronological order and normally that makes the most sense. However, when it comes to presenting research, starting with the outcomes and then working up to the problem can help keep your presentation focused. First, decide what conclusions from your research are most important to communicate to the audience. The conclusions are what you want your audience to remember from the work you have done and may include implications of the study or ideas for future work. Keep these slides brief and your audience will be more likely to remember the main points. Next, prepare the results section of your presentation. There will usually be a lot of information that you want to include with your results such as graphs and charts. Since you have already outlined your conclusions, it will be easier for you to decide what details need to be included in the results section to support the conclusions. Not every finding from your study needs to be presented, but those necessary to support your main purpose must be included. After finishing the results section, explain how you got there—the methods. Include the details necessary for an understanding of how your results were obtained. Lastly, prepare the introduction and title slides. The introduction is meant to gain your audience’s attention and prepare them for the rest of your talk, so it makes sense that you should already have the rest of your presentation completed before you work on this section. Remember who your audience is when creating the introduction because some audiences will need more background information than others.

4. Treat your presentation like a conversation.

One of the common misconceptions about public speaking is that you should have your presentation memorized. I, too, have fallen victim to this misconception in the past, but have learned that it actually creates a lot more anxiety and stress to memorize what you are going to say. It may seem easier at first, but in reality it creates more worry over forgetting what you are going to say next or what you will do if interrupted by a question. I have also found that memorized presentations tend to lose the attention of the audience quickly since they are often nonengaging and lack personality. Instead, treat your presentation like a conversation. Your audience is just a friend who you are explaining your research to. While this may sound like giving an impromptu speech, you have an outline of your slides there to guide you. This type of speaking is known as extemporaneous, and you do it every day. The hardest part of speaking extemporaneously is getting over your fear that you may not know what to say. I do this by reminding myself how much time I put into researching the topic and gaining an understanding of it. It also helps to actually have a conversation about what you are going to present with a peer. This will boost your confidence in the subject matter.

5. Summarize.

After listening to a lengthy presentation, it is likely that the audience has already forgotten some of what was presented at the beginning of the talk. For this reason, summarizing is an excellent tool that can be used to help the audience remember the most important parts of your talk, ensuring that your purpose is fulfilled. After you finish discussing the conclusion of your topic, summarize all of the important points from the introduction, methods, results and conclusion. This can be done in just a few sentences outlining the importance of the project, how it was done and what conclusions can be made. This will also help the audience to remember any questions they may have been saving for the end of the presentation.

“Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” –Dale Carnegie

6. Preview your slides.

I think we have all had the experience of sitting in a classroom while a professor or peer pulls a presentation up on the projector and you cannot read the words due to a terrible color scheme or because the font is microscopic. Perhaps, you have even had this problem yourself in the past. It is one of the most common errors when it comes to public speaking, often because the slides appear different on the computer they are made versus when it’s projected onto a much larger screen. To avoid this, I try to preview my slides on the screen that will be used for the presentation. This way, I can make sure everything is legible from the audience’s point of view. I understand that sometimes you may not have access to the room or equipment in advance, so try to use color schemes that you know work well and a font size that will definitely be readable. Try to stick to size 24 font or larger. When it comes to colors, white or light text should be used on dark backgrounds and black or dark text should be used on light backgrounds. Avoid photographic backgrounds unless there is a clear purpose for its presence on a particular slide. Avoid red text unless it’s used for emphasis and adds to the clarity of the presentation. Sticking to premade templates and basic fonts can also be a good way to make sure your slides will be legible.

Pro Tip: If you are going to be presenting at another university, use their school colors as your color scheme. You can also use the colors of your own university.

Another reason it is especially important to preview your slides when you are working on a scientific presentation is because there are often many graphs and charts involved in the results section. It is imperative that these graphics are large enough to be interpreted by the audience, even if you will be describing them during your talk. Whenever I am part of an audience and the graphs are too small to read, it reminds me of a commercial on TV where they don’t actually want you to see the data obtained so they display a tiny graph for a maximum of two seconds, and it makes me question the credibility of the study. Legible text and graphics are therefore essential to an effective scientific presentation.

As a rule of thumb, try to stick to no more than two figures per slide except under certain circumstances when comparison may be necessary. You can also use the animation and transparency tools to your advantage when working with figures. There are a lot of ways you can play around with your slides to allow the audience to see it all.

7. Practice, practice, practice.

So you’re probably wondering why I haven’t really addressed the topic of nervousness and presentation anxiety just yet when it is an extremely common issue faced by most people presenting work. That is because I have found that the best thing you can do is accept your fear and practice. Practice giving your presentation to a friend or family member, practice it in front of the mirror or practice by recording yourself on your webcam. This way you can get feedback from others or yourself and improve each time you give the presentation. Just remember that your presentation isn’t going to be the same each time you give it because it is not memorized. Practicing will help ease your nerves and increase your confidence.

If you’re currently preparing for your thesis defense, it is important to remember that the committee is there to support you, not to fail you. Practice and try to anticipate questions they may ask, but remember nobody knows everything and that’s ok. For more advice on your thesis defense, we will have an upcoming article devoted to this topic. Stay tuned!

Pro Tip: Be sure to bring a bottle of water with you to your presentation. Holding a drink can help to reduce nervousness because of the informal association. It can also save you in the case of a dry mouth.

8. Use body language to your advantage.

Like many times in life, body language often gives people their first impression of you during a presentation. Your body language gives the audience an impression about whether you are powerful or powerless. For this reason, it is important to have good posture and use hand gestures when appropriate, but not too often.

In this TED Talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses the effects of power posing and body language. She also discusses how putting yourself in a certain pose can influence hormone levels and how you view yourself. So when you present, if you embody a posture that shows power, you will actually begin to feel powerful and more confident as you speak. This strategy can be used for public speaking, interviews and in everyday life.

9. Don’t be afraid of questions.

When it comes to a presentation about science, the thought of being asked questions about your research or whatever your topic may be can be very intimidating, especially if your audience happens to be your supervisors or professors. The key is to take each question one at a time and answer it honestly. If it is something you do not know the answer to, a good way to handle the question is to explain that it is an aspect you have not yet looked into but plan to in the future. If a question is asked that is too complicated to answer in the time available, it is okay to ask the person who posed the question to stay after so you can explain it in more detail without going over time.

Another strategy you can take is to let the audience know if you prefer questions during your presentation or at the end. If you are going to take questions during your presentation, it is a good idea to factor in a minute or two of time to answer these so that it does not put your presentation behind. If you are going to take questions at the end, again, factor this time into the total presentation time.

Pro Tip: While you may want to avoid the question section, you usually can’t. Instead, be sure to provide a succinct close to your answer so you don’t probe a longer dialog. In order to avoid questions leading to a dialog, rephrase your question back to the person asking to confirm you understand, answer the question with a clear response, and then finalize your answer by asking “does that answer your question” or something similar. If you leave your answer open-ended, you could prompt more questions.

10. Fake it ‘til you make it.

Perhaps the best advice when it comes to public speaking that I have ever received is to fake it ‘til you make it. This works in many aspects of life. Faking it ‘til you make it is all about pretending to be confident even if it is your first time. Acting like an expert and embodying the confidence of an expert will eventually become natural and that’s when you know you finally made it.

While these 10 steps may not make you a public speaking expert immediately, they will help form a foundation for you to build your skills on. As you progress further in your education and career, experience will be your best tool. With each presentation you do, you will improve your skill set and you will have this to carry throughout your professional journey.

Rebecca Talley
GoldBio Staff Writer

Rebecca is a medical student at the University of Missouri.
She previously worked as a lab technician while studying
biology at Truman State University. As an aspiring
reproductive endocrinologist with an interest in global
health, Rebecca has traveled across Central America on
medical mission trips. With a passion for the life sciences,
she enjoys writing for GoldBio.

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