Top tips for giving talks

During the last Buckley Lab meeting, we discussed some good pointers for giving good talks in preparation for the three honours students presenting their proposal talks in late April this year. Here are some our top tips!

Preparation

  • Prepare, prepare – know your content
  • Most people can remember one or two things from a talk, decide up front what the most exciting thing you have to say is, put that in the title, then set the back ground for the exciting thing in the intro, why should the audience care about the thing. Does it answer a long standing question, does it have important real world consequences?
  • Draw out an outline before making your presentation (e.g. as a flow diagram, where you plot out the transitions among components).
    Kristylee Marr working on her honours proposal talk (source: N. Kerr)

    Kristylee Marr working on her honours proposal talk (source: N. Kerr)

  • Rehearse your presentation but don’t memorise a whole talk. Memorising too much has two key problems: firstly, you can sound wooden rather than excited and engaging; and secondly, when you forget something you were going to say the nagging doubt will be extremely distracting and can disrupt the rest of your talk. It may help to memorize key phrases, particularly transitions among slides (keeps you from staring at the screen for half a second when each new slide comes up).
  • Run through your presentation with friends beforehand – talking it out will help with nerves and indicate weak points.
  • Think about what is the most important/interesting part of your talk and focus your time on that (i.e. spend time on the results rather than the methods –unless it is your methods which are super exciting)

Slide design

  • Don’t forget to tell me at the beginning why I should care about what you are about to present, why is it important? If I don’t know why molecule x or species z are important then I will not be very inclined to listen attentively to the rest of the talk.
  • Don’t write full sentences, just keywords, in your slides.
  • Have little prompts on your slides that will remind you what you want to say (so you don’t need to rely on notes too much) – but avoid going off on tangents that will eat into your talk time
An example of a good, clear slide containing a few key words (credit: Kristylee Marr, honours proposal)

An example of a good, clear slide containing a few key words (source: Kristylee Marr, honours proposal talk)

  • A picture is worth a thousand words – I can’t concentrate on what you’re saying if I’m reading a slide. The exception is if your audience is going to have lots of people with English as a second language, text may help the audience then. If you do have a lot of written material on your slides you need to have more silence so people can read what you’ve written – don’t repeat what’s written on the slides, elaborate on it instead but don’t elaborate while people are still reading.
  • Use animations to the extent that they help you convey your point. But do not abuse. Sequences of slides that act like an animation can be good as a strategy as they sometimes work more reliably than animations.
Natalie - Honours seminar

An example of use of slide sequence animation to clearly explain an issue within population modelling (source: Natalie Kerr, honours seminar)

  • Clear, uncluttered slides – and not so many that the audience gets a migraine as you flip through them at speed.
  • Don’t use slides that you have to apologise for “you can’t see this…sorry, this photo is out of focus…”

Performance

  • Most relative beginners are a little too tentative in presenting their work.  Enthusiasm and confidence are infectious.
  • However don’t  take the confidence thing too far, and come across as cocky and arrogant.  Never belittle other people’s work in a presentation.
  • You are the person in the room who knows the most about what you are presenting.
  • Put your acting face on. Giving a talk, just like teaching, is an act. You are the actor/actress; the audience is your public.
  • Try to engage with the audience, and whenever possible, acknowledge their work if it relates to your talk. Everybody likes a little recognition.
  • Relax and, if possible, enjoy yourself! The chance to talk to a room of interested people about something you are passionate about is one of the real joys of being in Academia!
  • If you have an accent that your audience may have trouble with, make sure the words that you have a hard time pronouncing are on your slides. Slow down, take your time to make transitions in your arguments.
  • NEVER read from notes, make eye contact with the audience, be enthusiastic and engage them. However, writing notes and having them to hand can be your safety net.
  • Explain the axes of your graphs, walk people through what you want them to see.  Don’t forget that while it might be obvious to you (you made the graph!) it won’t be intuitive to most of your audience.
  • Get in the zone / put your game face on / look like you want to be there
  • SLOW DOWN! You always talk faster when a bit nervous, so make a mental note to slow it down and speak to the back of the room (not to the floor)

Dealing with questions

  • When asked a question, always listen carefully and be gracious.
  • When answering a question, do not jump to quickly… it is ok to take some seconds to think about it. Or give yourself some time “that’s quite a great question, not quickly answered – I’m here at morning tea, lets chat then”
  • When giving a seminar, highlight that you will be around for the rest of the day and that you look forward to discussing other aspects of your science or that very line or research with folks (only if pertinent, of course).
  • If there’s something complex you’ll have to gloss over, you can insert a few slides after your last slide that can be used to help field questions.  They can be wordier or busier than your main slides.
  • Don’t be afraid if you don’t know the answer to a question.  You could speculate on the answer (but say “I’m speculating, but…”), or simply say you will need to look into it more.  Tough questions can really help hone your research.
  • In the case of an obtuse or self-serving question (a surprising proportion of them, depending on the audience), you can say something like “That’s an interesting concept – perhaps we can talk about it afterward” and then choose whether you want to follow up.
  • Leave your concluding slide up during questions  – let your message sink in.
Photo[1]

Yi Han discussing her PhD project to Christmas Island staff.

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