Think about your talk as telling a story – not necessarily chronological in terms of when you did what, but in a way that the overall picture builds up in a logical fashion. Keeping a narrative flow in mind will help engage your audience and help you get across your key points. Think about your core conclusions – what you want your audience to come away remembering – and what evidence you need to show that directly leads to and/or supports them. Know that you will have to leave things out – instead of trying to cram more in, choose the most relevant things to the story (and be prepared to discuss, and even have backup slides on, other things if people ask). This way people might not know *everything* you found, but they will be able to focus better on the key takeaways. 

note: I have a lot of trouble with this – and some of the other advice/suggestions I’m giving, but they’re the “ideals” I try to keep in mind. 

Find what works best for you! It helps to watch a lot of talks – either live or in recorded webinars (there are lots of great ones on YouTube!) and take note of what you liked or didn’t like in various people’s talk styles so you can try to include or avoid. 

You learn through practice and it gets a lot easier over time as you get more comfortable with your research and the field so feel more confident. Those first talks can be soooooo scary when you’re new to a research area and feel that everyone knows more than you know. But, even then, know that no one knows *your project* as well as you do (at least in terms of what you did/found). And no one person knows everything. 

Along those lines, try to avoid saying “as everyone knows” or “as you all know” – this can make people who don’t know feel stupid and/or alienated. This really gets to be when big-wig scientists say this in a talk to what’s supposed to be a “general audience.” I have more sympathy for students and trainees – it can be really hard especially when talking to an academia audience with professors and stuff, because we don’t want our audience to think that we don’t know some basic thing. Remember that even the experts are experts about specific things and not *everything*! So even they need reminders of some of the “basics.” So don’t be afraid of “over-explaining” or going “too basic” in order to help everyone get on the same page and follow along. 

Kinda similarly, remember that not everyone is as in-the-weedsy as you are with your particular research niche, so remember to explain things in detail and introduce any abbreviations.

The Slides

  • think about what you want to get across with each slide
    • and how that slide fits into the overall story
  • think about how you can transition between the slides to tell your story
    • you can try different orders to see what works best
  • avoid cluttering slides 
    • don’t be afraid to break slides up into multiple slides
      • focus on optimizing amount of content in your talk rather than # of slides
        • don’t get caught up on the “one slide per minute” rule of thumb you might have been taught (especially if some of your slides are just quick animations or taking people back to your outline)
    • don’t fear blank space!
  • don’t put a bunch of text on the slide, definitely no paragraphs – use mainly figures and then explain them in your talk
    • if you need notes, put them in the presenter notes or notecards or something
  • title your slides with summary sentences so if people get lost or doze off they can get the key point of what you’re showing
  • use graphics when possible to help the audience conceptualize things
  • if you study a complex or a pathway and are looking at various parts, use graphics to help the audience keep track of which part you’re looking at in the slide you’re on
  • include extra “backup” slides for Q & A – either as skipped slides or at the end (I put after a blank slide at the end so I don’t accidentally skip into it after the acknowledgments slide)
  • structural biologist pet peeve, but make sure to include the PDB ID (and very preferably the paper citation) for any structural models you show

notes on figures: 

  • put your figures in as PDFs or at least a high-res image to avoid pixelation when it’s on a screen – make your figures in a vector graphics program such as Illustrator or InkScape. more here:
  • if you resize your figures, make sure you preserve the aspect ratio (don’t squish it vertically or horizontally)
  • if it’s going to be on a projector, make sure things aren’t too light

The Slides

general advice

Stay calm

  • remain calm when you forget a word
  • keep going when you lose track of where you were trying to go (thanks dad for pointing this one out)
  • try to incorporate feedback from practice talks but don’t panic if you forget to include someone’s suggestion 
    • (for example, I did a practice thesis talk to my lab and got some great feedback and suggestions. I 100% intended to change and/or include what they suggested, but during my next practice talk that was tripping me up a bit when I was over-trying to remember to include things and breaking the flow)
  • try to avoid looking at the people who make you the most nervous! 
    • for my thesis defense talk I made my parents go in the room early and sit in the spot directly across from me so I could look at them instead of the people I was afraid might sit there!

Try to sound natural – this is much easier for me once I get past the intro and into talking about my own work

  • try to avoid sounding scripty
    • practice and review your slides but try not to over-rehearse
    • shorten your sentences to make them seem more natural
  • this is hardest for me in the intro. The intro is sooooo hard for me because there’s so much to make sure I don’t forget (and sometimes I know that some people in the audience will have their ears out for certain things)

Let your enthusiasm for your work come through – it makes your talk more engaging and gets your audience to get want to learn what you know that’s making you so excited!

the science stuff

  • Walk your audience through the figures – remember to explain the axes, etc.
  • tell the audience what type of experiments were used to generate the data you’re showing them
    • this is more of just a personal pet peeve of mine, where people will show bar graphs and stuff from “binding assays” or “activity assays” without saying what type of experiment they actually did
  • explain any abbreviations that may be unclear

Keep summarizing things, building up a story

  • the summaries will help people follow along (even if they might have gotten distracted which is very likely even for a great talk!) 
    • try to make your talk so that there’s no “see this or else” point – anybody should be able to hop in and out and still be able to at least follow the general story

The Q & A part

  • ahead of time, try to think of questions people might have (especially if there are people in the audience with distinct research backgrounds/interested you know might be interested in certain things) and be prepared to respond 
    • but don’t panic if you get a question you weren’t expecting – this can give you awesome new ideas which is one of the great things about giving talks!
    • keep backup slides with extra data that address the questions
  • it’s OKAY to say you don’t know! Just say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or something like “that’s a really interesting question, I will have to look into it (“and get back to you” if relevant)” DO NOT just make up an answer! 
    • It’s okay to speculate, but be clear to say that it’s only speculation. 
  • know that you might get thrown some real weird questions and/or have “experts” say things that you’re pretty sure are wrong but you have to politely say that you hadn’t seen that or something and that you’ll look into it 

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