BioPerspectives

Sep 18, 2013

10 Ways to Significantly Improve Your Science Presentations

This second part of a three-part series offers tips on how to strengthen your speeches.

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    Amplifying your passion is one way to improve your presentations. Your affect should reflect genuine belief in the value of your work. [© Andres Rodriguez - Fotolia.com]
    1. “Powerpoint Is Evil;” start your presentation with pencil and paper. OK, maybe it’s not quite evil. Starting your presentation within Powerpoint gives you a measure of instant credibility. With Powerpoint’s packaged formats, fonts, spacing, visuals, and coloring, even the weakest ideas can look pretty good. But starting your presentation within Powerpoint puts form before—and can easily logjam—your best thinking. Beginning with pencil and paper helps your presentation’s purpose, flow, and major points. Edward Tufte’s famous Wired Magazine article, “Powerpoint Is Evil,” provides further useful detail on the damage Powerpoint can cause.
    2. Clarify your purpose. If you’re thinking the purpose is simply “informational,” think again. Successful science presentations include intelligent thinking not only in their content, but also in their purpose. It’s not enough to tell your audience you’re presenting “an update of your findings,” you also need to clarify what you want them to do with what you’re presenting. Are you hoping to get comments, criticism, or technical review from your audience? Do you expect that they’ll apply your thinking in some way in their own work? And then, let your presentation’s purpose drive your content. If some of your data is “interesting” but not relevant for your purpose, take it out. Throughout your presentation, keep anchoring your content back to your purpose.
    3. Start strong—with your conclusion. Science presentations aren’t mystery novels or historical accounts. You’re presenting complex information. People will more clearly understand your thinking if you begin with a summary of your conclusions, and then present what led you to those conclusions. Treat your presentation as if it were a newspaper article; open with a “lead” that summarizes the content. While you’re at it, begin with clarity and a positive tone. Starting with an apathetic opener, “I was tasked to give this presentation,” will have your audience reaching for their smartphones, checking their messages, and adding items to their grocery shopping lists.
    4. Don’t just “present your data;” explain its significance. Explain what your data illustrates. Explain what you think it means, what it implies, and what you think its significance is. Working extensively with it, being immersed, it’s easy to lose sight of your data’s meaning and implications. Be sure to provide your perspective and reflections. What do you conclude? What do you recommend?
    5. Check your passion. It’s great to be objective and logical when presenting your data, but too many scientists turn Spockian when they present to a group. You can maintain your logic, but do you sound and look like you care? If you want participants to take your findings seriously, you must clearly project that you believe in them yourself. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean actor, but your affect should reflect genuine belief in the value of your work.
    6. Tell a story. Using an intelligent story theme, e.g., your group’s quest, struggle, obstacles, and frustrations doesn’t just provide drama; it also helps your audience more clearly comprehend your content. Working with a project over time, scientists often lose sight of the significance of their own work. Story themes uniquely, effectively clarify the deeper meanings of a presentation and communicate to participants why they should care.
    7. Present to 40 people like you’re talking with a friend at a bar. When you talk with a friend, you don’t look away—at your slides. You make eye contact, you look at your friend. You don’t sit still, rigid, or statue-like. You use gestures and you walk around. You don’t stand behind a podium. You sound like you care. Effective presenting involves sounding like you sound in a conversation—animated, interested. It also means connecting like you connect in a conversation, checking to see if your friends understand what you’re saying, and making adjustments if they’re not.
    8. Get to know Ted. Visit the famous technology education web site www.ted.com and use their search tool to find presentation topics that interest you. You’ll find a vast collection of topics and presenters. Watch three or four of them. You’ll notice that they all communicate complex concepts clearly and that they use few if any slides. Notice what they do to present effectively, how they use slides, and how they engage their audiences.
    9. Practice. The people you see presenting on Ted practice. True, they’ve presenting to a much larger audience than you are. But it’s entirely possible that your presentation is more important than theirs. After all, it’s your effort that moves your organization’s science forward. Your presentations need to do justice to the work you’ve done. Buy and use a video camera. Do you look like you want to look, sound like you want to sound? Are you clear, convincing, and compelling? Are you looking more at your slides than at your audience? Simply watching yourself, you’ll make many improvements. Stop whining that you’re not comfortable looking at yourself on video.
    10. Read Part 1 of this three-part series,Ten Wince-Inducing Mistakes That Undermine Science Presentations”. Too many good ideas get lost not because of their content but because they weren’t presented well. Don’t make people wince!


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