How to make a good scientific presentation

The following are some tips to help you make a successful science presentation.

  • Know your audience. Gear your presentation to the knowledge level and needs of the audience members.

  • Tell audience members up front why they should care and what’s in it for them. What problem will your work help solve?

  • Convey your excitement. Tell a brief anecdote or describe the “aha” moment that convinced you to get involved in your field of expertise.

  • Tell your story. A presentation is your story. It needs a beginning, a middle and an end. For example, you could begin with the problem you set out to solve. What did you discover by serendipity? What gap did you think your work could fill? For the middle, you could describe what you did, succinctly and logically, and ideally building to your most recent results. And the end could focus on where you are today and where you hope to go.

  • Keep it simple. Every field has its jargon and acronyms, and science and medicine are no exceptions. However, you don’t want audience members to get stuck on a particular term and lose the thread of your talk. Even your fellow scientists will appreciate brief definitions and explanations of terminology and processes, especially if you’re working in a field like microfluidics, which includes collaborators in diverse disciplines, such as engineering, biomedical research and computational biology. Regardless of the level of your talk, the goal should be to communicate, not obfuscate.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice and experiment with both the content of your presentation and your delivery. You can't just wing it.

  • Set the stage. Get your equipment ready and run through your slides if possible (use the “speaker ready” room if one is available). If you’ve never been in the venue, try getting there early and walk the room. Make sure you have water available.

  • Stand tall and keep your chest lifted. It’s more difficult to breathe and speak when your shoulders are rolled forward and your chest caves in. Standing tall is also a way of conveying authority. If you’re presenting from a sitting position, sit up in your seat, keep your arms relaxed and away from your sides (i.e., don’t box yourself in by clasping your arms or clasping your hands in your lap).

  • Smile. Not only will you appear more relaxed if you smile, but research has shown that smiling — even when forced — reduces stress. Plus the audience enjoys watching and listening to someone who’s smiling rather than being stern or overly serious, especially if your topic is complicated.

  • Speak up. The audience came to your talk so they really do want to hear what you have to say. If a microphone is available, use it. Talk from your diaphragm, not your throat, to give your voice authority and resonance.

  • Talk to the audience, not the screen. Making eye contact with one or more friendly faces can relax you and help you connect to the audience. It will also prevent you from reading your slides, which you don’t want to do unless absolutely necessary (for example, if you forget the statistics supporting a particular point). Ideally, look at people at the back of the room – or at the back of the room itself.

  • Stick to your time frame. Try to pace yourself. When preparing your slides and practicing, make a note on the slide you think you should be discussing when you’re about midway through your talk. This gives you a benchmark and lets you know if you need to speed up or slow down the rest of the presentation.

  • Don’t drift off at the end. If appropriate, ask if there are any questions or tell the audience they will have an opportunity to ask questions later.

  • Use humor if possible. A joke or two in your presentation spices things up and relaxes the audience. It emphasizes the casual nature of the talk. Even a really lame joke will get a good laugh in a science talk.

  • Be personable in taking questions. Questions tell you what part of your talk the audience did not understand. Questions may also help you focus your research or help you in the write up. Don’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know the answer.”

  • Thank you. It is always a good idea to acknowledge people who helped you, and thank the people who invited you to give a talk.

  • Dress for success. Clean off and spiff up for your presentation. It will put you – and your audience – in the correct mindset before you even say a word. If you’re not sure about attire, err on the side of being overdressed.

PowerPoint Tips

  • Slides are for the audience. They should not be designed as a memory aid for the speaker. If you feel you need a tool to help you decide or remember what to say, create notes for yourself, but do not project these in front of the audience. Slides that are created for the speaker tend to be overcrowded and cryptic.

  • Less is more. Although there are no “rules,” 20-25 slides work well for a one hour presentation. You’ll have a better idea what works for you if you time yourself during a practice session.

  • Create sections. Use a title slide to start a new section or change the subject. This will also help you organize your presentation and make sure it flows logically.

  • Avoid clutter. Stick to three to five bullet points per slide at most. Bullet points should contain key words — not complete sentences.

  • Make it readable. Rule of thumb for fonts: 28-40 point for headlines; 18-28 for text; 12-14 for references. Use sans serif fonts, and make sure you have a strong contrast between the background and text (e.g., black or dark blue text on a white background; white text on a blue background). Don’t use ALL CAPS; underscore a point by putting it in italics or bold (underlining can make the text more difficult to read).

  • Use visuals. A single image of something particularly relevant to your work is more engaging and has the potential to convey more information than words. Keep the visual simple. Generally, steer clear of videos because the low resolution makes everything look grainy.

  • Check your spelling. Nothing takes away from credibility like misspelled words, especially if they’re up on large screen for a minute or more — or worse, repeated throughout your presentation.