As I’ve started receiving replies to my inquiries about postdoctoral positions and discussing the replies with friends, a common thing for interviews is to present your research. We shifted the conversation from the request for a presentation to what makes a presentation interesting and effective. I can’t count the number of horrible presentations I’ve endured, so I’d like my presentations to be interesting and memorable. We came up with a few ideas on how to make a quality presentation.
1. Avoid slides full of text. Do not write everything you intend to say. If you need a cue, have a bullet point list of key ideas to jog your memory.
2. Avoid slides that are packed with chemical structures or tiny figures whose text you cannot read. At our yearly student symposium, the Dean always jokes about the “slide of benzene” where every compound ever synthesized is presented. That amount of figures presented is daunting and prevents the audience from fully focusing on what is being said.
3. Know your audience. As a biology student, I know that when I present at our yearly symposium, half of my audience will be chemistry students. Therefore, I take the extra time to explain the methodology, allowing my audience to understand why my data makes sense. I received many compliments this year after my first oral presentation to the student symposium and the evaluations submitted by other students said I was the only student who took the time to do this.
4. Use color wisely. No one wants a neon green slide with magneta text. That’s just too much! Stick to simple black and white, or a pastel background with black text. Color can be used on graphs to distinguish between experimental conditions, but select colors that are easy on the eyes.
5. Use animation wisely. Slides with animated transitions are not necessary at a professional talk, but you can use simple transitions to add data onto a slide when you’re ready to discuss it. I have only seen a few presentations with animated graphics included, but only one used animation appropriately. The talk was about enzyme kinetics and rates, so the presenter used a race horse to explain the concepts. The animation used was actually quite helpful to fully understanding the analogy.
6. Always include an acknowledgement slide. You don’t work in isolation, so give credit where credit is due. I’ve been warned that lack of an acknowledgement slide shows arrogance. No one wants that to be their first impression!
Personally, I use mostly figures in my presentation and keep text limited to informative titles. I try to limit text only slides for the outline and summary slides. I always use a slide clicker/laser pointer combo to avoid being tied to my computer during a presentation. I am usually loud enough that I do not need a microphone. These two things allow me some movement during my talk, which I enjoy.
I practice my presentations in front of friends, my research group, and colleagues who do not work directly in my field. I feel that much practice offers me a wide range of feedback to give the best talk that I can. For this year’s student symposium, I actually practiced in front of our new Toastmasters club, Scientifically Speaking. A local member of Toastmasters was there, so I got feedback from a nonscientist about the ease of understanding my research and how to improve my public speaking skills. If you have those opportunities for practice, take advantage of them!
Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to offer coffee, soda, and snacks to friends in exchange for their attendance at your practice talks. As one of the older students on the Scripps Florida campus, I try to share some of these tips and offer my assistance to younger students as they prepare for exams or other presentations. Hope you also find them helpful.