Some random tips on scientific public speaking

Jan 22 2008 Published by under Optics, Physics

I'm currently in San Jose, at Photonics West, the biggest optics meeting of the SPIE (Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers, originally.) I'm only here briefly, and pretty burned out on meetings for the moment. I did see some nice talks that I'll blog about over the next couple of days.

One session the SPIE provided for students was advice on giving scientific presentations, which is indeed an art and there are plenty of people who never quite figure it out. I thought I'd provide a list of a few of the insights and 'tricks' I've learned about giving scientific talks at meetings, which will hopefully help someone down the line:

  1. Never go over your time allocation. My former post-doc advisor likes to say that "there's a fine line between a presentation and a hostage situation." The moment it becomes obvious to the crowd that you're over time, you've probably lost their attention, and possibly made them irked. When preparing and practicing your talk, plan for the possibility that you may run overtime and have to skip a few slides.
  2. Think before you answer. When asked tricky questions after the presentation, fight the urge to start talking immediately. When your mouth gets ahead of your brain, you're more likely to start spouting nonsense. Take a few seconds to collect your thoughts, to make sure that you understand the question and to plan your answer. A few thoughtful moments (filled perhaps with a "hmm...") before speaking will help you make your answer comprehensible.
  3. Talks at meetings are more about advertising than teaching. An SPIE contributed talk is twenty minutes; an OSA contributed talk is fifteen. That isn't much time to go into depth about your research, and you shouldn't. Focus on summarizing what you've done and why you've done it instead of giving a detailed description of every technical detail. I treat such talks as an advertisement for my research papers, which an interested audience member will seek out if I've whetted their appetite! This doesn't mean that your talk should be completely bereft of technical content, but you shouldn't overwhelm your audience with details that they probably aren't going to remember anyway.
  4. Practice transitions between your slides. My opinion is that your slides should, from the very first, tell a story: every slide should raise a question that is then answered by the next one. This story-telling tone can be completely ruined, however, by pregnant pauses during slide transitions. Prepare and practice some words to fill that void.
  5. Every slide should have one major point. It is very easy and tempting to fill a slide with gobs of information, especially when thinking about the strict time limits for the talk. A talk is easiest to digest, however, when each slide highlights one major point.
  6. Never be afraid to say, "I don't know." Not every question asked is a good one, and even if it is you might not be able to answer it. I think it's always better to answer honestly when confronted with a stumper than to try and B.S. your way through it. Of course, you should follow point #2 before instinctively falling back on ignorance.
  7. Practice, practice, practice! I shouldn't have to explain this. Practice your talk over and over, until you find it boring. Memorizing the content and flow of the talk frees your brain to actually focus on speaking clearly and enthusiastically.
  8. To hell with the audience! If you're truly frightened of speaking in public, keep in mind that most of the people there are people you've never met, and will probably never meet again (and a lot of them you probably wouldn't like even if you did meet them). The people in the audience whose opinions you respect are, pretty much by definition, not going to have a problem with your talk. If you can look out at your audience and convince yourself that you're not particularly concerned with what they think, you've gone a long way towards relaxing.
  9. It's only twenty minutes. Another 'big picture' observation to help you relax: No matter what happens, the talk is going to be over in twenty minutes. You probably drive longer than that every day on your way to work. Even if the experience is completely unpleasant, it won't last very long!

P.S.  Anyone have their own tips on getting through a short scientific or technical presentation?  Feel free to post them in comments!

4 responses so far

  • Personal Demon says:

    SkullsInTheStars is a really good public speaker, so all you kids should listen to him.

    For further advice on preparing scientific presentations, I am a big fan of Michael Alley's book The Craft of Scientific Presentations. In particular he has research-backed suggestions on how to organize data on a slide to best convey your point.

  • PD: I was actually loaned that book by a colleague some time ago, as research for an educational project I was undertaking. Alas, I never got around to reading it, but my colleague thinks it's great. Maybe I'll take another look at it myself...

  • babs67 says:

    Dr. Skullstars is a good "private" speaker too. Although some subject matter is more interesting than others.

  • babs67 wrote: "Although some subject matter is more interesting than others."

    I disagree! ALL of my discussions are incredibly fascinating!

    BTW sweetie, I forgot to tell you one anecdote about the couple I met on the plane. The wife was telling me how her technically-minded husband tends to ramble on so much she has to tell him to be quiet! I told her I knew someone she could commiserate with...