1. Length. No one ever complains if your talk is too short. “Oh no, I have time to go to the bathroom AND grab a coffee! But I really wanted to hear more about object permanence.” If your talk is too long, you could cut into another presenter’s time, or the audience’s lunch break. Err on the side of short.
2. Avoid rushing. If you realize partway through your talk that you are running out of time, don’t just start talking faster. Talking fast means that people will miss huge chunks of what you are saying. Decide which points or slides to skip; you can always return to them if someone asks a question at the end. Better yet, when you prepare your talk, think about what you might cut, so you’re prepared to skip it if needed. Yes, I know, every single word in your talk is important. But only if people have time to hear it. Also, once you’ve been presenting for a while, you will learn whether you’re someone who speaks faster in front of an audience than when practicing, or slower in front of an audience. I’m the latter – I tend to add extraneous comments that slow me down, so I always know I need to add a few minutes of cushion to my timed practice talk.
3. Practice with an audience. I gave my first research talk in 1993, but I still do practice talks with my lab group. Explaining to real people and watching the looks on their faces helps me realize what needs better explanation, and what can be cut. My students’ feedback certainly helps me improve. Things that are perfectly clear to you because you’ve been living the data for 2 years are not necessarily clear to others. Also, seeing others’ practice talks is good training for improving your own presentations.
4. Time with each slide. Do not put a slide up for less time than it takes for people to read it. Either cut the information on it, or spend more time with it. And do not simply read what is written on the slide. Provide more information verbally than is written, otherwise, your presence is superfluous.
5. Provide a roadmap. If you’re giving a standard 15-20 minute presentation on one specific research study, then a sentence or two at the beginning may be enough of a roadmap. If your talk is longer or covers multiple studies (like a job talk), give an overview slide that provides a roadmap of where you are going.
6. Be yourself. When I gave a practice job talk in graduate school I received a fair bit of advice about my mannerisms, including talking with my hands less, never touching my hair, dropping specific words I used, etc. I know it is possible to train yourself to change these behaviors. But at the time, when I tried to practice without gesturing, for instance, I felt paralyzed and kept tripping over my words. I decided to be myself. I got the job. Last week when my conference-buddy/roommate walked in while I was practicing my talk, she laughed that I was gesturing, seated alone, in front of my laptop. I still gesture. People deal, and I feel more comfortable. Of course, if you have a very distracting habit, like constantly flipping your hair or say “um” every other word, you should consider working on it. But not right before you leave for a conference.
7. Humor. My husband used to be a standup comic. When he lectures, he can do totally random things like suddenly show this video during a class on factor analysis, and people think it’s hilarious. If I tried to do that, people would think I was a dork (see what I mean). If you’re not funny, don’t try to be. Think about the ways in which you are funny, the ways you make friends and colleagues laugh, and use that type of humor – if appropriate – in your presentations. Only use humor in ways you are comfortable.
8. Font. As with posters, use big size font. And use this font for everything – not just text, but figures, captions, tables, etc. Never cut and paste or screen shot a Word or PDF table and paste it into your slide.
9. Color. As with posters, dark text on a light background is generally easier to read from far away than the reverse.
10. Present visually appealing slides. Make your slides easy to read, but also interesting enough to keep attention. Figures, tables, and occasional images are all useful elements.
11. Avoid dancing frogs. Don’t go overboard on interesting elements. About a decade ago I attended a talk where every slide had a dancing frog. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember the dancing frogs. Don’t be remembered for the dancing frogs.
12. Proofread. Please, please, please spell check, proofread, and ask someone else to do it for you as well. If your slides have multiple typos, people in the audience are going to wonder if you’re equally careless with your data management and analyses. Or they’re going to nudge their friends every time they notice a typo. Really.
13. No reference list. Sticking up a slide with a long list of references for a few seconds at the end of your talk doesn’t add to the presentation.
14. Be ready for questions. People will likely ask you questions. Prepare as best you can. I am usually ready with more details about my data collection and analyses. People rarely actually ask me the questions I’m prepared for, but I’m ready if they do. It’s hard to prepare for the questions that people actually ask, like, “Have you ever looked at X” (where X = the exact topic that the questioner studies, or X = the unexpected behavior of the questioner’s adolescent son). If you don’t know an answer, it’s okay to say so. If you can, describe something similar that doesn’t completely address the question, acknowledging that it’s not a direct match (“I know it’s not exactly what you asked, but we do have data on HPV vaccination that suggests that vaccination is higher among more religious students”). You may find variations of these phrases useful: “That’s really interesting.” “We haven’t analyzed it that way, but it would be interesting to do so.” “We didn’t collect data on that topic, but it would be a great future study.” Whatever you do, don’t get defensive. And try not to spend too much time answering any one question if there are a number of other people waiting to ask questions as well.
15. Water. Always have water when you give a talk. Of course it helps if your throat is dry. But it also gives you an excuse to pause if you need to gather your thoughts.
16. Attend other talks. The best way to improve your presentation style is to attend many talks and think about what you do and don’t like from other presenters. As with most things, the more you observe and the more you practice, the more skilled you will become, particularly if you focus on continually improving.
“The post How to give an engaging conference presentation, first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s Blog on October 25, 2013.”