Now that you’ve done most of the ground work while making your story board, the rest of the steps should fill themselves in easy enough. You’ve done all the lab work, analyzed the data, and gone through the literature, so now all that’s left is to tell your part of story:
1. SET THE STAGE
The first crucial question to answer at this point is Who’s in your audience?, because this will determine what goes into those crucial introductory slides, the ones that are going to get everyone’s attention on you instead of motivating them to beat their high score in Candy Crush. You should keep the audience in mind throughout all of the steps, but it’s especially important during the introduction to avoid losing their attention or causing any confusion by assuming the audience is familiar with any aspect of your research. Watch out for jargon/abbreviations/concepts that you use all the time in your lab meetings. It’s easy to forget that not everyone else in the world knows what mTOR or KNN is, does, or represents. Think about the crucial idea or scientific principle that’s at the crux of your research, and have a slide dedicated just to explaining that. Then you’ve made sure that everyone’s on the same page in terms of background knowledge before you jump in to the more subtle and specific aspect of your project.
Once you’ve prepared an introduction that will grab your audience’s attention, the next step is setting up your talk in a way that keeps their attention. It’s easy to stay interested with someone explaining a new concept or a system they don’t work with, but if you dive too quickly into the specifics of your project without giving them a reason to listen to your favorite acronyms, they’re going to go back to beating their previous score on Candy Crush regardless of how good your first couple of slides were. One way to do this is to frame your presentation not as a series of facts, but to present a specific problem, its overall importance, and your approach to solving it. In the introduction you should focus on explaining the problem and its importance, and wait for step two to talk about how you’re setting out to solve it, so you can evoke curiosity in your audience. Be careful not to overstep your bounds here: it’s easy for people working in cancer biology to say that they’ll save everyone from cancer, or those working with global warming to say that the world will be completely flooded over in 10 years, but sensationalism will only get you so far. If you stay within the limits of what you’re doing and let your excitement and enthusiasm about your work come through, people will listen.
Before moving on to the next step, a few extra tips of things to avoid:
- Endless literature review/TMI amounts of data. Stick to background concepts that are necessary for the rest of your talk and mention papers that are directly related to your work, especially any crucial papers that exemplify the area. If people want to know more details, they’ll ask.
- Acknowledgements at the beginning. Some people like this approach but I think it breaks up the talk too much. Wait until the end when people know what you’ve done already before you take the time to thank the people that helped you get there.
2. THE HOOK
Now that you’ve peaked interest, it’s time to go back to the second important part of setting up your story: How are you going to solve the problem? This seems like a monumental task at first, but in essence, you need to provide an answer to a previously unanswered question, using the approach you’ll describe in the next step.
My undergraduate honors thesis mentor was a proponent of using a pen and paper to help you think about concepts in a big picture way (similar to what I described in the last post). It’s something I took from his lab and still use when I work with my own project, presentations, and when talking with other scientists about how to set up their grant proposals, talks, papers, etc. It boils down to five things:
1) GOALS: The long-term ambitions for what you’re doing that go beyond the scope of your project itself. This should be related to the big-picture problem you described earlier.
2) Goals are (eventually) reached by fulfilling OBJECTIVES: What you’re specifically trying to achieve with your project.
3) Objectives are reached by addressing SPECIFIC AIMS: A set of experiments you’re doing that will address the objective.
4) In each of these specific aims are your HYPOTHESES: What you think the answers to the questions you’re setting out to address might be.
5) Your hypotheses then get answered by the EXPERIMENT(S) you run for each specific aim.
While the GOALS can be inferred from previous slides, you can include them again as you present your OBJECTIVES and SPECIFIC AIMS. You may be very familiar with the HYPOTHESES and EXPERIMENTS (and the resulting answers), but in this step you should present them to your audience in the context of the the bigger picture which is framed by the GOALS, OBJECTIVES, and SPECIFIC AIMS. This is a transition point in the presentation, as you’ll just have given your audience a large amount of background information and will now be getting into the nitty-gritty of your project. The “hook” is set when you go from here’s a problem in my field and why it’s important to here’s how I’m going to address it using this fancy thing known as the scientific method. You’ve made it clear what your project’s relevance is in the wider scheme of the problem facing your field and also made it clear what exactly you’re setting out to do with your specific project.
3. THE STORY
I can’t offer much advice for this section because you are the expert here, not me. Remember that when you talk to your audience too: No one, no matter how smart they are or how long they’ve worked in the field, knows all the finer details of your project like you do. That being said, there’s a few things you can do to help make your story shine crystal clear:
- Use text sparingly, especially in methods sections. Powerpoint is best used as a visual aide. You can provide words as need be, but avoid long blocks of text unless they are crucial for understanding something in context. If you have a complicated method, make a schematic instead, even if it’s just using arrows or squares or stick figure mice. It’s easier to walk through your method using a diagram with the audience for them to understand how your experiment or study design looks like. They’ll ask for details on specifics of a method if they want them.
- Keep reminding your audience of your hypotheses and specific aims. Break up your story into the experiment and results for each hypothesis and compile the results of your experiments and hypothesis support for each specific aim before moving on to the next one. This will also help break up your talk and allow you to synthesize your results as you go along, instead of having one long stream of information and then summarizing all of it at the very end. Set up your slides and your presentation with reminders of what your questions are and how you set out to answer them.
- Make what you’re showing crystal clear. When you make a figure, you know what data went into it and what it shows, but in the 30 to 60 seconds that it’s on screen, someone outside your lab or your field may not be able to make much sense of it. Figures are the way you convince someone that the story you’re telling them is a good one, so make sure your figures are easily readable. One easy way to do this is to put a one-sentence description at the top of the slide telling what the figure shows/presents, for example “Knocking down Gene XYZ caused an 80% decrease in response to Drug ABC in mice” followed by a figure is much clearer than a header which says “Result for Specific Aim 3”.
4. TAKE A BOW
And now for the grand finale, and for me, the best part of the presentation: being done! You just gave a long and detailed overview of your entire life’s work/thesis/project, so now would be a good time to remind everyone what you just told them, because some of them might have forgotten along the way. It’s not your fault or theirs, it’s just the nature of our brains to forget the majority of what we hear.
After you remind your audience what you just told them, go back to your initial problem and your plan for how you set out to solve it. What did you learn about the problem? What did you make clearer about the problem through your research? What still remains unanswered but is important for solving the problem? Answering these questions to the audience will help frame your conclusion more strongly than ‘this is what we saw, this is what might be interesting later on for future work.’ Circling around back to the beginning again will also close some memory gaps for your audience, as you can remind them once again of what problem you set out to address in the first place and how you went about tackling that problem.
5. BREAK A LEG!
The last step, after you’ve made all your gorgeous slides, is the delivery. As a caveat, this advice comes from a person who is NOT an expert in public speaking, or really speaking in general, the classic introvert who would rather spend her time reading and writing than standing at a podium in front of hundreds of people talking about science. The problem for introvert scientists is that in this day and age, at some point you’re required to stand up in such a room and talk about your science, so you might as well get good at it. Moral of the story is: if I can do it, so can you!
There are many ways to improve your public speaking skills, but for me it boils down to one simple reminder. You’ll most definitely mess up something. You’ll forget to mention some part about one of your figures, you’ll stumble over a few words, you’ll say mTOWER instead of mTOR. And that’s OK! Minor mess-ups and stumbles will be forgiven by your audience, because it’s message, clarity, confidence, and enthusiasm that they’ll remember instead. If you focus on these last four things instead of perfecting every transition, figure description, etc., then you’ll nail the talk every time. Another simple thing to remember: You’re the expert in your project! So if you don’t explain something as well as you did in your head when you were practicing, remember that you’re probably the only one that will notice.
A few more of my quick tips for this part:
- No index cards! Being read at is not nearly as engaging as being talked to, so practice enough so you can give the talk without relying on a script.
- Embrace the awkward. The clicker won’t work, you’ll bump into the mic and make some terrible sound, a bit of text goes off the screen. Don’t ignore these mishaps. Apologize for any misaligned text or mic issues and keep going. For technical problems, troubleshoot as best as you can and ask the session chair for help if need be. Most importantly during all of this: keep talking! If it’s taking an extra minute to load your presentation or to sort out how to advance the slides, thank the audience for the wait and give a longer introduction of yourself, your affiliation, or discuss the conference venue or city. It will keep the audience focused on you and not on the session chair frantically trying to find your presentation or remember how to use a computer.
- Watch and listen to yourself. One of my least favorite parts of speech class in undergrad was going to the speech center and watch a recorded version of my speech. I realized how WEIRD my movements were due to my nervousness, including but not limited to a very awkward wide-legged stance and swaying from side like I had to pee. As much as I hated watching myself, it showed me what I needed to change and better ways to channel my nervous energy. Now I focus on talking more with my hands and taking a break with a drink of water when I need an excuse to not talk for a couple of seconds. Doing a similar exercise yourself will likely be psychologically painful, but once you see how your minor quirks appear to the audience, you can work on finding an alternative way to channel your nervousness and focus on relaxing and presenting your message instead. At the end of the day, remember that it’s your project and you are the expert, and if you don’t give the talk 100% the way you wanted it to go, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great talk.
With the tips and tricks from this and the previous post, you can now head off on your way to a perfect presentation. Just remember that in this case, ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean that you won’t stumble over words, but instead that you will convey your message and story in a clear and convincing way. By focusing on your story and they key questions you’re focusing on answering, you will deliver a message that your audience will remember as well as one that you yourself will enjoy giving.