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The Importance of the Presentation in Science

Looking back to the start of my scientific career, I always assumed that once I had great data, my talks would be as flashy and convincing as the seminars I attended when top school professors sell their research. I still think that you need reasonably good data to give a convincing talk, but over the years I have seen many talks with amazing data that overall left a stale taste and didn’t excite any listener, even though the findings were quite remarkable if you were familiar with the field. On the contrary, I have seen talks about researchers saving the world with their work, of course only if you didn’t know that the work was comparably less exciting and fundamental. And I have realized for myself that once I had my 5-minute elevator speech down about my research, people were actually interested in my work and didn’t just ask me whether as a chemist I was able to replicate Breaking Bad or tell me how horribly they did in high school science. It was one of the more important lessons I have learned so far in my PhD: A good presentation is just as important as good results. Luckily it’s less time consuming and serendipity based than science to come up with a couple of intriguing slides. Some scientists have published articles about writing good papers[i], giving good presentations[ii] and so forth. Everybody has their own strengths and individual weaknesses, but there are some generally very useful guidelines to rapidly improve one’s performance in a talk.

For one, it is worth the effort to film one’s presentations. A good portion of what you learn with a personal “presentation trainer” becomes fairly obvious after watching yourself for just a couple of minutes. Did you have your hands in your pockets, was 80% of the content “as in, like, you know, that thing!” or were you reading off your own slides? You know when you hear a good talk and you know what’s bad about a talk most of the time, so watch yourself at least once on video.

In Germany we say “no master has fallen out of the sky”, which basically just reminds you to practice. A talk is at least twice as good if you’ve actually given it before, maybe not in front of an audience but definitely out loud. I didn’t take this advice early on in grad school and spent these last two hours before perfecting my slides. I am not saying that you shouldn’t have perfect slides, but practicing for an hour instead would have had a much more convincing outcome that having that one reference italicized. Which brings me to my next point…

Go over your slides with someone else. You have been staring at them for days, weeks, or however long, and they’ll look much better to you than they actually are. Also, choose someone with similar background as your audience. Always keep in mind that the most exciting statistics are just going to bore an organic chemist if the lingo is unintelligible.

There are a lot of things to keep in mind about not having too much text on your slide, how the title should be a summary, the right size of text, consistency throughout the talk, good color schemes (consider that a relatively large part of the population is color blind, so be considerate and use appropriate colors- there’s good literature about it[iii])… Lots of work, but negligible to the work you put into the science!  

Now there is much more to the art of presentation than that, but the point I’m trying to make is that there are a lot of scientists with amazing data, but often it is the presentation skills that set you apart from the masses and open doors for collaborations or jobs. Needless to say, I am over sitting in on boring talks about great science that would really shine with just a little extra time spent to perfect the presentation.

[i] Adv. Materi. 2014, 16, 1375-1378

[ii] Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2013, 52, 3780 – 3781

[iii] http://www.somersault1824.com/tips-for-designing-scientific-figures-for-color-blind-readers/

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