Contributor Simi Juriasingani
No matter how many times I present my research, the thought of talking about my work in in front of a room full of professors and graduate students is always terrifying. On the day of any presentation, I feel a sense of persisting nervousness in the hours leading up to the presentation that makes it difficult to focus on anything else. This feeling only fades once I’ve gotten through the first few minutes of presenting.
Over the past three years, I’ve presented my research in front of my department and at several conferences. As a result, I’ve discovered some tips that have helped me prepare for presentations effectively and feel more comfortable when I deliver them.
Before I dive into my tips, I want to dispel a common misconception. If you’re preparing a research presentation for a course, please don’t buy into the notion that your grades depend on the number of graphs you have generated. Firstly, your progress/results are just one component of the mark for the presentation. Background information, organization, presentation skill and response to questions will also factor in to your grade. Secondly, the marks for progress/results aren’t dependent on the quantity of graphs. Rather, the mark comes from how clearly you explain the your results (rationale, outcomes and context) and their implications.
Tip 1: Figure out your overall story.
In order to give a concise and clear presentation, you need to figure out the narrative arc for your presentation.
There are five components to your overall story: the question you tried to answer, how you tried to answer it, the answer, the implications of the answer and the next steps.
These components may sound like the aims, methods, results, discussion and future directions sections of a report or paper. However, I encourage you not to think of your presentation as being a summary of a paper because you probably won’t be able to cover all the points in it.
Instead, think of your presentation as a highlights reel. Work with your supervisor to come up with a concise narrative that will leave the audience with a rational, yet impactful novel impression about your topic based on your results.
Tip 2: Don’t skimp out on the background.
With the strictly enforced time limits, it can be tempting to discard a few background slides if you have a lot of information to present.
However, most audience members won’t know your topic as well as you do. If you don’t set the stage adequately, they will be unable to appreciate the implications of your results in the same way you do. This will detract from the overall impact of your presentation.
To avoid this situation, get feedback from someone who isn’t familiar with your research topic to ensure that you have enough background material leading up to your research question.
Tip 3: Spend some times perfecting your slides (Content, Organization, Transitions).
You’ll probably get a decent grade if you have all the required sections in the expected order. However, it’s the attention to detail that’ll get you an excellent grade. Below is a list of conventions and suggestions that will improve the quality of your powerpoint slides:
From my observations at research conferences, I’ve discovered that scientists tend to prefer light backgrounds and darker text as this allows graphs to stand out.
Keep your formatting consistent and use professional fonts (e.g. Arial, Calibri, and etc)
Try to use grayscale colour schemes for your graphs so that your results are clear to visually impaired individuals with any form of colour blindness.
Title all your slides. For results slides, it’s best if the title is the conclusion from the graphs because it helps you and the audience focus on the main point.
Minimize text and use graphics and pictures instead. (e.g. Methods can be shown as a schematic rather than a list.)
Keep separate sections on separate slides. The total number of slides doesn’t matter because you may spend only 10 seconds on a slide, but your presentation will seem more organized if you do this. (e.g. Keep aims and hypothesis on separate slides.)
Separate large sections of content into clear subtopics and ensure that each subtopic sequentially leads into the next subtopic. This is a key part of improving the organization of your presentation. (e.g. Instead of a few slides titled “Background”, it’s better to have a sequence like Breast Cancer -> Prevalence -> Subtypes -> Therapies -> Aims…)
Maintain an appropriate level of animations based on the natural pauses you take when you speak. (e.g. Steps in a complicated method can show up individually or at once depending on how much detail you’ll provide to the audience.)
Choose one simple transition animation and apply it to all your slides.
Plan your spoken transitions between slides to improve the flow of your presentation. (i.e. Incorporate phrases like “Based on these studies…”, “Due to this issue..”, etc at the start of your explanation for a new slide to make your presentation sound smoother.)
Tip 4: Practice your presentation until you’re comfortable with the content and time limit.
The most important tip for acing any presentation is practice! Practice your presentation until you feel comfortable saying what you need to say in the allotted time.
Here are four specific types of practice runs that will help you perfect your content & delivery:
Practice in front of your lab. By doing so, you’ll get specific feedback from people who are familiar with your work. They’ll be able to point out any errors on your slides and any issues with your data interpretation and conclusion.
Practice in front of your peers in your program who specialize in different areas. People who hear your presentation without having a thorough understanding of your research area can point out sections that aren’t clear. You can adjust the depth of your explanation of specific points based on their feedback.
Time your practice runs. This will help you figure out the correct pace while you pin down the correct amount of detail for your presentation. You’ll also avoid losing points or being cut off by finishing within the time limit.
Practice your presentation in the room that you will be presenting in. This will help eliminate potential technical issues and alleviate nerves due to unfamiliarity with the setting. You can also get a feel for how your voice projects in the room by recording your practice runs with a phone that’s placed at the back of the room.
Tip 5: Prepare for the question and answers period.
Most research presentations are followed by a question and answer period. This can be even more nerve wracking than the actual presentation. However, there are steps you can take to be prepared for answering questions articulately.
Pause and think before you answer a question. A lot of people dive straight into answers once they receive a question. Such answers can end up being vague, curt or even incorrect because the presenter didn’t think about the question enough. A good tip in such scenarios is to repeat the question because it gives you some extra time to formulate your answer and it ensures that the audience is on the same page as you.
Ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question. This will also help you avoid giving vague or incorrect answers.
Be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question. If an expert asks you a specific question and you don’t know the answer, it’s best to own up to it. You can follow up with a rational guess, if you have one. Avoid stating something incorrect because this could lead to follow up questions that you won’t be able to answer.
Anticipate questions and prepare your answers for those questions. Through practice runs in front of your lab and your peers, make a note of the points that were unclear to them and the questions they asked you. Your audience will likely have similar questions. Thus, you can prepare your answers for such questions in advance.
Presenting your research can be difficult, especially if talking in front of a crowd makes you nervous. However, if you know your overall story well and you practice enough, you can deliver excellent research presentations with more ease.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll still be nervous right before your presentation. But if you are well-prepared and comfortable with delivering the presentation, the nervousness won’t persist for long and you’ll be able to focus on other tasks too.
All the best for your upcoming research presentations!