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From group meetings to international conferences: how to hone your presentation skills

Pushp Bajaj

In this next article in our PhD Café series, Pushp, a recent PhD graduate and science writer, discusses the importance of learning how to give effective scientific presentations as a graduate student and shares some tips and strategies from his personal experience during his PhD.

From group meetings to international conferences: how to hone your presentation skills
From group meetings to international conferences: how to hone your presentation skills 

The time was 7:45am on a beautiful March morning in San Diego. I was sipping on my coffee while walking the halls of the San Diego Convention Center, which is an absolutely ginormous gathering place that hosts meetings, trade shows and events from around the world every month. With a view of San Diego downtown on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other side, it is truly an awe-inspiring location. Of course, I was not able to enjoy any of that because I was freaking out about my very first research presentation at a major science conference which was due to start in fifteen minutes. 

There was literally only one thought in my mind. I was repeating on a loop what I was going to say in my introductory slides: Good morning, everyone! My name is Pushp Bajaj and I am a third year PhD student at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. The title of my talk for today is …” My PhD advisor told me that doing this helps with stage fright. I was sceptical, but I decided to test it for myself. 

It actually worked. It didn’t make me any less nervous; my legs and my voice were both still slightly shaky. I could feel an unnatural heat in my face which broke out in a sweat on my forehead. But, I was able to say everything that I had planned to say in those first few slides. That is the best-case scenario you can hope for in such a situation.

Once I was through the first five slides, my original voice and the strength in my legs came back. I was able to focus on presenting the work that I had done in the last two years. It went quite well and I received great feedback after it.

In retrospect, it was not so much what I did on the day of, that made the talk a success. It was what I did in the month before, that did the trick.

Since it was my first time presenting at a conference, it was an excellent opportunity to reach a wide-ranging audience with expertise in different areas of Chemistry. Everything had to be perfect; I was representing not just myself but my PI, the entire group and our research. I made sure I had a couple of mock presentations scheduled with the group. That gave me a chance to rehearse multiple times what I am going to say, how I am going to say it and if it is actually conveying the important points effectively to the audience.

Moreover, senior members of the group usually have a better grasp of the research and can be good critics of the technical aspects. Things like whether the research hypothesis and methodology are sound, whether the conclusions are aligned with the results and whether they are consistent with what is previously established in the literature. They can also tell you any obvious questions that can be expected from the audience.

Mock presentations are in fact a great way to practice answering questions from the audience. I would always encourage my lab mates to ask me tough, even tangential questions, which could arise at the actual talk. It is important in such situations to take a moment to collect your thoughts and come up with a concise, but complete answer to the question. In case nothing comes to mind on the spot or you feel that it could be a long discussion, it is perfectly acceptable to say I don’t know’ or ask them for a follow-up one-to-one conversation after the talk.

One of the first pieces of advice about making presentations that my PhD advisor gave me was to make every figure such that it can be used for a publication in a journal or a research talk at a conference, even if it is only meant for a group meeting or to show to a lab mate. I realized how useful this was when I started working on this talk because I already had an arsenal of nicely made figures that can be directly used in the presentation. That saved me a lot of time and effort in the crucial moments. 

Making a presentation for a research talk at a conference is very different from preparing slides for a group meeting or to show to a colleague. An ideal presentation should, first of all, be attractive to the audience. That means, all the plots/diagrams/flow-charts/tables need to be aesthetically pleasing and of high quality. The alignment and formatting need to be consistent, including font type and size. The slide titles need to be catchy and informative at the same time.

It is quite a challenge to keep the attention of a more general audience that may not be experts in your field. You have to convince them that what you are talking about is something useful or exciting and they should listen to you for the next 30 to 45 minutes. You have to give them an interesting and well-crafted story. A story in its most basic form consists of three elements- the plot (or set-up), the conflict and the resolution.

A good way to begin a talk is with some necessary background. This could be a brief summary of previously published studies or a more general introduction of the big-picture applications of your research (the plot). It should be just enough to capture the audience’s attention and not so long that it takes over the presentation, generally about 2 – 3 slides. Then, introduce the gaps in current understanding and your specific research question (the conflict). Follow this up with your hypothesis, results and conclusions and explain how they further your field of research (the resolution).

Giving too much information and having too much text or diagrams that are too complex in your slides are surefire ways to lose an audience. Keeping it simple is the key. Only the essential points should go on the slides, ideally one message per slide. Avoid adding any extraneous information on the slides that you would not talk about. Instead, any supporting graphs/​diagrams could be moved to the end of the presentation as back-up slides, in case there is a related question from the audience.

Also, that new experimental technique or that elegant computer model that you are using is likely only exciting to you and a handful of other people. Focusing more on the results and the broad implications makes your presentation more engaging for a general audience.

During the five years of my PhD, I was fortunate enough to attend several regional, national and international conferences. I gave many talks on my research, from presentations at group meetings to University student seminars to contributed talks at international conferences. And of course, countless poster presentations. Perhaps the most important thing that I realised is that YOU are the master of what is in your presentation.

More often than not, you know more about your research project than anyone else. The audience is there to hear and learn from you; not to judge you. So, have fun with it and show them why your research is as cool and as exciting as you know it is. 

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Written By

Pushp is a recent PhD graduate turned freelance science writer with a keen interest in climate change and other environmental issues. He co-created the science blog Climate Curiosity which covers the latest scientific news, views and breakthroughs on climate change. …