Let your data do the talking

By: Roche Life Sciences

Posted: September 09, 2015 | Career & Lifestyle

Talking about your research is an essential part of being a scientist. While you may enjoy updating your colleagues and peers on your latest results over cappuccinos at the nearby coffee shop, you might have considerably more nervousness and anxiety getting up in front of a large auditorium to share these same results.

However, despite the obvious discomfort public speaking can entail, successful presentations translate into significant career advancements. Whether it is a departmental seminar, thesis defense, job-talk, invited seminar or even plenary talk, effectively sharing your ideas with a captive audience can open doors and create opportunities that may shape your scientific career for years to come. No matter if you are a novice researcher getting ready for your first big talk or a senior scientist looking to hone presentation skills, this article will present advice and strategies for improving your next presentation so that you can let your data do the talking.

Here are our top five strategies for effective data presentation:

1. Understand your audience.
We can't overemphasize the importance of this point. It is essential to understand who will be in the crowd and how best to educate them and share your message. What is the level of expertise in your audience? Will it be comprised of graduate students and post-docs from a multi-disciplinary institute? Will researchers be familiar with your field or perhaps more clinically oriented with less scientific backgrounds? It might even be a mixture of these. Either way, you must be able to communicate your findings to a diverse academic crowd. This may mean committing extra talk time to presenting a clear background and context to illustrate the importance of your research question.

This may seem obvious, but it is important to respect the time of your audience. They have given up 30 minutes or an hour of their day to listen to you, and that should not be taken lightly. Be organized, thoughtful, engaged, and whatever your do, don't run over your time! Nothing turns a friendly crowd into an angry mob faster than a talk that just won't seem to end, despite every brilliant thing you might have said. Don't be that person.

2. Simplify your approach.
Slides and data should never be visually overwhelming. Simplify the details. Eliminate technical jargon as you can, avoid acronyms, use cartoons and schematics to illustrate complicated experimental designs. Make it easy for people to understand. You don't want your audience to have to work their brain to follow your talk, as this will only make people drift off and start making their grocery list in their head or hope their cell phone or pager goes off.

3. Present data clearly and concisely.
Remember, it's not a manuscript, so you don't need to show every piece of data to make a point. You may want to show one or two key experiments to make a particular point and then mention other experiments (if needed) without necessarily depicting them on slides. Every word and image on each slide should be meaningful and essential, so if it's not relevant, remove it. Even if you spent the time and effort making the slide and now realize you don't need it, remove it. Don't use it just because it's there.

Emphasize transition slides and have clear summary statements. A good rule of thumb is one slide per minute, but be sure to practice to get the flow and timing. Some find it helpful to write out what they want to say; others may just plan out key introductions, transitions and conclusion statements. Whatever your style, be sure to practice, practice, and practice some more.

4. Be prepared for something to go wrong.
No really, we mean this. It's inevitable at some point in your career, so if you don't already have one of these horror stories, you will. It's best to just take a few extra minutes now to be prepared for some of the most common mishaps that occur with research presentations. One of the most frequent is technical failure, whether your slides won't load or there's an issue with the projector. Always have multiple copies of your talk available: a flash drive, your computer, a CD or even an email  attachment or remote server will work.

When all else fails, get going on a chalk board or white board, as your audience will respect and remember this. Sometimes there can be other unpredictable situations, like a bad introduction or even a rude or snarky comment or question. In these situations, try to always respond gracefully and respectfully then move on, because giving a spectacular talk will always be the best response in the end.

5. Don't overlook the Q&A.
This can be a time to shine. And it is important to remember that while it can be quite nerve-wracking, especially as a junior researcher, most people asking a question are genuinely interested and want to better understand the topic. Fielding questions can be uncomfortable, but you will assuredly get better with practice. And, of course, there are some things you should keep in mind to make it go as smoothly as possible.

Always repeat the question after it is asked, this makes sure everyone in the room heard it, that you understand what is being asked, and it also gives you a few extra seconds to prepare your answer. Conversely, when someone asks a question and you don't know the answer, you need to be comfortable saying that you don't know the answer. We recommend having a few responses ready for this type of situation. For instance, "great question, that hasn't been addressed," or "interesting point, however it's not clear at this time … ", avoid saying simply "I don't know." And don't be afraid to take a deep breath and pause for a moment to gather your thoughts before answering.

1. Communicating Science: Giving talks. Second Edition. Burris JE and McGovern V. Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Research Triangle Park, NC.


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