The Early Career Researcher, public speaking, and making the most of scientific meetings

I’m writing this article while listening to student presentations at a departmental Christmas Conference in Cluj Napoca, Romania. I don’t speak Romanian very well and so I don’t understand a lot of what’s being said, but I can see the slides and get an overall impression from each talk. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience when listening to talks in English? In this context, at international conferences when audience members speak a range of languages, your slides and general presentation style are even more important.


What are some of the most common mistakes that people make when giving conference presentations? Here are two from the first talk of the morning here in Cluj.


Text on slides too small versus images. It’s very important when putting your slides together for a conference talk to make the text as large as possible and to use a font that is easy to read. In the talk I’m listening to at the moment, the slides contain very few images and the text is in a small font. I’m sitting at the back of just a small lecture theatre here, but still cannot read a lot of the text. This is mistake that’s easy to avoid.


Minimise the amount of text on your slides and make it as large as possible. Match the text with images instead to get your message across. A picture is worth a thousand words, as we say in English.


At the same time, make sure that the images on your slides are high-resolution and make them as large as possible. I often use just one, large, single image per slide in many of my presentations, coupled with a little text, and then talk around these pictures to aid my thought processes.


Think about your use of colour on slides as well. Less is more in this area as well; try to use simple colours that complement one another, like just black or red text on a solid white background. It’s often the case that slide presentations are poorly designed so that text is hard to read because of the surrounding background or shading. This is also something to avoid. Another top tip is to always check your slides in a lecture theatre or seminar room before you present: go and stand at the back of the room and see if you can read all the text in your presentation and see all the images.


Talk to the audience and not at your slides on the screen. This is a very common mistake; it’s important to remember where your audience is when giving presentations. You need to position your body between the audience and your slides so you can point to your presentation but speak to the room. A lot of people, often because they get nervous, deliver their talks to the slides projected onto the wall and not to their audience. People won’t be engaged with your content if you do this, and so it’s something else to bear in mind.


Try to speak loudly and clearly and make eye-contact with different audience members throughout your presentation. But don’t move around too much or fiddle with your hands or things in your pockets as you speak; this can be very distracting for the audience. One trick I picked up early in my career is to always remove everything from my pockets before giving presentations; I have the habit of fiddling with keys or money during presentations otherwise. This is also something that’s easy to avoid.


In a similar vein, are some more thoughts about giving effective conference presentations, live from our Christmas meeting here in Cluj Napoca, Romania. Most of the ‘presenters’ at this meeting are students, so I’m seeing lots of talks with both good and bad components. Theres always a lot to learn; the good news is that giving effective conference presentations and putting together nice-looking slide decks are skills that can be learned.


The first thing to bear in mind when giving a talk is length. If you have been asked to prepare a 15 minute talk, for example, plan to speak for less time than that in order to allow some time for questions and let the schedule flow. One general rule of thumb here is that each slide within the main body of your talk should take about a minute to talk about, so a 15 minute presentation should not contain more than 15 slides. Not including your title slide, of course. There’s nothing worse at a conference that a speaker with a poorly timed presentation who then has to be asked to stop before they’ve reached the end of their talk. It happens all the time. Conference moderators will be under pressure to keep to schedule, especially at meetings with more than one session of talks taking place at the same time.


You also look bad if your talk is not to time, so make sure you practice and time yourself beforehand! You’ll likely speak faster when you actually present in front of an audience because you’ll be nervous, so take this into account too.


A title slide at the start of your presentation is important. Don’t forget to add your name, address and the title of your presentation the same as in the conference programme. There is no need to read this slide out, or spend too much time on it; ‘good morning, my name is Gareth Dyke and I’m a PhD student at the University of Bristol’, etc etc. You don’t need to say things like this when starting your presentation; people will know your name and affiliations as these are in the programme or will have been already noted by the conference moderator. You don’t want to use up your speaking time with unnecessary information.


Move quickly onto the body of your talk. With this in mind, it’s important to include an outline for your talk at the start of your presentation, like a ‘table of contents’ so the audience knows that to expect as you move through your content. This ‘talk outline’ can then be repeated at the end of the talk so people know that you’ve finished and know what you’ve talked about. One good tip for giving effective presentations is to start by telling people what you will talk about and then end by telling people again what you’ve covered. This also reinforces learning outcomes and will help your audience to know what you expect them to have gained from the presentation.


Similarly, at the end of your talk, please don’t include references. Lots of students do this in their presentations, add a slide that contains a list of citations; it’s not needed for presentations! You can add citations to your slides in abbreviated form if you like. Something else I see a lot which I really don’t like is a slide at the end of talks that says ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Any questions?’ in big letters. I’d avoid these sorts of things as they can make you look a little unprofessional. The conference moderator will ask for audience questions if there’s time.


A lot of people dread the experience of giving conference presentations. I know: standing up there in front of a room full of people can be an incredibly nerve-wracking experience; hard to do and equally hard to do well. It’s worth putting the time into your preparation for conference presentations, however, as these are great opportunities to make an impression and get your name known in your field. Perhaps you future PhD research supervisor will be sitting in the audience? Who knows.


I used to hate giving talks and I still get very nervous. That feeling never goes away. Indeed, if you get to the point where you don’t get nervous before a room full of people then there’s probably something wrong with you!


I was also very bad at giving talks when I was a PhD student, so I asked my supervisor for some help and ideas as well as an opportunity to give more talks when I could. Practicing your delivery and style in presentations will help you to improve, so take your chances when you can.


One good piece of advice I was given when I was a student, nervous about to give a talk at a conference, came from a very senior academic: ‘remember that no-one in the audience knows as much as you do about this topic’. Which is true. You might be working in a field that’s packed with people, like I do – dinosaurs – but the specifics of your research are unique to you. That’s why it’s a research project: you are searching for new information in a particular subject area that no-one else is working on. I find that keeping this in mind when giving a talk is a good way to tackle those nerves: no-one else knows as mich as me about this particular topic.


Equally hard to manage successfully are those annoying audience questions that come at the end of conference presentations. These can be just as nerve-wracking as your talk, especially from senior academics or people who you might feel know more about your subject than you do. Try to answer questions concisely and don’t ramble off topic: it’s also often a very good idea to repeat the question you’ve just been asked back to the audience before you answer it. You might have a microphone and can be heard from the back of the room, but perhaps the person asking you a question cannot be.


Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer to a question as well. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying ‘I don’t know’. You can always do it in such a way as to make the person asking the question feel good at the same time: ‘that’s a great question. I need to look into that, but at the moment that issue remains unanswered’.


Here’s another tip for you: When I’m asked questions I don’t know the answer to, I usually say something like ‘thanks for that excellent question. We should discuss that in detail after the talk’. Bear in mind that you want to time your talk so that time remains for questions, but not too many: aim to leave just two or three minutes of free time at the end of your talks: you want some questions, but you don’t need an interrogation!


Good luck!

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