In the few years of doing my PhD I have had many opportunities to present my research, both to the scientific community and to the public. I’ve presented at conferences, at university, in schools and even in the 3 minute thesis competition. I have won a few awards that I am so grateful for and I’ve had a blast talking about my science to many different people. I’ve even had a three minute spot on ABC radio which was extremely exciting for me!
I actually have pretty bad presentation and public speaking anxiety. In the week or so leading up to any presentation (whether big or small) I probably won’t sleep or I’ll only get a few hours and it usually involves a lot of tossing and turning. Sometimes, just thinking about presenting can make my stomach churn. So I wanted to share my experience with you; my preparation and how to get over presentation hurdles because I’ve been through it too! Giving a good presentation isn’t always easy and even though we personally know our own research well, it can be difficult communicating our passion and our research to other audiences.
1. Prepare a lot
This may be the reason why I have done well in presenting in the past. Whilst I’m in front of an audience dying inside, my many hours of practice and preparation beforehand have helped me feel secure enough to stand in front of the crowd and know I’ve done my best.
I spend a significant amount of time and give myself a decent leeway (at least a few weeks) before I give a presentation.
Start by writing the key parts that you want to convey in your presentation, then create a transcript or general overview of what you will say. Create your power-point after you have created the general structure of the speech, use it as a tool to supplement what you’re saying, not as a crux to speak from.
Finally, practice, practice, practice. Say it to your lab mates, say it to your supervisor/mentor, say it to your partner, friends, even your dog. I can guarantee my dog Pepper is a budding plant ecologist – she has listened to me practice hundreds of times, haha.
Before any big presentation my lab (The Big Ecology Lab) will all get together, we’ll share delicious food and listen to each other present. We give kind, constructive feedback and help each other with our presentations. This is such an awesome way to practice and has helped me refine many presentations over the years.
2. Know your audience
Are you presenting to a room full of experts in your field? Are you presenting to faculty, which have some background knowledge but aren’t specific to your field? Are you presenting to school children?
It is so important to structure your talk to your audience. Take out your scientific jargon and language unless you are certain that every single person in your audience will know the meaning of the terms you are using.
If you are presenting to an audience that are not necessarily researchers or people in your field, boil down your research and take time to explain key concepts in a way that people will understand. This doesn’t mean you should “dumb it down”, even primary school aged children are brilliant enough to understand some of the big concepts that we explore.
3. Tell your story
People are more interested in following a story than hearing a boring step by step presentation. Set up your talk to follow a clear story line. For example, you could start with the background of your study or field of knowledge, then explain what is missing and how you are filling that hole. Then, you can take your listeners on a journey through what you did and the results you found whilst talking about why these novel ideas are important to them and important to society more broadly.
4. Use the presentation space well
A common mistake that presenters make is to choose to stand behind a lectern or microphone stand. If there is an option for a roaming microphone or a lapel microphone, take it! Come out from behind the stand and use the space. You don’t have to walk around a lot, however, standing in a confident position in front of your audience will make them want to look at you and listen to you.
Another helpful “space” hint is to always check out the space prior to your presentation. Stand on the stage or in front of the chairs and visualise yourself giving the presentation. This will take a away a lot of nervousness when you enter the space for your actual presentation. You’ve already stood there, you already know what it feels like.
And what I think you shouldn’t do:
1. Don’t undersell yourself or your research
I recently heard a talk where the presenter repeatedly used the words “these results sort of show this…” and “these results are okay but…”. It left me feeling really defeated and unimpressed by their research. Yes, you definitely need to be accurate in a presentation and no, you don’t have to act over-the-top. However, your presentation is the time to sell and pitch your research. Tell your audience exactly where the gap exists that your research has filled. Inform them of the novelty of your research and excite them with the results that you find. Hopefully, you enjoy where you work or what you are researching and it interests and intrigues you; let the audience see your passion for what you’re talking about.
2. Try not to have a presentation that follows the structure of a scientific paper
A few presentations I see follow the time-old structure of “Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion”. Unfortunately, I am yet to see this presentation structure be done well or in an interesting way. Let your research follow a story (see point 3 of tips above), maybe you have multiple hypotheses, break the research down into those hypotheses or “questions” and step through the methods, results and discussion for those sections, rather than lumping all your hypotheses together in the methods and then coming back to them later. This way, if someone tunes out or comes back into your talk mid-way through, you can still grab their attention and your talk will still make sense to them.
3. Don’t fill your power-point slides with heaps of text and multiple images/figures
For some reason, this is a big mistake that many people still fall into the trap of. The most important part of your presentation is what you are saying so you want people to listen to you, not to be distracted by complicated figures, or too much text on a page. Stick to slides that supplement your presentation, not slides that form the basis of your presentation. Here is a good site that I have found for power-point design, it is great at explaining how to make each slide more concise for your audience.
If you have any other questions feel free to contact me here!