Jul 122016
audience sat in a conference

Yes, we get it. You’re clever. Or at very least, you have played the academic game well enough to have manoeuvred yourself to the top of the academic ladder. A while back I wrote about how not to give a shit presentation, but now it’s time to address you and your shitty, always over time, overly complicated and patchwork-like presentation.

Without a doubt, Professors have given some of the worst scientific presentations I have ever seen. It’s the perfect storm of self-importance and complicated graphs which make professor level presentations insufferable. I’d much rather listen to a PhD student who has taken the time and effort to rehearse and, most importantly, cares about giving a well thought out presentation than sit through another look-at-all-the-cool-things-I-had-my-students-do presentation.

Alright, first things first, we know what happened. You got invited to give a talk because you are a well-known scientist and, because you haven’t stepped in the lab for the best part of a decade, you asked your PhD students and/or post-docs to send you “a couple of slides about your research”. So far, you have not done anything wrong. We know being a professor is a tough gig. You have to secure grant funding, publish papers and more recently, hobnob with industry, in order to convince the Vice-Chancellor not to sack you when the inevitable latest round of redundancies happen.

What you continue to get wrong is assuming your notoriety excludes you from providing a well-structured and focused presentation that…wait for it…runs on time – you can’t rely on the chair person with an anxiety disorder to stop you when your time is up.

Perhaps you think a sizable portion of the people who are attending your talk will know who you are and also be familiar with your acronyms and field specific language. The reality is that a large portion of the audience have been told to turn up because “it makes the department look like a busy and thriving research environment”. These people will be the ones sneaking a look at their phone while you’re distracted trying to operate the laser pointer (middle button).

Before your talk ask yourself these simple yes or no questions:

  1. Do I know who my audience are? If it’s a general audience, chill out. We don’t want a run down on your entire career. Choose your favourite bit(s) and stick to it.
  2. Have I looked over all the slides and made sure I can connect them with a coherent story? You should not be surprised by any of the slides your post-doc gave you and the story should flow nicely between them.
  3. Have I removed slides that I plan on skipping over? It is not OK to say “ignore these slides, and if you have epilepsy, cover your eyes”.
  4. Have I been to the toilet? Your bladder isn’t what it used to be.
  5. Are my slides free of any undefined, not commonly used, acronyms or specialised language that a non-specific science audience would not know? – save the specific terminology stuff for a conference that’s in your field.
  6. Did I practice my talk in front of an audience before today? Just like talking dirty, if you haven’t said it out loud it’s probably going to come out wrong.
  7. Can people read the axis of my graphs? Copy and pasting from the Nature paper you’re desperate to talk about is not going to help.
  8. Are all these slides necessary?

If you have answered “no” to any of these questions you need to stop and ask what the f**k you are doing.

Failing everything, pay careful attention to your audience. They’re the best indicators of whether you need to stop talking. Once the lecture theatre chairs start squeaking, as the audience shuffle around to get blood back into their legs and bums, consider stopping and letting the person who invited you ask a couple questions. They will always start with “Thank you for a great presentation”, don’t be fooled, they are lying.

Do you want more honest opinions and frank discussions about science?

Check out Publish, Perish or Podcast! 

Apr 172016
motivatinal presentation grey

Initially, presenting science and research to your peers and experts feels incredibly intimidating. Imagine looking out at a room full of wobbly necked professors who don’t quite understand what it is to feel the embrace of another human being, and then having to tell them stuff that, sometimes, you don’t really understand yourself. It can feel like everyone is judging how clever you are, and you can’t help but be overcome with a sense that the majority of the audience is thinking “This person is as stupid as their university’s PowerPoint template”.

Don’t worry, the audience’s sense of self-importance overpowers their ability to concentrate on you and your presentation for very long at all. In fact, the audience want the same thing as you: to get through your presentation in the allotted time and eat or drink whatever is being served during the next break.

It is for his reason that you’ll need to up your game and hold your audience’s attention throughout your presentation. Strangely, the presentations that I remember are not from their awesome science but a series of strange events such as, the guy who screamed into the lectern microphone for 20 mins, the guy who never turned off his laser pointer and constantly waved it across the audience, a key note address that was essentially a magic show and another key note from a professor who seemed absolutely baffled by every slide they put up. Now that I think of it, I remember what each presentation was about, so I guess it worked.

To help you give a memorable-for-all-right-reasons presentation I have put together my top tips:

  1. Your job is not to make us think “I didn’t understand a thing, this person must be so much more clever than me”. Your job is to make us understand every single slide and follow your story. You want people to ask questions at the end of your talk. If there are no questions, you have lost your audience at some point. If the thought of questions scares the shit out of you, quietly excuse yourself by saying “I have worms and need to take my tablets now”.
  2. Don’t fill the slides with words. The reason I’m at your presentation is so you can tell me about what you are doing. I don’t want to power read your research. Use the slides to support the words that fall out of your mouth. If you need prompts plant a friend in the audience to shout key words at you like an actor who has forgotten their lines.
  3. Acceptable fonts include everything other than comics sans and wingdings because you are not a 5 year old girl or a cryptologist.
  4. It doesn’t matter how important you think you are, I’m looking at you professors. We don’t want to sit through 20 redundant slides while you find the one you want to talk about. Sort that shit out before you stand up. Give a practice presentation to someone with acute epilepsy. If your quick succession of slides induce an epileptic seizure, you’ve fucked it up.