Recently, a fellow graduate student defended his master’s thesis. He set the record for the shortest time to degree in our College with a nice job lined up afterwards. But that also meant he never presented his work at a conference, or a department/college seminar. This was his first- and most important “big talk”. What follows are the top 10 tips I gave him at one point or another as he was preparing that should be a help to anyone getting ready for a “big talk”. Everyone will tell you to know your audience, which couldn’t be truer when you’re planning the introduction to your talk. Sure, there is a big difference between talking to high school students and presenting at a conference, but try to think: who is coming to my talk? If they are all cellular biologists like you, then skip the central dogma slide. But if you have a mix of disciplines you need to be able to explain your work to a biologist, as well as an electrical engineer. Imagine you’re giving the talk to one person with each potential background.
Would each person be able to follow it? Sometimes you need to sacrifice some specific details in order to explain the important stuff to everybody. But you should be able to talk extemporaneously on the specifics if anyone asks! An introduction is more than just a history of your field up until now. That is, it’s more than a literature review. You need to review the current literature, but more importantly put your research into context. What have you done (or what are you doing) that no one else has done? Keep in mind that just because no one else has done X doesn’t mean doing X is worthwhile- there might be a very good reason why no one else has done it! As you introduce your research you’ll likely explain why you’re doing it, but make sure you also explain why others in the field care. Even more important that justifying your work is justifying your conclusions.
You MUST be able to back up any claims with solid references, or solid experimental results! In many cases this means statistical tests of quantitative data. When in doubt, err on the side of “inconclusive” or qualify/temper any of your statements rather than stretch your conclusions. One of the most jarring moments in a bad presentation is the lack of transitions. Your presentation should flow from slide to slide and section to section. This will most likely mean that you aren’t going to present your experiments in the order that you did them. You’re NOT telling the story of you working in the lab! Think: what are the overall conclusions from your work and how can you explain and prove the things you’ve concluded? Walk your audience through the story, laying out the evidence convincing them you’re right about your conclusions. One last thing: you’ve (hopefully) done a lot of experiments, you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and maybe even money into these experiments and you want to show off everything you’ve done.
But if an experiment or data slide doesn’t fit in the “story” you might have to leave it out. If you can’t make it fit in the flow of your story and/or you don’t NEED it: leave it out. The little details are important. Even if you have some really great results to show, you’re going to anger, upset, or at least annoy your audience if you don’t pay attention to details. Label the axes of any graphs (with units), don’t use 10E3 mV (when V works) and don’t forget error bars! Make sure any images have scale bars, and label items of interest. You might know what’s a cell and what’s dust, but everyone else might not! Use the same size, color, and font text.Try to use the same slide layout. Make all your graphs, diagrams, molecular depictions, etc. with the same program throughout. It’s noticeable if you copied one molecule from a paper, made some in ChemDraw, and others with ChemSketch. The same holds true with graphs in Excel versus Origin. Excel can be your friend but if you use the default graph settings it will be your downfall.