How to prepare an excellent research presentation

How to prepare an excellent presentation?

Unexpectedly your advisor asked you to present your preliminary results in the next Departmental Seminar.  Don’t freak out, don’t hyperventilate! You will be perfect, trust in yourself. This is the key: keep calm and trust in what you have done so far. The most common advice people give you (which is most of the times true) is that "no one will know more about the subject than you". And actually, these were the words of wisdom from my father to my sister when she had a second-grade presentation about hippos.

So, now that you have organized all your gel pictures, chromatograms, your microscopy results (or whatever type of data/experiments you collected) and have organized all your data in understandable tables, you need to tell a coherent story named: “Research.”

I will divide this topic into two separate posts: prepare and present.  As you will see later, both stages are connected intimately, and the success of your presentation will depend on how well structured is your presentation, but also on how clear you can explain your findings.  Therefore, in this post, I will focus on the first stage: preparing your presentation. Let’s get started!

Main sections of a presentation

First of all, proper preparation requires a good and clear structure. Therefore, your presentation needs to be divided into different sections, which I explain below.

1-Background

To me, this is the most important part of the presentation since it facilitates that practically anyone can understand what you are about to tell them. Therefore, it is crucial to know WHO is your audience.  If you believe professors and post-graduate students will attend your seminar, you can assume some basal level of knowledge of techniques and terms. Nevertheless, PIs and students can come from different fields, and therefore, might be unfamiliar with your subject. If your audience is not related to your field, you should “set the ground” with basic terms and statements so everyone can understand.

2- Hypothesis and aims

You should state the hypothesis of your research and HOW are you going to demonstrate it. Employ simple sentences for each aim. This part is fundamental for the next sections of the presentation since each aim should be connected tightly to the materials and methods. I will give a simple example.  You hypothesize that “Mother Theresa was a great woman.”  So, how are you going to demonstrate that? First (aim), you will “collect testimonies from the sisters who worked with her in Calcutta.” Second (aim), you are going to “collect the data regarding the number of people she helped in the different centers.” And third (aim) you will “analyze her essays and letters to evaluate the true meaning of her acts to the needed people.” So the aims, it’s basically how are you going to prove your hypothesis.

3- Materials and methods

Here you explain WHICH TOOLS are you going to use in order to tackle your aims. Be very clear. Avoid any doubts on the procedures you employed, whether these are lab techniques, databases, software, number of animals or statistical methods. Keep reminding yourself who is your audience; perhaps they don’t need so many details.  Or the opposite, they might need more information.

4- Results

This section explains WHAT you found according to each aim. Sometimes, each result can be presented immediately after each method, especially in those presentations that have many experiments. Be precise, show all relevant results, even those that were negative or unexpected. This will show that you are genuine and honest.

5- Discussion

This part explains THE MEANING of your findings and WHY are you having those results. I usually not separate this section from the results. Instead, I always present and discuss every result (one by one) immediately. This allows keeping the audience connected with what you just explained. However, if you feel better by devoting a whole section to this, do it! But do it concisely.

6- Conclusions

Give some basic statements of what you think are the most important points of your results, and mainly, of your research. Why do you think your findings are relevant? Zoom out and see in a broader perspective what are the implications of your results.

7- Acknowledgements

Cite everyone who has helped you during the process and also state the source of funding or grants.

 

Which software to use?

Your presentation needs to be screened in a certain way. I am a **BIG/HUGE** PowerPoint fan; I literally get excited when I see a new version or update of the program.  You can find anything without problems, edit your slides, prepare nice animations or even make simple drawings. And, if you don´t know how to do something, you can just google it. So, this is the program I always use, and the best is to know the functions and potential of PowerPoint (or any other program) so you can get the best from it.

Of course, there are other software like Keynote or Prezi.  Keynote is basically the PowerPoint version of Mac and has more or less the same functions.  Some years ago, Keynote was “cooler” than PowerPoint because it had very nice default designs, filling and transition effects.  However, PowerPoint has leveled nicely.  In the case of Prezi, I would prefer using it for a small inspirational or theoretical talk, because it adds some excitement to something that otherwise would be very “boring.”  Nevertheless, I personally wouldn’t recommend it for a scientific presentation.  Why? Because it has too many effects which can distract your audience from the main point.

Advice for preparing your presentation

I will write some practical, step-by-step, advice that can help you during the preparation of your presentation.  For this, I am going to use some hypothetical examples or presentations I have done in the past for a seminar, a scientific conference or a class.

Keep the length of your presentation according to the assigned time

If it’s a scientific conference, you will probably have 15 minutes assigned, of which ten are for presenting, and five are for questions and comments. You usually spend around 30 to 60 seconds per slide. Therefore, bear in mind that it’s not viable to have a 30-slide presentation for a 10 minutes talk.  The best would be to have a presentation between 10-20 slides.

So, if you end up with more slides than needed, start cutting ideas.  Probably those “extra things” are not required to emphasize your points.  Seminars, on the other hand, are usually longer (around 30-45 min) which allows you to stretch your ideas.  However, don’t over-talk, always stick to your time and the main point.

Keep it simple

Start by choosing a simple design.  Nothing bombastic or super exciting. I use a white background and the simplest design because in this way your ideas will receive the emphasis.

Keep it simple. A nice picture would be nice as well. But keep main elements only.

Write the layout of your presentation

This helps a lot to maintain the coherence and flow of your presentation and keep your audience connected. To do this, imagine you are explaining your research to your non-research friends or your non-research parents.  I usually prepare a draft slide with bullet points about the main topics I need to cover and the secondary ideas.

Then, I organize them according to the flow of the presentation. This means that you need to choose your sentences and images very carefully and place them in a logical order.  Also, I usually draw small rectangles in the top of each slide with the names of each section of the presentation (background, aims, materials and methods, results or conclusions) and highlight in which part am I.  In this way, if your audience gets lost, they can easily re-track you.

Outline of the background. It sets the basic ideas of your talk to develop them further in the presentation

 

Make your presentation enjoyable, but not estrambotic

Animations

Use animations if they are necessary. Animations are especially useful to describe a process, a reaction, or a procedure. In this way, you can explain very graphically what you want to say. I reaaaally really like them! It takes some time to understand the technicalities and which animation to use in a sequence. But once you learn how to do it, you can do practically anything.  This is my favorite part because it makes the presentation stand out and, also, recaptures the attention of your audience. However, once again, keep it simple. Don’t use swivel, shades, bouncing, fireworks, gun bullets or whatever might seem super exciting.  Instead, use subtle effects, like fade or wipe entrance.  Also, don’t use animation to introduce a title, you don’t need it.

Next, you can see an animation of one of my presentations. From something an abstract protocol, you can re-create a process in people´s minds and therefore, the concept will be clearer.

Make it visual and avoid using too much text.

A presentation is precisely for that: to present what you have obtained in your research, not for the audience to read.  Instead, use images, diagrams or schemes.  Use good pictures with a simple and descriptive title and sentence.  If it’s imperative to use a lot of text, (like in the conclusions section), use a maximum of five bullet points with one simple sentence each.  Also, I am a 100% advocate of making diagrams to explain a process.  So, instead of using a whole slide full of text, try instead to draw a diagram. It will be much easier for you to explain and for your audience to understand.

Take a piece of paper and draw schematically what you want to explain and then translate it to your slide with text boxes and arrows.  Everyone will be very pleased to hear and see something complicated, explained in the easiest way. The following diagram explains a basic methodology in a simple way.

Even though you might be tired already, don't forget the final points

End with a couple of take-home messages. Three to five is the ideal number.  This is a great exercise to summarize and zoom-out your project.  Until now you have been focusing on details, details and more details (zoom-in). However, when your presentation is ending, you need to state why your findings are important, what is new and what can be done to improve your research (zoom-out).

The take-home messages are simple and straight-to-the-point.

Acknowledge

This is a VERY important part of your presentation.  In the corner of each slide, cite the articles you used for getting an image, a procedure or a statement.
Also, acknowledge your collaborators and labmates. Yes yes, this is obvious! But in case you forgot to add a slide thanking the audience for their attention, here it is????.

Extra information

Add some extra slides at the end of the presentation with graphs, tables or images to answer possible questions from the public. This will make you look prepared.

Make the presentation visually appealing and double spell-check

I wrote this advice at the end because of two things.  First, because you need to be concerned primarily with the contents. And second, because you should start polishing your presentation once everything is placed.  Importantly, it is critical to check (as many times as possible) your orthography, since nothing bothers more to the eye than a misspelling.  If you are presenting in a foreign language, ask someone who dominates well that language to spellcheck for you.  Four eyes are better than two.

Moreover, DON’T forget to write in italics all scientific names and genes.  Furthermore, don’t forget to center titles and align figures.  When I discovered the tool of aligning shapes and figures in PowerPoint, I became obsessed with it.  And last, but not least, use subtle colors, unless you really need to highlight something important you can use heavier colors.

Final tips

So, now that you have your seminar presentation, ask yourself the following questions:

FLOW: is the order of the slides logical? When I reach the end of the presentation, do I feel I reached the highest point? Did I zoom out at the end?

CLEAR: can my colleagues understand this, and most importantly, can my non-research related friends/parents understand (more or less) what I am doing?

CONCISE: do I get to the point? Am I using the right wording in the right place?

BALANCE: do I have the right balance of diagrams, pictures, text, and animations?

If all your answers were “Yes”, congratulations! You did a great job! Now you are ready to practice your presentation for the seminar. If you have any comments or other advice when preparing a presentation, please write them below. We would like to hear how can all improve and what has worked for you. All the best! 😀

אודות Alicia Rojas‏

Shalom/Hola/Hello 🙂 My name is Alicia, I am from Costa Rica and I have been in Israel for four years doing my doctoral studies. I consider myself a positive, empathic, hard worker, committed and perfectionist woman. I am passionate of what I am doing here in the lab and believe on self-motivation to do whatever you want. I am a faithful believer on the slogan "You can DO it".

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