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Scientific Presentations: When Public Speaking is Unavoidable
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Lauren Chaby, Klevis Karavidha


Small person on stage with microphone surrounded by large shapeless audience.

Public speaking can seem scary and stressful.

Public speaking is stressful. In fact, researchers use public speaking to induce stress in reticent humans (known as the trier social stress test). Thankfully, there are a wealth of strategies to keep audiences engaged and attenuate some of the unpleasantness of public speaking.


The best way to improve your presentation skills is to practice. Public speaking skills are developed over time and experience. Present your research often, at major conferences, small internal venues, as well as through outreach and community service. Practice presenting with friends and labmates. It is easy to tell when a presenter is comfortable and confident; the feedback you need does not have to be from an expert. Note the tactics cogent speakers in your field use at conferences or talks available online. Practice these strategies, and those below for your own work and you will feel more confident when you present because you will know that you are well-prepared.


Person speaking with story image of dragon and castle coming out of their mouth

Unify your talk by telling a cohesive story.

Show your audience why your work is important

Start every presentation with background information broad enough to catch the interest of every audience member. You need to convince the audience there is a gap or a problem, and that you can address it. Try to make your audience curious about a knowledge gap they can fill by listening to your presentation.


Know your audience

Start at the knowledge level of your audience and build from there. At a highly specialized conference, your background may not need to be as broad. At a larger national conference, you will likely need to provide more information to relate your work to the diverse interests of your audience.


The best speakers are dynamic, and can update their background based on the context of their talk. Before presenting, take note of the scientific fields of other speakers. Are their topics similar? If so, focus more on how your specific research topic fits into the field. Are other speakers giving background relevant to your presentation? Reference their presentation in yours to contextualize your talk “as Dr. Arya Stark discussed, …”


The best way to improve your presentation skills is to practice. Public speaking skills are developed over time and experience. Present your research often, at major conferences, small internal venues, as well as through outreach and community service.


For poster presentations, you can get to know audiences directly. Ask people what their background is before you start. Scientists love talking about their work, and this will provide the opportunity to practice reframing your work for the specific interests of your audience. Understanding how to discuss your work from different perspectives is also great practice for grant writing and developing powerful “elevator pitches” to increase the impact of your work.


Stay energized and enthusiastic

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic, and faithful, and you will accomplish your objective. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)


To convince your audience what you are talking about is interesting, you must first be interesting yourself. While can be difficult to maintain enthusiasm about topics that you have spent years researching, sharing with your audience what made your passionate enough about this subject to pursue it not only helps communicate your story, it reconnects you with it as well. Presentation skills take time and practice to develop, but enthusiasm is a tool that can be implemented easily while other speaking skills develop.


Useful Resources



Tell a story

Use an idea to unify your talk and provide a framework for your other ideas. Set up a problem in the beginning of your talk, and end your presentation by addressing that problem again with a powerful summary of your conclusions.


Imagine your audience as friends

Researchers are busy people, and taking the time to attend a talk has a high opportunity cost. Your audience took the time to listen to your presentation because they are genuinely interested in your work. They want you to succeed and want to hear about your research and ideas. Keep a conversational tone, as you would talk to a friend.


Instead of memorizing words, memorize ideas

Common presentation pitfalls are sounding rehearsed, reading off the slides, or overusing the same phrasing to convey an idea. Memorize the idea each slide (or figure) is intended to convey, or the order of ideas, rather than the order of words.


Avoid monotony

The attention span of the overworked academic is very short. Introduce variety into your presentation wherever you can – in your content, slides, voice pitch, voice volume, and word inflection. There are scores of resources available for teaching, use them for inspiration for your research presentations – try posing a question that you will answer, use video clips or colorful figures.


Pausing enhances emphasis; “um” and “like” detracts from it

Taking a moment to slow your presentation down gives the audience and opportunity to process your ideas. Further, the brief silence creates suspense. Always pause, never use “um” or “like.”


End with a powerful summary

The concluding summary is the last thing your audience will hear, your literal “take-home” message. When drafting your concluding summary, think about what you would want your audience members to share with colleagues. They can be your ambassadors if you can give them the information they need to talk about your work. What would you want them to share?


Lauren Chaby is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Wayne State University and serves as an instructor for Developing Future Biologists, Klevis Karavidhais currently a graduate student at Wayne State University


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