Are you giving an oral presentation at Experimental Biology or elsewhere? Check out this comprehensive list of tips to make your best presentation yet!
By Susanne Ulm
Hey PhD student! Do you enjoy giving presentations? Probably not. Improving the presentation skills can reduce your public speaking anxiety and increase the joy of giving talks.
Nothing paralyses PhD students more than having to present at a conference. But nobody teaches us how to give a speech. Supervisors and PI focus mainly on science, not on making the presentation skills of PhD students better.
It’s a scary task and our scientific career depends on how well we talk in public. Fortunately, improving your presentation skills is possible if you know how.
Let me share some simple advice with you to improve your presentation skills.
‘A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest6.’ – Winston Churchill
Presentation Skills Of PhD Students 101
When I started my PhD I didn’t really have a clue what it meant to be a PhD student or even finish my degree, although there are many things you should know before starting a PhD.
I learned that doing a PhD means you constantly challenge yourself and improve your skills. Apart from managing your PhD research project and science writing, you are also faced with the big challenge to present your research to a wider audience by holding scientific talks.
Giving talks at group meetings and conferences is a common task in academia. Unfortunately, the presentation skills of PhD students are poor.
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like speaking in public because we all fear to completely embarrass ourselves.
You might be presenting in front of a handful of your lab members. You might be showing the highlights of your PhD to 500 people at an international conference.
What’s sure is that you’ll get that funny feeling in your stomach and lack some oxygen. Don’t worry. Practice and good advice will turn you from a passing out presenter into the Obama of scientific presentations.
Here are some tips to improve the presentation skills of PhD students. It’s time to tame that scary monster of public speaking.
1. How To Prepare For A Talk
Most PhD students are nervous in front of an audience.
‘There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.’ – Mark Twain5
You are nervous and I’m nervous. Guess what? Giving a talk makes everybody nervous. Giving a talk makes everybody scared. Even experienced speakers never overcome this fear. However, they have learned to cope with the anxiety and so can you!
Don’t Panic And Think Positive
There are plenty of public speaking tricks. Many presentation skills of PhD students can be improved. But nothing beats good old fashioned preparation.
If you prepare yourself well for a talk you’ll be unstoppable.
The first step of your preparation is to accept your destiny. Only by changing a bit of wording you can completely turn around your attitude: DON’T say: ‘I have to present a talk’, DO say: ‘I’m allowed to / I get the chance to present a talk’.1
It might also help to find a purpose for your talk. Your presentation might:
- Tell the audience about your topic.
- Raise awareness.
- Address important issues about your research field.
- Acknowledge someone’s work.
- Be at a conference in a cool country.
- Improve your presentation skills.
You can even dedicate your presentation to someone you love or admire.
If you are still overwhelmed by your task of ‘holding a talk’ make a plan and divide this big project into many smaller steps. Don’t worry if these steps seem ridiculously small like choosing your outfit for the talk.
As soon as you have created your plan, work from one step to another without thinking of more than one step at a time.
Start Your Preparation
As a general rule, the more time you have for preparing a talk the better it will be. Try not to push everything until the very last minute. But don’t over do it.
The best thing is to create specific times in your schedule for your talk preparation and stick to them. You should aim to have your slides 95% finished 3 days before your talk. The goal is to have a few days to rehearse your talk and change little details in your slides.
Some people can prepare whole talks in their head before writing anything down. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for most of us. With the usage of computer it is easy to start in between.
Generating Ideas For Your Talk
Writing your ideas down often helps clarifying your thinking and focuses you on your task. In a normal state your mind is full of different emotions and thoughts so writing helps putting your thoughts into a right logical order.
Don’t worry if your ideas seem silly at the beginning. Try to capture everything that comes to your mind. Editing yourself is always easier than sitting in front of a blank page and trying to come up with perfect ideas.
Often the ideas hit you at unexpected places and times. I usually have a small notebook with me where I can scribble down ideas. Smart phone addicts can use Evernote free.
In addition, inspirations are everywhere:
- Things you read on the internet or in magazines.
- People you talk to.
- Your own experiences
- A random conversation you overhear on the bus.
The list will be endless if you keep an open mind. If you don’t know exactly where to start just start anywhere. Additional ideas will follow later. The hardest step is the first step.
Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience and their background has a high impact on the quality and structure of your talk.
The amount of introduction required for your field, each technique and each problem will depend on how much the audience knows about your topic.
If your audience comes from a broad range of backgrounds you will have to introduce your field of research saying what it is about and why it is important to do research in your field. Don’t take for granted that they know the techniques you used. Your audience will appreciate a basic description.
If most of your audience consists of scientists in your field you can skip introducing it and spend more time on the novelty of your research.
A great speaker gets the attention of the audience very quickly at the beginning with either a personal story or with addressing an issue the audience faces.
Think about problems or fears these people have and answer their ‘So what?’ question. Which questions might your audience raise? This will help you understand their mindset and see your presentation from their perspective.
You can’t give to school children the same presentation as you hold in front of scientists. If you can’t bring something your audience can relate to it will be very difficult to build up a connection and people will stop listening to you. So at the end your message won’t get heard.
‘The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.’ – Lily Walters4
Learn From Others
Keep calm and always remember you are not the first person walking that path! Have you already attended talks?
Talks can come in different forms: journal club, seminar series, annual society talk, conference talk, even a guest speech at the last wedding you attended is a talk. You can learn the most from either great or bad speakers.
Which ones did you really enjoy? What exactly made these talks great? What were the mistakes in awful research presentations? Why were these talks so bad that you wished yourself somewhere else?
Now be honest to yourself: Do you make similar mistakes when you are nervous?Only by analysing these talks you might already get hints on improving your presentation style.
If you can’t remember enough talks you can find presentations nearly everywhere:
- Often local libraries or event websites of your city advertise public talks.
- If you work at a university you will usually find talk announcements in your email newsletter.
- The most time-independent and largest source is the internet. For example, you can find lots of speakers on TED (technology, entertainment, design). TED organises non-profit conferences to ‘ideas worth spreading’. Its speakers come from different backgrounds and are given up to 20 minutes to describe their projects. YouTube offers more opportunities for observing talks.
How To Prepare Slides For Your Talk
Collecting ideas in slides can produce a chaotic presentation. Do you want a more organized way to create your slides? Start from the end. It goes like this:
- First of all you need to think about the main message of your talk. If you had to sum up your talk in one or two sentences, what would you say?
- Create the acknowledgement slide. It helps to fill up at least one slide and avoid the paralysis by a blank page.
- Create the conclusions slide. Here you should list no more than 3 take-home messages. You could also include no more than 3 things to improve, aka future lines of research.
- Decide which results you want to show. Create the slides with the images of your results.
- Create the slides with the methods that people need to hear to understand how you reached your results.
- Create the introduction slides. In these first slides of your talk you motivate the audience to listen, show the importance of your research and explain the choice of methods that will come later in your talk. The type of introduction slides depends on your audience. Sometimes you will need to introduce your whole field of research, other times just the narrow problem you are tackling.
- Create the title slide.
It’s easy to underestimate how important the very first slide is. However, the title page represents the first impression of you. Your audience will see this slide for the longest time.
It’s important to check the spelling and make sure you add some details apart from the title, such as institution, your name, your email address and funding sources.
Put in your title as many keywords as possible so people can guess what your talk is about. But make it short enough so people can remember most of it after they finished reading it.
Tips For Making Better Slides
You might be able to understand your data easily but for the audience you are often the expert in your field. Even a scientific audience can get overwhelmed by your data very quickly.
Here are 12 tips to simplify your slides:
- Slides are not books, so avoid having too many lines of text that you will read out loud. If you write everything on your slides and you don’t add anything extra in your speech, why are you giving the talk anyway? Just print the slides as handouts and save your audience from hearing you recite them.
- It might sound too simple but the best thing is to put only facts on your slides you want to mention during your talk. Often speakers show extensive overviews so the audience can taste the whole story. However, these slides tend to overwhelm and confuse the audience. If you really can’t live without such a slide you should say: ‘I’m using this slide to give a quick glance of the pathways/mechanisms BUT I won’t go too much into detail.’
- Bullet points are often easier to read than full sentences. Avoid using more than 5 bullet points on each slide. People can remember facts best in 3s so 3 bullet points per slide are the sweet spot.
- It’s best to avoid repetitions: If you compare two experiments don’t explain both in detail. Instead, explain the 1st experiment in more detail and while explaining the 2nd experiment concentrate on the differences to the 1st one. Otherwise people get bored and stop listening.
- Make the graphs and charts simple and not too detailed. Often people don’t like numbers and so it’s best to use only the data that emphasise your story. You can think of using colors or percentages (or both) instead of numbers. For instance, if you want to show that number A is 20% increased versus number B, then use a 20% in green.
- As general estimate of time used for a talk: 1 slide = 1 minute of your talk. So if you have 10 slides including the title page you will probably talk around 10 minutes because you can explain some slides quickly while others need more time. Forget about talking faster to squeeze more slides in the same time.
- What you write on your slides should only support what you say and not the other way around.
- Avoid using abbreviations; even if you explain them at the beginning it won’t mean your audience still remembers them 5 minutes later.
- While presenting data avoid saying ‘It shows a tendency’. Always remember, your results are either significant OR not significant. However, there is the exception when you present preliminary data. Then you can use the term if you have planned further experiments to clarify your results.
- If necessary raise rhetorical questions or ask questions to keep your audience concentrated.
- The more complex your topic is the more important is the use of analogies and metaphors instead of jargon definitions. Therefore, it’s again very crucial to know your audience members and their backgroundknowledge.
- You might also use humour to explain a problem. However, stay away from making fun of anything else than yourself! Otherwise you might experience the depressing, long awkward silence after a bad joke.
I love pictures and I’m sure so do you. As a matter of fact, we all love pictures! Therefore, it’s always good to use some pictures to attract your audience.
Use pictures while explaining a difficult topic: A picture is often worth a thousand words.
If you are presenting pictures or figures that are not yours please make sure you cite the source.
As a tip: If you want to present data from a paper have a closer look on the website that published the paper. There, you can often download the specific picture as PowerPoint slide (with references already included).
It’s convenient to test your slides with a projector and not only on your computer screen. Colours may vary much on a projector screen and it might be difficult to see some colors.
On average the audience only grasps less than 30% of your data. Therefore you should summarise or repeat some data if necessary. You could say: ‘ This experiment shows…which is in contrast to the earlier experiment that showed…’.
During talks I often imagine explaining the topic to a child which loses attention rather quickly and thus repetitions in between are necessary to keep up the interest.
If your data is excessive give a summary for each main chapter in between. Don’t mention it on a separate slide because often only one summary sentence is enough, such as ‘To sum up / Taken together / So far these data show that….’.
Keeping your summaries short also prevents you from overdoing repetitions which might make your presentation boring.
At the end of your presentation you should present you ‘take-away’ message for your audience.
‘If I had only sixty seconds on the stage, what would I absolutely have to say to get my message across.’ – Jeff Dewar
This message can take up to 2 slides. During your summary try to avoid repeating too many results and generalise as much as possible.
If you have trouble creating a summary of your talk: Think about your main message and from there explain briefly the facts that support this idea with sentences like ‘The protein is important because…’ and ‘The role of x is still controversial….’.
Acknowledgements are important as they show your audience that you don’t take more credit than you should. Again, as we love pictures, a group photo would be nice. Otherwise, tell the audience full names of contributors and what they shared.
This doesn’t have to take up too much time and one short sentence for each person is plenty. It’s often enough to say: ‘I would like to thank x for providing/ contributing to the x data’.
Tips To Create Slides Faster
Microsoft PowerPoint SmartArt allows you to create flow charts, lists and arrange pictures in an easy and quick way.
I also keep a ‘talks’ folder which includes all my talks and their first drafts. This type of folder is very useful to find inspiration and you could use slides as templates or re-use them completely.
Most scientists use older slides as starting points. If you don’t have slides of your own yet, ask colleagues for their slides as source of inspiration.
In fact you should also try to store slides from other people. If you attended a presentation and you liked something of it – a plot, an image or a description – ask kindly for the slides. Tell the speaker in advance that you are going to use only image A and that he/she will be duly cited.
How To Be A Confident Presenter
We are often afraid that people will notice we are scared to death. We think they will discover our fears by the tone, or by the accelerated breathing, or by our sweaty foreheads.
Luckily there are several things we can do to gain confidence and become a comfortable speaker and to rock our scientific talks.
Giving presentations is a stressful situation for most people because after all public speaking is NOT a talent but a learned skill (only practice makes perfect). To transform yourself into a confident speaker you should try to fake it until you finally become it.
To achieve presentation nirvana there are 4 tips:
- Prepare and rehearse your presentation. A good preparation boosts your self-confidence in general.
- Know what you are presenting. Don’t invent anything. Don’t present something you are not 100% sure how it was done. Don’t present anything that you do not believe in.
- Talk to the audience. Don’t just spit out memorized ideas.
- Improve your behavior. As you give your presentation the audience not only listens to you but also analyses your non-verbal communication. Don’t worry, everyone communicates this way.
Practice Your Talk
Even the best notes and slides are worth nothing if you can’t remember what you wanted to say because you didn’t prepare well enough. Therefore, practice makes perfect.
You should practise your talk on your own and with an audience.
If you practise your talk 30 times it might be too much. You could try to cut your repetitions gradually from one talk to another until you reached a healthy number below 10 times.
Giving your talk in front of an audience (your group members) helps to get honest feedback. Let them shoot at the design of the slides, the content, your articulation, your rhythm and anything they think will improve your presentation.
I have problems with learning a lot of sentences. For me it’s easier to remember the main facts only.
Memorizing your talk as bullet points also gives your brain a chance to talk in a ‘normal’ way during your presentation. If you prepare your slides wisely they will guide you through what you want to say and remind you to keep track.
Learning full sentences often ends up sounding like you are reading from a book and if you forget only a few words you will panic.
If you tend to lose track of time practice your talk repeatedly with a timer. After several iterations you will fine-tune your message so it fits in the time you have for your talk.
On the day of your presentation simply keep a watch in front of you or near the projector. In addition, PowerPoint allows to move to the next slide after the same amount of time you did while practicing at home.1
Enough of the preparation part: Now let’s see which presentation skills for PhD students are necessary on the day of the talk.
2. How To Give A Talk
‘The only person who listens to every word of your speech is you.’ – Unknown
You should arrive early to have enough time to talk with the chair of your session. Th chair of a session is the boss running the show.
Introduce yourself to the chair and advise on the pronunciation of your name and provide a short bio, so she/he can introduce you. Don’t forget to hand over your slides.
Ask the chair to test your slides on the computer used for the presentations. Check that the projector displays colors, transitions and videos flawlessly.
If during the presentation some slides don’t show up as they should, don’t panic! Simply tell the audience at the right time about the faulty slide by mentioning what they should see and move on. Don’t dwell on it because things like that happen all the time!
If you are unsure about anything, like the length of time for question, you can ask the chair in advance. Thereby you avoid looking confused and panic during your talk because of unexpected things, such as the chair stopping you to answer questions.
Also, arriving early will give you a chance to get used to the room itself and its surroundings. Go on stage and visualize yourself at the time of the presentation. Once you go up the stage for real, it will feel familiar and less intimidating.
You will also have a quiet moment to find a place where you prefer to stay. Everyone should see you, so don’t hide behind the projector. Hiding also makes it more difficult for your audience to understand you clearly.
I also arrive early because it allows me to talk to people who arrive early as well. It often helps to ease my tension and makes me realize that the audience consists of normal people and not of monsters waiting for my mistakes.
Extra tip to reduce panic: Ask something at one of the talks before yours. Doing so gives you the feeling that ‘you have already talked in public that day’. This helps to start your talk more relaxed.
Things To Bring To Your Presentation
- The most important thing to bring along is of course yourself. Don’t worry, your presentation will be over soon!
- Take a water bottle with you, just in case. It’s nothing worse than having a cough attack in between.
- Your notes but only BEFORE the talk. I tend to repeat some passages in my mind before the talk and not remembering some things can create panic. So I keep my notes handy. But try to avoid using your notes during your talk. Otherwise you tend to stick to them too much and don’t talk freely to the audience. Also, having your notes nearby will help in case of a total blackout.
- The laser pointer enables you to point out things in detail.
Non-verbal communication determines how people feel and think about each other. It’s one of the most important presentation skills of PhD students (and any presenter!). You can give the wrong first impression with the wrong body language.
In general every one of us may send out 2 different kind of ‘messages’:
- Expression of power (body language: You take up the space of the room you are in and basically open up your posture).
- The feeling of powerless (body language: You close-up, wrap yourself up and make yourself small).
When you feel powerful you will show a powerful body language.
Can you remember one of your biggest achievements? How did you feel? You probably felt powerful and showed a better body language.
Powerful people are more confident, optimistic and more laid back in response to stress. This is reflected by their hormone levels with high testosterone and low cortisol levels.
BUT when it comes to power it goes both ways.
You don’t have to feel powerful to become it. If you pretend to be powerful you will more likely start to feel it and become powerful.
Only 2 minutes of keeping a powerful pose are enough to make your hormone levels switch significantly. This tiny tweak of 2 minutes ‘power posing’ can lead to big changes in body language.
Other Tips To Improve Body Language
- With gestures it’s like many things in life: not too much and not too less. Try to find a middle point where you avoid overly dramatic hand gestures or keeping your arms as still as if they are dead. If you tend to get stiff try to loosen up a bit and if you are often overexcited make an effort to relax. After all, everything will be over soon anyway.
- Take your time to breath properly in between and don’t rush through the talk as if it is a race.
- The most important thing: Smile! Be friendly while talking. Also, smiling relaxes your body because it goes both ways: We smile when we are happy but when we force ourselves to smile we start feeling happy.
- If you get shaky hands avoid using a laser pointer. Instead you can use words like ‘In the upper left corner of the figure we see…’. If you do have to use a pointer use two hands, one for the pointer and the other one to hold your wrist; this will reduce the shaking.
Additional Tip For Women: If you usually don’t wear high heels avoid wearing them during your talk or make sure you practise walking in them for some days in advance. Otherwise you tend to lean your body too much forward, which looks awkward for the audience.
Be Honest To Yourself And The Audience
Do you have any rituals before a talk? Ignore your urges to do them before your next talk. Your body associates these rituals with the scary situation of giving a presentation. This gives your mind time to create panic and fear. The next time simply ‘shock’ yourself and just do it!
Especially in stress situations like holding a presentation be true to yourself. So don’t try to copy someone who is the opposite of you. Your audience will recognize this falseness and won’t trust you and your competence very much.
‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ – Judy Garland
It’s also good to know your minor faults. If you know you usually talk too fast during talks make the conscious decision to speak slower than it might feel right for you. In contrast, if you tend to speak slower try to speak faster than it feels correct for your own instincts.
I tend to speak quietly, so I try to speak louder.
Should You Allow Questions During Your Talk?
You can say if you prefer questions in between or at the end of your talk. The decision fully depends on you and your preferences.
I say at the beginning of my talks: ‘If you have at any point problems understanding me please let me know’. Being upfront gives my audience the chance to raise awareness and I won’t get paranoid by questioning myself all the time.
You can point when exactly you want to answer any questions by asking at specific moments: ‘Are there any questions so far?’
If you are very nervous it might be better to get the talk over and done with and leave the questions until the end.
Keep in mind that allowing questions during your talk will make your presentation last longer. If the chair of the session is strict with the time allotted to each talk you might find yourself out of time before you presented your most interesting findings.
Nobody Is Perfect
Now imagine you are in the middle of your talk and everything runs smoothly.
Suddenly you have a blackout and can’t remember how you started your sentence.
You have to re-start a sentence and you feel the panic rise. You are somehow sure the audience thinks you are a complete idiot.
If you tend to have these feelings completely IGNORE them! Most people either don’t realize your mistake or are likely to look over it.
While being in a stressful situation we tend to lose track of reality and that’s why we panic because of a lot of minor things. In these fearful moments suddenly seconds seem like minutes or even hours.
It’s important that you don’t push yourself too hard by saying: ‘I want this talk to be perfect’. This goal is impossible to reach and you will likely start to panic during your talk when you make even minor mistakes, for example miss-spell a word or say a sentence in a wrong order.
The audience usually knows what you are going through and understand that you are nervous. Remember, it’s ok to make some mistakes.
‘If you present yourself as perfect – we will not believe you and we will hate you. We like you when we see that you are imperfect like we are.’ – Unknown
My personal goal of each talk is: ‘I want to be better than the last time’. This task takes the pressure of being perfect and at the same time it prevents myself from treating the talk lightly.
If you can’t look at people directly during your presentation you can look at the horizon line just above the heads. OR better: Look randomly at people without analysing their expressions.
Make sure you look at every ‘section’ of the room from time to time (e.g. left side/ middle/right side). So no one within your audience feels left out.
3. Questions & Answers Time
After your talk comes one of the most scary moments for PhD students: Questions and Answers.
Depending on the audience, leave at least 10 minutes for questions at the end of your talk.
If you are too shy looking people directly into the eyes, concentrate on a point between their eyes. People don’t realise the difference and still think you keep eye contact.
The best advice for answering questions is to understand them in first place.
If you don’t understand a question double-check before talking about something the person didn’t want to know. In that case you may be very blunt by asking: ‘Do you mean….? Are you asking about this or that….?’. These questions might also give you some additional time to think about your answer.
It’s good to repeat the question even if you understand it. In this way everybody in the audience can hear it and you double-check that you understood it.
Don’t panic if you don’t have an answer to every question. Even the best expert can’t know everything.
Instead of saying: ‘I don’t know’, acknowledge the question by saying: ‘That’s an interesting point of view, I haven’t really thought of this aspect yet’.
Another standard reply you must memorise is: ‘We haven’t looked into that yet, but it is [on our to-do list / one of our future lines of research / the next idea we want to explore]’.
You could try to give the person who asked the tricky question an option for an answer. For example, if you have the data somewhere on your computer you could say: ‘Unfortunately I don’t have time looking for the data now but I could look it up after the talk if you could spare some minutes afterwards’.
This trick of suggesting to discuss further after the talk works like a charm when the person asking gets too pushy. You reassure her/him that you will consider the ideas and you also leave room for somebody else to ask more questions.
Don’t take questions too personal. Even if it seems they make your research look silly. Even if the tone and attitude of who is asking seems too aggressive. Stay cool. Be polite. You don’t want to start a cat fight in front of the audience.
Most of the times people don’t mean anything bad with their questions. There is nothing some minutes of clarification after your talk can’t smooth.
4. After Your Talk
‘There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practised, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.’ – Dale Carnegie
You made it to the end of your presentation. Congratulations!! This deserves a celebration.
You finished it without passing out. You didn’t look like a fool.
Now people understand your research and think of you as a promising PhD student.
But your work is not over yet. There are a few things you must do after your presentation:
- The first thing you should do is to relax. Be proud of yourself that you made it. Enjoy it!
- People might come up to you in person and have extra questions. This might not necessarily mean they are picky, maybe they were simply to shy asking questions in front of others.
- The time after your talk offers you a good chance to do networking by exchanging contact details, discuss experimental settings or setting up possible collaborations. Have some business cards at hand!
- After the stress is over and the audience is gone, find a moment of quiet and analyse yourself: Which things could you do better the next time? You can also ask a colleague for some feedback. Don’t be too harsh to yourself and don’t overestimate every tiny mistake. Don’t take criticism too hard or be offended if someone didn’t like your presentation at all. Different presentation styles exist and therefore you can ignore unhelpful feedback.
- If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to socialise at the scientific conference.
In a tiny nutshell, if you want to improve the presentation skills of PhD students:
Prepare your talk well and keep things simple.
It’s important to create a relationship with your audience by understanding their background and knowing their needs.
While presenting, be confident and don’t panic in between because everyone makes mistakes, even the most experiences speakers.
Be yourself, be who you are and your audience will feel comfortable.
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ – Carl W. Buechner
One thought on “How To Improve The Presentation Skills Of PhD Students”
In college, I was approached by one of my professors asking me to captain the Carson College of Business case competition team. At the time, I thought I was the best presenter, and that was why I was asked. However, during our semester of practice presentations, I soon learned there are two types of presentations: academic and everything else.