Opinion: How to Give Better Talks

Eight ways to improve your biomedical research presentation

Oct 8, 2013
David Rubenson

SXC.HU, VIXSThis January, I argued on this website that “the typical biomedical research presentation has become a dizzying whirlwind of incomprehensible slides, presented at lightening speed and labeled with unreadable font sizes and abbreviations known only to the speaker.” I argued that this problem was deeply rooted in our research culture and threatens progress.

Since then, I have received no substantial disagreement. Rather, I’ve gotten numerous questions to the tune of “How do we do better?”

Through teaching a course on presentation techniques at Stanford University, I’ve learned that the key obstacle is that many speakers don’t have a firm idea of what they want to say. Nor have they thought through questions like: What can the audience understand? What is achievable in a limited amount of time? What information is superfluous? These organizational issues vex speakers far more often than technical issues or stage fright.

To overcome these problems and develop a compelling presentation, I implore biomedical researchers to follow these eight steps:

1. Figure out what you can achieve

Realize that a slide presentation is not a journal article. Slide presentations can stimulate important questions, inspire collaborations, and encourage audiences to read your journal article. They cannot achieve the same level of proof. Complicated and incomprehensible slides may create an illusion of proof, but only that.

2. Consider your audience

All too often, speakers prepare presentations for themselves. A presentation is meant for an audience, and audiences have needs. Remember:

  • Listening to a slide presentation is a passive activity. “Slide fatigue” is as unavoidable as death and taxes. However, a well structured story and appropriate context can delay the onset of this feeling.
  • Slide presentations require multitasking: listening to the speaker, watching the speaker, reading the slides, and following the pointer. An effective speaker must create synergy among these modes.
  • Most audiences contain people with varied levels of expertise. As such, the structure of the presentation should be straightforward, such that non-specialists can easily follow along, even if understanding the details requires specialized expertise.
  • Audiences are highly susceptible to information overload. They can also get lost during transitions between slides.

3. Organize the story—build it up, don’t cut it down

A critical mistake is to start with a mountain of data and ask, “What can I cut?” Everything seems essential. Instead, identify the core message and build up according to the available time and level of audience expertise. To do this:

  • Set PowerPoint aside for the moment and write a one-page essay that hits on all the key points you’d like to cover: background and context, the overarching question, the experimental design, your answer to the overarching question, and future directions. Writing this essay is a critical step. Slide presentations evoke fragmented thinking; we need to create and maintain a sense of the entire presentation before diving in. 
  • Again, without using slides, deliver a one-minute version of your talk to the scientist at the next lab bench. Surprisingly, this close colleague won’t understand a lot of what you are saying. After you solve that problem, try it with a scientist at the lab next door, then with a scientist in the next building. Keep going until you can give the one-minute talk to someone with little specialized knowledge.
  • Create a single slide that sets up the overarching question your talk will answer. Next, write an outline slide that identifies the sections of the talk. Allocate time for each section.
  • Write a short narrative for each section then make slides for a two-minute, spoken version of each. Now you can add slides if you’ve freed up more time.

4. Help the audience deal with information overload

  • Use large text: 36-point font (Bold, Helvetica, or Arial) for titles and at least 24-point for text.
  • Include only one overarching message per slide and use the title to help convey that message.
  • In general, include no more than one graph per slide. Label axes clearly. Take a few seconds to explain each axis as you are pointing to it.
  • Don’t include complex tables with lots of data. Figure out the message that data is meant to convey and redraw a slide to deliver that message.
  • Above all, don’t decorate. Every unnecessary item distracts the audience. No logos or colored backgrounds. Color is a strategic tool that displays different categories of information—it is not meant for decoration.

5. Help your audience multitask

A great speaker is not necessarily a great presenter. A great presenter knows how to merge audio and visual.

  • Explain each slide. Don’t create separate audio and visual story lines. Your voice should add to the slides, not detract or distract.
  • Remove all content you do not discuss. After all, if you don’t talk about it, why is it on the slide? Include all major themes you do discuss. Talk about what you show, and show what you talk about.
  • Use the pointer to deliberately connect your words with specific parts of the slides.

6. Help your audience with transitions

  • Use “build” slides when possible (new additions on top of an already-presented slide).
  • Use consistent labels (e.g. “EHR” is not an “Electronic Health Record” for purposes of a presentation). You must pause and deliberately inform the audience if you change nomenclature.
  • Think through the words that get you from one slide to the next. Connect the last spoken words from one slide to the first spoken words on the next slide.

7. Write relevant conclusions

  • Be sure you’ve answered the overarching question.
  • Keep conclusions short, people are tired of listening by the end.
  • Give them at two levels: the grand strategic lessons, and the tactical lessons. The strategic conclusion may be a picture of where (under optimistic assumptions) the science will be in five years. The tactical conclusion will be the types of studies that need to be conducted to get there.

8. Prepare in advance

The worst words in science may be, “I’ll write the presentation on the airplane.” There is no substitute for dry runs that include tough critics.

David Rubenson is associate director for administration and strategic planning at the Stanford Cancer Institute.