By Pushpanathan Muthuirulan, PhD
Science moves forward by the active sharing of ideas, from informal conversations between researchers in hallways to great plenary talks at scientific meetings. Successful academic careers are punctuated by high stakes dissertation defenses, job talks, chalk talks, seminars, and teaching students. Giving a good scientific talk seems like a herculean task for many researchers. A speaker’s discomfort during presentations, sometimes speaking with a halting tone, might cause the audience to lose attention, squirm, yawn, or even leave the meeting place. This can make the speaker nervous and more reluctant to take the stage again.
For fellows who want to give a great scientific talk to diverse audiences, the NICHD Office of Education organized a highly interactive workshop “Speaking about Science: Giving Scientific Talks” on August 8, 2016, led by Scott Morgan, renowned public speaking coach for the government, academy, and private organizations. The workshop introduced a nine-step process to prepare a clear and engaging talk for a variety of scientific audiences. Morgan featured topics related to presenting data, identifying the theme and focus, creating effective visual aids, and beginning and ending a talk.
According to Morgan, the primary goal of a successful speaker is to educate and keep the audience engaged during the presentation. He also added that the speaker should realize that giving a scientific talk is a privilege. It’s an opportunity to share your excitement about your work and receive valuable input from the audience. Effective communication between the speaker and the audience enables the flow of ideas for the betterment of our scientific community.
During the workshop, Morgan presented an hourglass format for the key components of a successful scientific presentation. He divided the hourglass into three parts. The top of the hourglass represents a broad introduction, where the speaker should find common ground with the audience. Morgan suggests you provide basic information that will satisfy a diverse scientific audience and then narrow down to the main question of the talk. The middle part of the hourglass represents the presenter’s key data supporting the main question of the talk, with a take-home message for the audience. The bottom of the hourglass represents an “exit strategy,” where you end the presentation with a well-planned future approach.
The following are nine key steps to structure an effective scientific talk:
- Establish a memorable, single theme that can be a take-home message for a diverse audience
- Focus on a single key question
- Include a Money slide—a slide with key data that supports the main question of the talk
- Use simple images with minimal text (2 minutes per slide rule)
- Use power point control to preview, highlight, and analyze the content within slides
- Find common ground for diverse groups of audiences
- Use a brief title and make it specific, short, and catchy
- End with an exit strategy, a well-planned future approach
- Teach your work, as a teacher would, to keep the audience engaged during the talk
The scientific talk is one of the most important communication forums for all researchers. Modern scientists should be able to deliver a well-organized scientific talk to enhance their reputation and strengthen their scientific research through sharing and feedback. Creating an effective presentation, organizing a well-defined talk, and keeping the audience engaged during the presentation are key ways to ensure a successful scientific talk. I believe that this workshop has benefitted the participants and has provided an effective path in preparing a clear and engaging talk for a diverse scientific audience.