By Kevin Francis
How many of us haven’t given a 60-minute presentation at some point during our scientific careers? Since we have almost all presumably survived dissertation proposals and defenses, not to mention lab meetings, data talks, and the occasional conference presentation, I would be shocked if more than a handful of people reading this have not given a long talk. That being said, we should all be experts in giving presentations, right? Not so fast, my friend! According to public speaking coach and author Scott Morgan, even the best scientists and most skilled presenters still have a lot to learn.
Mr. Morgan is a renowned public speaking coach for the government, academy, and private organizations, including various institutes within NIH, Duke University, and commercial giants IBM and Merck Pharmaceuticals. He is the director of the Morgan Group, an organization devoted to improving public speaking, interviewing for the press, and film production for a variety of organizations and topics. His expertise in public speaking and communication skills also led him to co-author the book, Speaking about Science. From the onset of the workshop, Mr. Morgan’s passion for improving scientists’ public speaking was apparent.
The workshop began with the following question to the attendees: what makes a good scientific talk? Answers immediately began flying around the room. Engaged speaker, eye contact with the audience, nice visuals and, my favorite, a presentation that ends early were ideas all tossed about around the room. As you would expect, the principles underlying what makes a “good” versus a “bad” presentation are largely universal and independent of the scientific topic.
According to Mr. Morgan, any presentation can be broken down into a few core principles and how we, as presenters, approach these principles will determine how we are perceived by our audience. Imagine breaking your presentation down into an hourglass, a broad introduction creating “common ground” with the audience, narrowing to the main question of the talk, an expanded middle supporting the main question, narrowing to a take home message and an expanded resolution. Possibly the most important concept of these is finding common ground with your audience, a potential challenge since it will vary based on your audience. However, common ground is obviously critical to connecting with your audience, an absolutely crucial concept when job talks come your way. When preparing your presentation, Mr. Morgan suggested asking yourself, “What are the relevant scientific issues I share with this audience?” Without establishing common ground, your audience will likely quickly lose interest and ask themselves, “Why am I here again?” Within the data portion of the talk, every presentation should contain a “money slide,” which contains the most important and memorable data. According to Mr. Morgan, your exit line, otherwise called your “exit strategy,” should be a well-planned thought to leave a lasting impression on your audience.
Some nice tips Mr. Morgan gave for improving a presentation visually included using pictures or images in place of text whenever possible, eliminating verbs from slide text, using a less-specific title than we would normally and introducing the next slide makes you look brilliant--giving the impression that the presenter is extremely well-prepared!
The workshop concluded with a discussion regarding where scientific talks usually fall short. Mr. Morgan suggests the following are the five essential elements of a great scientific talk:
- establishing personal communication with an audience
- establishing a memorable single theme
- forming common ground
- using vivid examples to illustrate your thoughts
- demonstrating baby step solutions to problems
It seemed clear that scientists are great at stepwise solutions and using vivid examples, but we tend to fall short in connecting with our audience and sometimes don’t establish our central theme. I am confident that by employing the techniques and principles discussed in this workshop, I will dramatically improve my presentation skills. Hopefully, I’ve been able to establish some common ground with you, the reader, and I’ve convinced you to not miss Mr. Morgan’s next appearance at an NICHD workshop.