Oral Presentations: Preparation is Everything!

Presenting our work to others, especially orally, is a large part of what we do as scientists. Sometimes this occurs through informal conversations, but often it happens at scheduled, formal presentations.  While very few people actually enjoy giving oral presentations, a little preparation can make your own presentations much more successful.

The most important thing is to know your audience, and tailor the talk to them.  Will you be speaking to other experts in your narrow sub-field, or to chemists in general?  Will they have chosen to attend your talk, or are they required to attend?  Will they be anxious to hear what you have to say, or just anxious because your talk is standing between them and dinner?  Is it a serious scientific presentation, or a more relaxed after-dinner talk? Find out as much as you can in advance, so you can include the appropriate level of background and detail.  Start preparing as soon as you know you will be speaking, and practice several times before the big day.

You need to know what the technical arrangements will be.  Do you need to bring your own laptop, or just a USB drive with your presentation? Always bring a back-up, just in case, and of course the appropriate adapter if you travel with a Macintosh.  I go so far as to  bring a hardcopy of my presentation, complete with presenter’s notes, so I can do a “chalk talk”, if I have to. (It also comes in handy for reviewing on the plane, or in the hotel room.)

When preparing your “slides”, remember that people will only see them for a short time, and many from a long distance away.  Don’t bother to put up tiny text that no one will be able to read. Remember that oral presentations are for the big picture – point people to printed articles for the details.  The more presentations I do, the more pictures and fewer words I have on my slides.

Make sure to arrive at the site in plenty of time to check things out.  If possible, I like to visit the room the night before, so I can check out the physical arrangements, the projector and screen, where the light switches are, test the microphones, and so on.  If there are any problems, you want to have plenty of time to work them out and still start the session on time.  If possible, I prefer to keep the lights on, with perhaps just the front of the room dark, to make it easier for people to take notes.

Provide your host with an introduction describing you.  This ensures that the audience knows who you are and why they should listen to you, and also allows you to segue gracefully into your presentation.

If you can’t see a clock from where you’re presenting, make sure to have a watch or timer where you can see it. Ideally, you will know where you should be at the halfway point, and have a plan to condense or eliminate material if you are running long.

Finally, wrap up by talking about the next steps for you or the audience (depending on your topic), and by thanking the people who helped you with the work.  Allow time for questions, and remember to repeat them for the benefit of those who did not hear.

These few simple steps will make you more confident and prepared, which will translate into a more enjoyable presentation – for the audience, as well as for you.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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