How to Give a Good Talk

The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important talents of a good scientist. Whether it’s standing in front of a poster, giving a ten minute talk at a meeting, or writing the next Citation Classic, scientists who connect with their audience create a better impression of themselves and their work than colleagues who don’t. The good news is that although there are examples of outstanding, naturally-gifted communicators (see Barack Obama) scientific communication is an acquired skill. The more you work at it, the better you’ll get.

Many, if not most, graduate programs teach oral and written communication classes to help their students learn the basics of effective communication. And multiple style guides are available to provide detailed advice on scientific writing. But until you’ve had to fight severe colon spasms before your first oral presentation or look out over an audience of potato chip eating, web-surfing undergraduates who know they hold your tenure in their hands, you may not appreciate just how useful and important these resources are. Rather than attempt to recapitulate them, let me share a few observations from years of effective and ineffective communication that might help you realize that you should start working on your presentation skills now. There are common elements to effective oral and written communication but there are some special elements associated with giving talks so I’ll focus on those.

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Plan Ahead

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a good lecture. I had a colleague who bragged that he never prepared a lecture. He claimed he was always integrating new material from the literature into his lectures, which he kept in a vault in his brain.  The implication was that he was always preparing his lectures in his head so they were state-of-the-science masterpieces. He was telling the truth that he never prepared his lectures but it was absurd to consider them masterpieces. In fact, he was one of the worst lecturers I’ve ever heard.

A good lecture is more than just the material one presents. Among other things, it incorporates history to enlighten the context of the experiments, analogies to illustrate key points, and drama or humor to keep the audience engaged. This is what students or conference registrants are paying for. Otherwise, they could stay in their rooms and read a textbook or some research articles. It takes time to do this well; it can’t be done on the fly while walking into a lecture hall.

Not only was my colleague being disrespectful to his profession and his audience, but his behavior led to some hilarious encounters such as the following comment ten minutes into one of his masterpieces – “Dr. Smith (named change to protect the departed) you gave us this lecture last week.” I typically start thinking about the content of a lecture several weeks in advance if it’s one I’ve never given before. This way I’ve got time to put it together, practice it for length and content, and make modifications based on the rehearsals.

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Identify the Key Points and Target Them to Your Audience

Before you start preparing your lecture, ask yourself what the key points are that you want to communicate then prepare your presentation to make sure you do it. The old saw “I tell ‘em what I’m going to tell ‘em, then I tell ‘em, then I tell ‘em what I told ‘em” is a good starting point. Identify your key points in the introduction, present the data that led to your conclusions, then reiterate the key findings in the summary. Once you have identified those key points, construct the story around them so that the audience can follow along (see above).

Think about what the composition of the audience is going to be and scale the lecture accordingly. A specialist audience can tolerate less introduction but more depth than a general audience. Regardless of the composition of the audience, don’t clutter your story with too many details. Every audience has a limit to how much detail it can handle, even if it’s a group of scientists working in the same area. Once that limit has been reached, it’s really tough to get anything else through to them. So if you’ve filled their register with too many factoids along the way, you may have trouble conveying the take-home message when it’s time to deliver it.

A corollary to the detail issue is not to use lab jargon in the presentation, especially to a non-expert audience. Even a really smart scientist usually has to work to stick with a presentation as it unfolds. If you throw an undefined term or two into the presentation, the audience will struggle to figure out what it means and miss the next point or two you’re trying to put across. At that point, you’ve lost them and they’ll reach for their iPhone or Blackberry. There are many other points can be made about planning and executing a good lecture and I invite you to make them (see below).

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Really, Really Nervous? – We All Are

So you’ve worked hard on your lecture and got a really good story to tell but you’re terrified of telling it. You’re not alone – public speaking ranks right after death as something most people don’t want to do. My first oral presentation was a ten-minute presentation at a national society meeting. There were four hundred people in the room and as I was being introduced my heart was beating so hard I almost passed out when I stood up to go to the podium. I couldn’t remember a single thing I had practiced for a week. Fortunately, I had anticipated my terror and had written my talk down. Although reading talks may not seem like a macho thing to do, it’s better than making a blubbering ass of yourself and a ten-minute talk doesn’t give you much time to search for lost words. That’s how I had justified to myself writing the talk in advance and I was really grateful I had.

It took me a few years and many sleepless nights to realize that I was not the only scientist – young or old – who gets terminally nervous.  The turning point was lunch at a conference with a National Academy member who told me that he’d been so nervous before speaking that he had taken bella donna alkaloids to calm him down for the first first ten years of his career. I thought this guy was one of the best lecturers I’d ever heard and he was experiencing the same terror I was.

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Get Off to a Good Start

So what can you do to help with your nerves without medicating yourself to oblivion? First, you should realize that the fear you’re feeling is a good thing. It means you want to do a good job and you can use it to make sure you’ve prepared a good lecture. Assuming you’ve done that (which should add to your confidence), how do you handle the lecture itself? I’ve gotten past the writing-it-down stage, but I always memorize the first three sentences of my talk and go over them while I’m being introduced. That way I know I’ll be able to get into the lecture with a reasonable start, which should help diminish my nerves somewhat.  As the rest of the lecture unfolds, I become more relaxed.

I never start a lecture with a joke, at least unless I know it is a very funny one that cannot fail. Laying a bomb when you’re already very nervous adds so much pressure that I just don’t think it’s worth the risk. I envy people who can do it but the ultimate impact of a lecture will be decided by its scientific content and style so I don’t mind not scoring high in the joke points category.

The other thing I do to feel a sense of command of the audience is to imagine that they are one person and I’m talking to them in my office. Thus, my talk is almost a conversation with the audience. This helps to overcome the anxiety of standing in front of a large crowd. Others suggest imagining the audience naked as a way of disarming them. Given the makeup of most audiences I speak to, that’s an option I’ve not exercised; but it might work for you.

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Connect With Your Audience

Although you may be imagining the audience as one person, don’t talk to them like that. Don’t pick one friendly or attractive face to talk to at the exclusion of everyone else. Try to move your gaze around the room and make eye contact with as many people as possible. There are two reasons to do this. The first is that it creates a very favorable impression of your speaking skills and confidence level, even if you’re actually scared to death. The second is that it provides a way to gauge how you’re doing. Communication in a lecture is a two-way street. The audience will give you instant feedback on whether you are connecting with them – yawning, sleeping, or weight-shifting are not good signs. Nodding heads, smiles, and rapt attention are.

Giving a good lecture is one of life’s real pleasures and one of the few things that scientists do that provides instant gratification. So take advantage of it and listen to what the audience is telling you. And if you’re in the audience, make a mental (or physical) note about what was good about a lecture and what was bad. I didn’t have a formal course in how to give lectures (or how to do anything else for that matter) when I started on the faculty, so I took my cues from colleagues around the world. My conversation with myself frequently went “That was a cool thing, I think I’ll try to incorporate that into a lecture” or “What a lousy lecture, I’ll never do that.”

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Give It Your Best Shot – No Matter What

Finally, remember that you only get one chance to make first impression. You don’t know how many people in the audience you will touch or how it will impact your career. The adrenaline flow of giving a great talk in front of 500 people is addicting but it can be positively deflating to walk into a room with 10 people in it. Don’t downgrade your effort for the smaller audience. Early in my career, I gave a talk at a national meeting in the last session on a Saturday morning. We were speaking in a room that had 2000 seats but there were only 7 people in attendance; six of them were speakers. No matter how people try to cluster to create an appearance of mass, it’s hard to hide that fact that 99.7% of the seats are empty. But one of the members of that audience was on a study section that reviewed my grants and he formed a favorable impression based on my talk. He became an advocate for our work, which helped us achieve and sustain funding for years thereafter.

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Pass It On

These are a few impressions and hints from a career of giving lectures to many different audiences. There are many hints that others can offer or valuable experiences that they can share. So how about it? What are some important lessons you’re learned in giving lectures that can help your colleagues or students? You can learn from a single lecture, so you don’t have to have given hundreds of lectures to offer useful insights.

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Dr. Marnett is the Director of the A.B. Hancock, Jr. Memorial Laboratory for Cancer Research and is a Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.  He is also the Director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Chemical Biology and founding Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Research in Toxicology.  Over the last 35 years, Dr. Marnett has given over 525 invited lectures at conferences and universities around the world – and has sat through many, many more. By implementing lessons learned from these seminars, he has been the recipient of teaching awards at both Wayne State University and Vanderbilt.

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Have any insights to share about what makes a good or bad lecture?

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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. phosphofan

    wrote on June 30, 2010 at 10:19 am

    I agree the "imagine your audience naked" approach never worked for me either. A trick I was taught early on was to look at peoples' foreheads if you're nervous. For the speaker it's less personal, which helps minimize distractions, but to the audience it appears that the speaker is looking everyone in the eye. As you get more comfortable you can let your gaze drop a few inches.

  2. whizkid

    wrote on June 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    if you're not even a little nervous before speaking to a room full of people, you're about to give a terrible talk because you just don't care.

  3. Ann

    wrote on June 30, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    As a rule of thumb, a slide should take about a minute to get through. So a 10 minute talk should have about 10 slides. Pace the talk properly, as it's better to tell a story clearly and finish early than rush through 80 slides or go 20 minutes over.

  4. Jeff

    wrote on July 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Never underestimate the power of a good beta blocker…

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