Ways to give an effective seminar about your research project

Grab your audience’s attention by using slides as a roadmap and focusing on your role as a presenter, recommends Ananya Sen.
Ananya Sen is a PhD student in microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Female giving presentation to colleagues in office.

Working on your presentation skills takes patience, but will serve you well in the long run.Credit: Maskot/Getty

In my first year of graduate school, I was terrified of giving presentations. I would put too much information on my slides, talk too fast and constantly forget or trip over certain words. Unsuprisingly, the reception was lukewarm at best.

As I progressed, my adviser and committee members were kind enough to point out which areas of my seminars needed the most improvement. I also paid closer attention to other people’s seminars to identify the aspects that I liked and wanted to emulate. Now, my presentations are met with enthusiasm and praise.

There are two key aspects to focus on improving: you and your slides. Your slides should function as a roadmap, helping you and your audience to follow the main ideas. Here’s how to build a great roadmap.

Focus on one idea at a time. The biggest mistake that most speakers make is putting too much data on a slide. No one wants to hear, ‘This slide is busy, but let me walk you through it’. Use animations to build ideas: introduce a single point on a slide, then gradually bring in the rest of the elements one at a time or on separate slides.

Do not write paragraphs. A presentation is not the right forum for the written word. Don’t introduce a paragraph in a slide and read it out loud: people can read faster in their heads than you can on stage. Also, if you put up a paragraph, but talk about something else entirely, everyone will be too busy reading to pay attention to what you’re saying. Use bullet points with a minimal amount of text.

Reel the audience in. Seminars usually last anywhere from half an hour to a full hour. To keep the audience’s attention for such a long period, make sure you provide an answer to the question, ‘Why should we care about this’? Addressing this right at the beginning should help you to capture your audience’s attention for the rest of the talk.

Follow the ‘question, experiment, result’ format. Research is messy, but your presentation doesn’t have to be. For example, when I first began my thesis project, the proteins that I was studying had no obvious role. Because there were several possibilities about what their function could be, I had to address each one of those hypotheses individually. My experimental data showed that most of my hypotheses were wrong. Eventually, I worked out the role of those proteins. When the time came to present what I’d done, I didn’t subject my audience to all the data because a large portion of it has no bearing on my story.

To achieve clarity, always emphasize to the audience the question you were trying to answer early in your talk: what was your hypothesis? Then talk through the experiment that helped you to answer that hypothesis. After that, show your audience the results. Following this formula ensures that, by the time you get to the result, your audience will be invested in the outcome, have an idea of what to expect and be delighted when they see that your results matched their thinking.

Paint a big picture. It is nice to have a summary slide at the end of the talk that captures all of your key ideas. However, many in the audience will forget most of those ideas after a few days. If you want them to remember only one thing, what would it be? Put your research in the larger context. How has your work furthered the field? People are more likely to remember the big picture than the minute details of your work.

Now that your roadmap is ready, what other steps can you take to make your seminar a success? Remember, a presenter is not so different from a performer. As a presenter, you’re constantly trying to win over your audience and convince them that your work is important and interesting. Here are a few guidelines that will help you to become a more effective communicator:

Pace yourself: breathe, let the audience soak it in. Rushing through a seminar is an easy mistake to make. People tend to speak faster when they’re nervous and, although this is natural, it damages a presentation. An audience needs time to understand the results and their implications. Racing through the slides will only disorient them, especially if the results are nuanced and complicated. So, remember to breathe. After every important result, stop. Give it a few seconds, and then continue. This will help your audience to follow the talk, and it will calm your nerves.

Convey passion. How the audience reacts to a particular piece of information depends on how you present it. If you are lukewarm about particular results, the audience will think that those results are not worthy of their attention. By using phrases such as, ‘These results were surprising’, ‘We found a really cool phenomenon’ and ‘The implications of these findings are exciting’ — and by matching those expressions with your tone of voice — you are giving the audience cues on how to respond. Remember that these phrases sound dull if they aren’t said with enthusiasm.

Point the laser correctly. There is one aspect in which people behave exactly like cats. If you point the laser haphazardly all across the slide, human eyes will follow the laser. Use the laser judiciously. Point to one thing at a time, and hold your arms steady so that the audience can focus on that one thing.

Modulate your voice. It can be easy to speak in a monotone when we’re nervous and don’t want to sound squeaky. Learn to use intonation. For example, when you ask a question, use a high note at the end. When you make a declarative statement, finish on a low note. These things usually happen naturally, but they can get lost when you’re nervous.

Practise, practise, practise. The key to a good performance is practice. Practise your pitch, your pacing, your body language, how you walk around, how you use your hands and where you point the laser. Although practising can be time consuming, it will boost your self-confidence. My rule of thumb is: be so familiar with your talk that you won’t miss a beat even if the computer fails and none of your slides can be seen.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01574-z

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