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Talking the talk

Presenting your research to an auditorium of peers can be a daunting prospect, particularly for those at the start of their careers. But with a little thought and preparation, it needn't be.

We editors go to a lot of meetings, and have listened to a lot of talks. To hear a good talk can give you a reason for being. To hear a bad talk can make you wish you'd never left your hotel room. But even if your results won't earn you a trip to Stockholm (yet), there is no reason they shouldn't be the seeds for a lively discussion. And lively discussion is what it's all about. We've put together a collection of do's and don'ts to delivering a talk that will move your audience, not put them to sleep.

First and foremost, put yourself in your audience's shoes. Don't just consider what you want to tell them, consider what they might want to hear. Try to distil your talk down to one important result or idea. If you're really clever, and lucky, you may be able to teach them two things. But if your audience goes away with just one memorable fact, you're already doing better than most.

Structure is important, but also obvious. Don't begin your talk with “Hello. My talk is entitled 'Dynamics of the lesser-spotted quark'. I will begin with a brief introduction to the field. Then I will describe my methodology. Then I will discuss my results. And finally I will draw some conclusions.” By the time you've finished explaining that your talk will have the same structure as every other talk that has ever been given, you've wasted two minutes of your and your audience's precious time. Instead, say exactly what it is you're going to talk about, why you think it's interesting, and give them a taste of that one important fact.

Similarly, when you get to the end of your talk, don't conclude it by telling the audience what you've just presented — they were there, and hopefully awake, when you presented it. Tell them what you've learned from your work, what you think the wider implications of it are, and where you hope to take it next.

...if your audience goes away with just one memorable fact, you're already doing better than most.

If you don't understand something in your results, don't gloss over it, ask your audience what they think. If it's compelling enough, that could be the thing you want them to take home with them. Welcome criticism with open arms. As they say, if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research.

Look at your audience. Don't look at your notes (if you take the advice below you shouldn't need them), the projector screen or the side of the auditorium wall. If you don't engage your audience, they won't engage with you.

If you're using a laser pointer, use it as a pointer, not a wand. And use it sparingly. To point out a feature in your results, turn it on, point out the feature, and turn it off. Letting it wander the screen like a firefly will do nothing but distract your colleagues from the important things you have to tell them.

Practice your talk — not just once, but as many times as you can. It's a no-brainer that you should have presented it at least once beforehand to other colleagues in your group. With frank and constructive feedback this is a good way to improve the content of your talk. But not everyone is lucky enough to have frank colleagues, and a single trial run is rarely enough to give you the confidence or familiarity to give an effective talk.

A speaker's harshest critic is often themselves. So, one of the best ways to improve the delivery and content of your talk is to give it to yourself with a digital recorder. You could even do it in front of a mirror. But give it as if it were for real, from start to finish, without revision or pause. If you want to include a joke, deliver the joke. If you need to acknowledge your contributors, acknowledge your contributors (ideally at the end, though, get to the meat of the talk first). Leave out nothing that you intend to say on the day. Then play it back.

If it makes you cringe, that's a good thing. Take note of the points that made you wince and fix them. If a section begins to bore you, cut it. If an explanation is laboured or unclear, clarify it. If the talk runs over the allotted time, remove the least important material. If you trip over your words, don't worry, the act of delivering and then hearing them back, even just once, will already have made them more fluid the second time.

Once you've cut, tightened and improved the content, deliver it again, listen to it again, and fix any remaining weaknesses, again. Then again. And again. Until you are so familiar with its structure and content that you could give it in your sleep. Familiarity fosters confidence, and a confident talk is a compelling talk.

As it is with writing papers, so it is with giving conference talks — if your research is worth being presented to your colleagues, it's worth being presented to them well.

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Talking the talk. Nature Phys 4, 429 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nphys996

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