The book that will improve your presentations

How many times have you been sitting among the audience of some conference, regretting you did not take anything to read? Or blaming yourself for not having charged your laptop the night before? Surely, one too many.
Unfortunately good presenting skills do not belong to the standard professional package of a scientist. Many thinks it is not so important, that research matters more.
I agree: results are the foundation of your research work. However, what is the point of knowing something good if you cannot tell anybody?

If you step in a restaurant, would you rather eat this:

Italian meat loaf: courtesy of

or this:

Italian meat loaf: courtesy of
Italian meat loaf: courtesy of

Same thing (delicious, by the way), in a different disguise. Having valuable contents matter, but it is worth nothing if you cannot share them.
Improving communication skills can lead to more funding opportunities, more collaborations, not to mention fulfil our implicit social duty, as well-educated people and researchers paid with public money, to educate others. Also, wouldn't it be so much better if you were not to waste an hour of life from your audience and yourself? Instead of blabbering to the air, one can have fun and engage other people.

When I was struggling to improve my presentations, I was suggested this book:

The Craft of Scientific Presentations by M. Alley

I must say it has been revealing to me. The book is very well-written and gives many practical advice. Although I strongly suggest you to buy it and read it all, I can summarise some of the interesting tips the author gives:

  1. Identify the audience and their "needs"

    Who are you talking to? This is a piece of information that matters. There is no point in keeping it simple if you are talking to your own team, whose members are studying more or less the same things that you study and have a high technical knowledge. At the same time, mentioning compact operators to a general public is not the wise way to go.
    Surely you would like to highlight some parts (motivation, results, ...) but it is really important that you adapt to what the audience wants to hear. It is not easy to guess it, but it is worth trying. Why did they come to your talk? What do they value the most? Is it numerical results or a general hint of the subject or why you research that particular topic? Are they looking for collaborations or are they the guys you are about to ask fundings from?

  2. Create a good structure of the talk

    Still in the spirit of 1), try to create a catchy talk structure. It doesn't have to be linear! How about stressing the struggles you had while researching? Or talking 80% of the time of motivation behind the problem? You are there to tell a story and be honest about your efforts, it always works. If you have a mixed audience, you can also create a sort of "bumping" sequence, where you alternate easy concepts and advanced ones, so that everyone can follow (this is very hard though!). In addition, try to underline the transition points of the talk, so that you do not lose anyone in the way.

  3. Use nice visuals

    It is 2014 and we are long past PowerPoint. There are several other ways to make nice slides: LaTeX, Keynote, Prezi, and many more. If you really love PowerPoint you can use it, but please make it nice. No long lists (maximum is 4 items per list and do not cheat by embedding lists into each other - if you are a mathematician I know you thought of this case while reading) and no long text. I know this is common knowledge, but I still meet speakers who write an entire book in one slide and are convinced that the audience can read and at the same time listen to them. Or - the horror - that the audience is not annoyed by reading and listening to them reading out loud the whole slide. People, no. Stop.
    If you are curious about basic design techniques, here is a short and nice guide.

These are just my favourite tips. Recall it is your responsibility to engage the audience. You have to earn their attention, it is not for free... and, at the end of the day, giving a nice talk it is in everybody's best interest.

I personally know I still have to go a long way to be a good speaker, but I hope that practice and feedback will help soon to get to a new level of expertise.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

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