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Volume 87 Issue 17 | pp. 44-45
Issue Date: April 27, 2009

Spectacular Scientific Talks

Science may be complex, but presentations should be clear, concise, and well-timed
Department: Career & Employment
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A GREAT SCIENTIFIC presentation can excite and inspire audiences, catalyze collaborations, or be the crucial factor in deciding which candidate gets a desirable job. Poorly prepared talks can alienate the crowd or make an otherwise excellent job interview fall flat. With so many well-qualified chemists entering the job market, well-honed oral presentation skills can give you a competitive edge.

The audience really wants "to hear what happened and why it is important rather than that, for example, the bar graphs go up 27% as opposed to 34%," says Nobel Laureate Peter Agre of Johns Hopkins University. Agre has attended hundreds of scientific talks during his career. "Oftentimes, I get lost in the first 10 minutes," he says, adding that he's sure he isn't alone. The culprit is usually the presenter jamming the narrative with an overwhelming amount of detailed data, he says.

C&EN talked to scientists and engineers in academia, industry, and government about the best ways to organize and give a research presentation for a conference, seminar, or interview.

Not all jobs in science and engineering require giving presentations. However, when presenting research results at conferences is part of the job, candidates should generally expect to give a scientific talk as part of their interview. The résumé gets a candidate in the door, but the formal research presentations still top the list in importance for the entire hiring process, says Charles P. Casey, a chemistry professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a past-president of the American Chemical Society. He says he has seen numerous hiring decisions come down to the quality of the oral presentation; ultimately, it was the differentiating factor among candidates.

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Delaware's Epps speaks at Auburn University, in Alabama, about using block copolymers to generate functional nanomaterials.
Credit: Candis Hacker
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Invited Seminar
Delaware's Epps speaks at Auburn University, in Alabama, about using block copolymers to generate functional nanomaterials.
Credit: Candis Hacker

Even in good economic times, anxiety related to presentations is normal. "Speaking in public is a critical and initially terrifying part of being a scientist," says Paul B. Hatzinger, an environmental scientist with Shaw Environmental, in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Preparation is the key to both overcoming jitters and engaging audiences, says Esther S. Takeuchi, a battery chemist at the State University of New York, Buffalo, who spent 20 years in industry.

Many chemists and engineers learn presentation dos and don'ts from undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctoral advisers and their peers in research groups. Some researchers have taken or taught a course on how to give oral presentations. "Communication in every form and at every level is vital to science and to one's personal advancement," says Robin D. Rogers, an ionic liquids chemist both at the University of Alabama and Queen's University of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. He expects his students to be able to orally present their results via PowerPoint at any time to him or to visitors.

Electronic presentation software, such as PowerPoint and Keynote, has changed how visuals are made, says Patrick H. Vaccaro, a physical chemist at Yale University who remembers spending weeks before conferences hand-drawing figures for 35-mm slides. Now, speakers can modify their electronic slides in a professional manner only minutes before speaking, he says.

Despite software capabilities, the scientists and engineers C&EN interviewed all agree that making a good presentation takes time and benefits greatly from feedback.

Regardless of specialty or professional setting, scientists and engineers usually design their own talks and slides. "I look at it as packing my own parachute," says William F. Carroll, vice president of chlorovinyl issues for Occidental Chemical and an ACS past-president.

"The best place to compose your talk is at your desk, long before your presentation, not on stage while you are trying to give it," says Edward R. Grant, a physical chemist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.

Some presenters begin by developing a formal story outline or sketching thumbnails of slides on paper before sitting down at the computer. Once drafted, stories and slides need to be edited and polished. The following tips specifically address how to prepare and present a scientific talk about your work that will leave the audience buzzing with enthusiasm.

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Extra Tips For Job Talks

First and foremost, scientists and engineers surveyed by C&EN say, exceeding your allotted time or leaving no time for questions could kill your chances for any research job offer in academia, industry, or government.

"By going over in a job interview talk, you have shown that your work trumps everything and everybody else—never a good thing when it is critical to show that you will be a team player," says Michael F. Hochella Jr., a geochemist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. So if you are given an hour for your seminar, plan to present for about 45 minutes and take 15 minutes for questions, he says.

Interviews for faculty positions, for example, will include an open seminar on prior work and a closed-door presentation of proposed research. Charles P. Casey, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says the proposal talk usually involves extensive questioning.

To prepare for any interview-related talk, find out who will be your audience and gear your talk accordingly. "Show that you know what the organization does and how you will carve out your own niche," says Shane Snyder, a chemist with the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"If the interviewers include the business group, step down the scientific intensity a bit," says William F. Carroll, vice president of chlorovinyl issues at Occidental Chemical.

But personal style may ultimately trump technical substance. Patrick H. Vaccaro, a chemist at Yale University, says it is imperative that the candidate comes across not only as competent but also as someone audience members can envision as a colleague or collaborator.

1. Know your audience.

Conferences tend to have audiences that are made up of attendees in closely aligned fields. Seminars at colleges and universities, on the other hand, are open to a mix of levels, ranging from undergraduate students to emeritus professors.

Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann, a theoretical chemist at Cornell University, gears all of his presentations to "an intelligent graduate student." Many other researchers also target that level.

2. Stick to the time allotted.

Whether you are given 10 minutes or an hour, plan and execute your talk accordingly—including time for questions. Nearly every scientist and engineer surveyed adamantly noted that the audience has given you their time, and you shouldn't abuse it by running long.

To monitor your time while talking, glance at a clock, a muted cell phone, the built-in timer on a remote slide advancer, or the clock that appears on the screen when slide software runs in Presentation mode.

If you find yourself short on time, skip details but never speed up, says Michael F. Hochella Jr., a geochemist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. "The amount of material you get through is a secondary concern or even of tertiary importance compared with making the material you do get through understandable," Hochella says.

3. Tell a simple story.

Advisers instruct young scientists to fight the urge to describe every experiment in the order that they did it. "The best strategy is to build your presentation around the key findings that you want the audience to remember when you are done," says Thomas H. Epps III, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware.

4. Emphasize the big picture.

Explaining what motivated your study and putting the research in a broader context is important for even experienced researchers to hear, Hochella says. "The audience often likes to hear the general underlying ideas that many of them don't spend enough time thinking about," he adds.

5. Develop clean transitions.

The audience will need some hand-holding between points and slides. "A speaker must lead his audience through a story," says Kevin W. Plaxco, a biochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "In practice, it takes tremendous effort and creativity." Plaxco and other presenters say making those connections smooth and logical is essential to maintaining the audience's attention.

6. Limit the data tables and jokes.

The consensus is to keep slides readable and neat. Avoid data tables and dense text. Agre adds that presenters should steer clear of trying too hard to be funny because humor can backfire.

7. Practice, practice, practice.

Saying the story out loud beforehand has a few purposes: to get feedback on content, to manage time, and to familiarize yourself with the material. Even seasoned presenters such as Nobel Prize winners and full professors run through a new talk in front of their research groups. Tomiki Ikeda, a polymer chemist at Tokyo Institute of Technology and a native Japanese speaker, says he practices his talks out loud several times—especially the ones in English.

To get past jitters, many scientists memorize what they intend to say for the first few slides.

8. Dress appropriately.

The audience should see from your appearance that you are taking this opportunity seriously, says J. Justin Gooding, a surface chemist at the University of New South Wales, in Australia. In general, chemists and engineers advise conservative attire for both men and women. In North America, Europe, and Australia, suits are optional. In Asia or at medical conferences, presenters usually wear suits.

You should ask colleagues what is typical before you get to the conference or interview, suggests William J. Jenkins, a physicist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

9. Welcome questions.

Queries from audience members can give you great ideas for how to move research projects forward. Interviewers will have questions and will listen carefully to your replies. A good way to start your response is to paraphrase the question so the rest of the audience can hear it and to check that you understand it, Plaxco says. Epps also suggests pausing for at least two breaths before answering to give yourself a bit of time to collect your thoughts and answer coherently.

10. Breathe and smile.

Your brain works better if it gets oxygen, and the audience will take some cue about how to receive your work from your facial expression. Advisers add that conference attendees or interviewers will be more receptive to your work if you look happy, make eye contact, and speak with confidence and pride.

 
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