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Bench & Cubicle

Perfect Your Presentations

Tips for scientists preparing a talk about their work

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
September 3, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 36

Credit: Shutterstock
A little advance planning can improve your presentation.
This is a stock photo of a scene during a presentation.
Credit: Shutterstock
A little advance planning can improve your presentation.

THROUGHOUT your career as a scientist, you’ll have many opportunities to give oral presentations about your work—or even about chemistry in general. American Chemical Society national and regional meetings, departmental seminars, job interviews, and public outreach events are among the venues where you’ll have an opportunity to share information about your research and also receive feedback from your peers.

Whether you’re presenting a talk to other scientists or to a lay audience, prepare your message carefully to ensure effective communication.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. To begin, ask yourself, “Who is my audience, and why are they here?” By keeping the characteristics of the audience members in mind—including their level of education, scientific literacy, whether their attendance is self-motivated or mandated by their employer, and what they hope to take away from the session—you can tailor your talk to their needs. Their level of familiarity with the subject matter will directly affect how much background information and detail you should include.

START STRONG. Your first few sentences will set the tone for your entire presentation. First, decide what information you need to include, whether it’s an introduction about yourself, an outline of your talk, or background on your area of research. Then, plan the wording carefully. Keep in mind that it may be easiest to draft the introduction last, after you’ve figured out exactly what you want to convey and in what order you’re going to present your ideas.

PAY ATTENTION TO TRANSITIONS. You want to lead your audience through a compelling story, so you’ll need to present your data in the most logical order, which won’t necessarily be chronological. Also, make clear demarcations between sections. Although you might not want to write out every word of your presentation, you do need to plan how you’re going to transition smoothly between sections and even between slides. Use outline slides or other cues to show the audience where you are in the talk or to introduce them to the next section of the presentation.

ACT THE PART. You probably know more about the topic than anyone else in the room, so the audience will be looking to you for expertise. Don’t undermine your authority by mumbling, apologizing for the slides, or rolling your eyes at misguided questions. If you have confidence, self-possession, and a command of the subject matter, your audience will sense and respect that.

FINISH STRONG. The end of your presentation is every bit as important as the beginning. Summarize your key points, point out the next steps, and thank your host.

The shorter the talk, the longer it can take to prepare. As soon as you know you’ll be giving a presentation, start gathering information, drafting slides, and framing the content. You may not be able to fill in everything right away, but the more time you spend thinking about the overarching framework, the better your presentation will be. Most important, you will be more confident, and your audience will have a better experience.

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Careers blog (


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