How NOT To Put Together A Talk…

…by Sophie / from the United Kingdom / PhD Tissue Repair / 4th Year

The past few months for me have been plagued by presentations. I’ve spent more time than I care to think about moving images around on PowerPoint and talking aloud to myself (or my dog). Two of the more important ones were when I presented in the institute and at a big international conference and they both went really well – I got nominated for a prize for one and actually won a prize for the other!

However, the road to those prizes was rocky to say the least and I’d like to give a lot of credit to my lab and my supervisor for helping in the preparations. I thought I’d write a post to share my recent experience and maybe some tips I picked up along the way.

Here’s the step-by-step process* about how I went about preparing mine recently.

*While there are some actual nuggets of advice in here I highly recommend not following this trajectory entirely.

So you’ve been invited to give a talk at a conference. Congratulations! You will likely be feeling equal parts thrilled and terrified. Now, to make the talk: you’ll need a sweet slide pack and a good script, as well as an in-depth background knowledge ready to answer any erroneous questions. No pressure.

  1. Panic.
  2. Collect as much information as you can about the talk itself. How long does it have to be? Does this include questions? Do you also need to provide a poster? Who will be your audience – specialists or not?
  3. Rifle through your previous presentations and frantically cobble together a series of slides that show your most recent data. Give this talk to some people in the lab, any willing volunteers. Have them tear it limb from limb.
  4. Ignore the presentation entirely for a couple of days.
  5. Go back to the drawing board, scrap every slide and remake all your diagrams.
  6. Delete a lot of data, which feels counter-intuitive. You need to tell them less than you think, just the most interesting things.
  7. Procrastinate by spending 1-2 hours adjusting a single slide by moving one image back and forth a couple of centimetres and trying to align all the labels.
  8. Show it to your supervisor or some people in the lab but realise you’ve lost all confidence and give a bumbling incoherent load of nonsense.
  9. Go home, have a drink.
  10. Face your fears, sit down at your computer, open the presentation again and actually think about how you’re trying to tell your story. Look at the feedback you’ve collected from your several failed talks. (You don’t have to implement every single piece of advice though.)
  11. Lay the talk out so it’s circular, starts with a question and ends with you answering that question.
  12. Write out what you think you want to say, then practice saying it aloud, as often the way you write something isn’t how you’d say it. Over explaining and repeating yourself can feel strange but generally it’s a good thing.
  13. Run it through by yourself with a timer, realise you are way over the time. Consider speaking extremely quickly, then realise that makes no sense.
  14. Re-hash your script.
  15. Write out or verbally practice answers to questions you might expect to get asked so that you can pull them out of your back pocket. Back-up slides to support this can also be really helpful and look like you’re super prepared (which by this point you are).
  16. Do ANOTHER practice talk. Realise it might actually go okay.
  17. The day of the talk, TRY NOT TO PANIC. Have your first sentence totally practised and learnt by heart as once you get going, you’re golden.
  18. Before you start, come up to the lectern and, while they introduce you, literally take one long breath. Pausing before you start feels like you are silent for hours but no one notices and it helps you start calmly.
  19. Enjoy sharing all your hard work with people!
  20. Relax.

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