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Seminar: Good scientific presentation skills

Thursday, July 29, 2010, by Aleta Wiley
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Two weeks from now, all 33 summer REU students will be speaking in a two-day Symposium at Harvard Forest. They will have 15 minutes to discuss their research projects from this summer. For some, this will be their first public presentation. 

In preparation for their talks, David Orwig, Senior Ecologist at Harvard Forest, gave a seminar Tuesday night, “How to Give a Good Scientific Presentation”. Orwig discussed how the framework for a scientific presentation should parallel the structure for a scientific paper by including sections on objectives, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions. He emphasized to students to think about which 2-3 main points they want their audience to remember, and to make sure those points are made clearly throughout the talk. He provided several useful tips, such as:

- Acknowledge co-authors in your opening remarks

- State your objectives clearly and concisely

- When describing methods, be precise but not exhaustive. Include maps of study locations, photos of your research site, study organism, and equipment used, but don’t go into every detail of how you collected and analyzed data.

- When displaying a graph of results, make sure to explain the components of the graph. Tell the audience what the axes are, which colors or bars represent which data, and why you drew certain results from the graph.

- Use tables and graphics that only have information you want the audience to see. Statements like “I know this is hard to read, but I really just want to point out this section” are frustrating to an audience. Edit your tables and graphics to have only the sections you want to discuss.

- In your discussion and conclusion, remember to emphasize the 2-3 main points you want your audience to remember. A conclusion should be quick; it is your last opportunity to reinforce your main idea.

- Include an acknowledgment slide at the end of your talk to identify key personnel and funders.

In addition to discussing how students should structure their presentations, he also provided several good tips on presentation skills:

- When speaking, be enthusiastic and smile!

- Do not read your slides verbatim; talk with your audience, not to the screen.

- Practice transitions between sections and slides

- Create slides that are simple and easy to read. Use consistence colors and backgrounds.

- Try to make “color-blind-friendly” slides by not mixing reds and greens in figures (use this for assistance)

- Practice your talk; finish on time; tailor your talk to your audience.

The bottom line for a good scientific presentation? Be organized, speak clearly, and be enthusiastic! If your audience remembers your 2-3 main take-home points, your talk has been a success!