Speak your science: How to give a better conference talk, Part 3

Part 1Part 2 — Part 3

Today, we have the third of three cross-posts by Emily Lakdawalla, the Senior Editor of The Planetary Society, on presenting your research. Emily is an internationally admired science communicator and educator. She holds a Masters degree in planetary geology from Brown University, and will release her first book this year.

You can find Emily’s original post from The Planetary Society here.

Figure 1. Professor Katherine Rawlins (Univ. of Alaska Anchorage) giving a talk at the 220th AAS Meeting in Anchorage, AK. Credit: AAS/Joson Images

Other random tips that didn’t fit

Approximately one in ten of the men in your audience is color-blind. What this means: never, ever use a ROYGBV spectrum to represent a continuously varying property. Vischeck is a super website to use to ascertain whether your graphics will be incomprehensible to the color-blind.

Your slides will almost certainly not be able to serve as a stand-alone record of your presentation. If your slides could stand alone, then your presence wouldn’t be necessary. Regrettably, many institutions use PowerPoints as documents of record. For that, either prepare a second version of your slides that has the text you intend to say as fine print, or include your talk notes as a backup slide after the end of your presentation.

DO put your name on your slides. If you want people to be interested in your work beyond the few minutes of your talk, especially if you are a relatively obscure person in your field (say, a student), consider putting your name in the corner of every slide. If nothing else, make sure to put your name and contact information on your conclusion slide.

A word on the number of your slides. It’s a commonly cited rule of thumb that you should have about one slide per minute. That assumes that people (or you) will be reading your slides. This one-per-minute rule of thumb doesn’t work as well if your slides aren’t word-heavy. And it makes the PowerPoint presentation drive your talk organization, rather than the other way around. So I don’t find that rule of thumb particularly useful. Focus, first, on what you want to say. Have slides at appropriate places to emphasize what you are saying. If you can’t say what you need to say in your allotted time, you need to say less. Eliminate slides or slide content that are no longer needed to support what you are no longer saying.

A word on animations. If your presentation contains an animation (and they can be awesome visuals), make sure you have tested that your animation works. If you do not have an opportunity to test using the exact system that is employed in the conference hall, have a backup plan that does not involve berating the hapless A/V technician. I like animated GIFs in PowerPoint presentations because they always seem to work. If you know you will have control of the clicker, an even easier way to do a not-very-many-frame animation is just to put one frame per slide and advance them manually. That will work even if (horrors!) your PowerPoint is turned into a PDF.

A word on anxiety about forgetting your talk. I think a lot of people write their entire talk on their slides because they’re afraid they’ll stand up in front of all of those people and forget what they want to say. I have a lousy memory and have no hope of memorizing an entire speech. Here’s a method I use instead. I try to memorize the first sentence I intend to say about each slide or sequence of slides. When I advance the slide, I glance at it, and that triggers the sentence I intended to say when I advanced that slide. If I have words on slides, they are usually just titles; those titles also serve as my cues to help me get my intended first sentence out.

A word on what to wear. Different conferences have different typical dress. It can be hard to know how to dress if you haven’t attended a specific conference before. Any advice on dress is, of course, especially fraught for women. When you are speaking at a large meeting, I like to be slightly better-dressed than my audience. Often that’s as easy as bringing along a sport jacket to wear over my space T-shirt and jeans. Podiums can be a big problem, especially for women: they are often too tall. You may have to wear heels so that your head will be visible over the podium, or stand next to the podium where the audience can see you. Darker colors in shirts, or patterns, will hide it better if you tend to sweat when you are nervous.

Coping with lavalier microphones. If the conference uses lavalier microphones (the wearable kind that clip), they need something to clip to. Very silky tops can be a problem, but it can work to clip it to the conference badge lanyard instead. Button-down dress shirts are best for lavalier microphones, because of course that is what they were designed to clip to, but a crew-neck T-shirt is strong enough to support the clip. Lavaliers have battery packs that either need to be placed in a pocket or clipped to a waistband, so dresses can be a problem. If you have long hair, wear it clipped or pulled back so that it does not brush the lavalier microphone. Try to get it as close to the center of your body as possible — if it’s on one side, you wind up being loud when you turn your head one way and soft when you turn the other way. If you do have to clip it on one side, clip it on the same side that you turn your head if you have to turn your head to glance at your slides.

How to be more expressive when you speak? If you’re not naturally expressive, speaking at conferences isn’t going to be good enough training. Try getting some experience elsewhere — whatever suits you. Take an acting or improv class. Go out and speak to children. The younger the children, the more expressive you’ll have to be to retain their interest. Volunteer to read to kids at a library.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s worth noting that ROYGBIV is a *terrible* color scheme for continuously varying properties in general due to how our eyes perceive color, not just for colorblind people. Cubehelix color scales, while looking a bit different to what we’re maybe used to, have smoothly varying intensity and don’t lose information if degraded to grayscale. (See here, https://www.mrao.cam.ac.uk/~dag/CUBEHELIX/, or Google around a bit.)

    My favorite, personal illustration of this comes from when I worked as a data quality assistant at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which observes in the submillimeter part of the spectrum. I used to visually inspect every image taken with the telescope for my job, many of them of these gorgeous star-forming nebulae; but since the preview pipeline used a rainbow color scheme I could never really make anything out beyond a vague impression of where there was more of less flux. Then one day a new programmer came in and change the preview to use a cubehelix color scale, and it blew my minds because now suddenly I was actually able to *see* the clouds of gas and dust that I’d never been able to make out before with the previous color scheme.



  1. Speak your science: How to give a better conference talk, Part 2 | astrobites - […] Part 1 — Part 2 — Part 3 […]

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