The Life Scientists’ Guide to Presenting at Conferences

The Life Scientists’ Guide to Presenting at Conferences
5 years ago

The Life Scientists’ Guide to Presenting at Conferences

Presenting at conferences is a great way to raise your profile as a scientist. Since most life scientists will give a talk at a conference or seminar at some point in their career – whether a formal presentation or a poster presentation – it’s a seriously good idea to learn how to deliver a brilliant presentation that’s engaging and informative.

For many of us, public speaking will bring on sweaty palms and butterflies – and presenting in front of peers and experts only adds more pressure. However, with the right preparation, skills and mindset, presenting can be a painless experience – and dare we say it, even a fun one!

To help you deliver your next scientific presentation with confidence and flair, we’ve put together this Life Scientist’s Guide to Presenting at Conferences. It’s packed full of advice from experts, as well as some excellent tips from our community of scientists.

Preparing for your presentation

If you’ve ever said: “I’ll just wing it” before a big presentation, you’re not alone! However, take it from us – when you’re presenting in a formal setting, it’s always a good idea to step onto the stage prepared. That’s how you’ll make the biggest impact.

Presentation visuals

Slides, posters or other visual elements can make an engaging talk even better. Clear visuals that support and demonstrate your points (and maybe even add humour) avoid the dreaded ‘eyes-glazed-over’ look from your audience. You don’t need to give loads of information, but it really helps to have a few key points displayed visually.

Neuroscience PhD student Karolina Farrell from University College London advises: “Keep slides minimal – only have what is necessary to demonstrate your point. Anything else will distract your audience. If you have a few points on one slide, only show the one you’re talking about at that moment, and use a simple ‘appear’ animation when moving onto the next one.”

If you’re unsure where to start with your visuals (after all, we’re scientists not designers!) in her guest blog post on oral presentation tips, PhD candidate Nina Lichtenberg from UCLA suggests the book Designing Science Presentations by Matt Carter as a great visually-oriented guide.

If you’re putting together a Poster, then design is even more important. We have you covered here too: you'll find some brilliant tips from Nina in her blog on poster presentations.

Presentation Structure

When preparing for your presentation, it’s a great idea to come up with (at least) a rough structure of what you’re going to share. That way, when you’re presenting, you’ll never find yourself directionless or stuck for something to talk about. Neuroscientist Maria Montefinese from the University of Padova says: “Think about the take-home message you'd like to leave to your audience.”

And finally, don’t overcomplicate things. We love this wonderfully simple (but highly effective!) presentation structure which Stuart Maudsley from the University of Antwerp shared with us:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you’ve told them

Practising your presentation

The old saying “practice makes perfect'' certainly rings true when it comes to presenting. Practising your talk will help you feel confident and prepared on the day, reducing those nerves.

In her ENCODS 2019 presentation skills workshop, science communicator Dr Emily Grossman made the brilliant point that when most of us sit down to write a talk, we write it, instead of speaking it. However, since your presentation will actually be spoken, you might want to start your preparation by dictating your knowledge and taking notes from there, and then practice it aloud as much as you can.

PhD Candidate Kate Secombe from the University of Adelaide says “[I always] have my first 2-3 sentences so well practiced that I could do them in my sleep! A good start always calms the nerves.”

However, it’s not enough to just speak it out loud – the crucial part is practising with others so you gain confidence sharing your ideas with an audience.

In her guest blog on poster presentation tips, Nina Lichtenberg wrote: “You may be tempted to practice alone, or maybe even to your beloved, non-judgmental furry friend in the comforts of your own home. As tempting as this may sound, practicing in front of a real human audience is key.”

Dr James Quinn, recent PhD graduate from the University of Manchester, agrees: “Practice with non-experts (I used my roommate), other PhD students (not in my lab) and my advisory team (supervisor etc.). I found this order worked well to get flow, general science and specific science perfect!”

Neuroscientist Maria Velasco Estevez from Trinity College Dublin added: “I like practising my talks beforehand in front of colleagues/friends, to make sure I say all I wanted to convey and get some feedback. But don't overdo it, or it will look fake or like a machine!”

Scientist and advocate for a healthier academic research climate, Anna O’Connell, adds that practising your presentation isn’t just about getting the words right. She says: “Practise standing up with the slide changer in your hand and time your presentation. Don’t sit down while practicing! Knowing what to do with your body while talking is key.”

Overcoming presentation nerves

Did you know you that your body can’t tell the difference between nerves and excitement? Physically, they have the same symptoms: sweaty palms, butterflies in your stomach, heart beating faster and higher cortisol levels.

However, through a brilliant technique called ‘anxiety reappraisal’, you can actually reframe your nerves as excitement. The feeling in your body remains the same, but your perception changes. Not only is it helpful for feeling better, but it actually helps you perform better too.

When participants in this study by Associate Professor Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School were asked to give a two minute speech on camera, the participants who had framed their symptoms as ‘excitement’ spoke for longer and were viewed as more persuasive, confident and persistent.

So instead of trying to calm down before your talk, try the anxiety reappraisal technique by reminding yourself of all the reasons you’re excited to give the presentation.

Neuroscience research technician Mackenzie Lemieux from the Salk Institute agrees: “Take a few minutes to remember WHY you are excited about the topic you are presenting. Then channel that excitement into the emphasis in your voice and body language (instead of talking speed) to make sure you can effectively transfer your passion to your audience.”

Embrace the feeling

Choosing to view the physical feelings that come along with presenting as positive is key to keeping your confidence levels high. Stem Cell Biologist Rachelle Balez from Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute says: “Acknowledge and then embrace the nerves! I’m always nervous before a talk, but I try to think of it as an opportunity to share something I love and am excited about!”

Use your body

Research Scientist Jess Walsh from Illumina suggests using your body as a tool for confidence-building: “I personally find that powerposing – no dramatic superhero poses though, just “taking up space” and using all available to me – and walking towards the audience help massively!”

Delivering your presentation

You’ve planned, you’ve tackled your nerves – now’s your time to shine! Be proud of the work you’ve put in to be up there, and let it show.

One common pitfall of presenting is that many speakers tend to share too much for fear of omitting something important. But in this excellent article in Nature, taken from their eBook English Communication for Scientists, they suggest: “A better approach is to be selective in the presentation itself and to allow enough time for questions and answers.”

While every presentation is different, there are a few tips to make your delivery go as smoothly as possible:

  • At her ENCODS 2019 Presentation Skills Workshop, Dr Emily Grossman suggested arriving early enough that you can stand where you’ll be presenting before the audience arrives. That way, when you get up to speak, the room will feel familiar and you’ll feel calmer.
  • Scientific Editor from the University of Antwerp, Dr Bronwen Martin adds: “Don’t talk too fast, breathe, tell a story, smile and be enthusiastic, and most importantly, just enjoy connecting with your audience.”
  • Speak at an appropriate volume and speak clearly so that everyone can hear and understand you
  • Look at your audience members for the majority of the time, not at your slides or down at the floor!

PhD student James Howe from UCLA reminds us that delivering a great presentation isn’t just about regurgitating a well-rehearsed speech word-for-word. When we do that, it’s easy to zone out from our own voice. He says: “Talk to them breezily like it’s a conversation. It keeps you and the audience paying attention!”

Body language during your presentation

Remember: you were given the opportunity to present. That means you’re supposed to be there, so present like you mean it – with your body as well as your words. Dr Emily Grossman’s tip, which we love SO much, is to walk on stage like you’re accepting an award. That’s got to be great for confidence, right?

Lab Technician Ella Courtie from the University of Birmingham, adds: “When presenting, having your feet shoulder-width apart, arms loose and not crossed will relax everyone you’re presenting to as well as yourself! Make yourself look open and welcoming – huddling in heightens stress. Smile and have fun!”

After your presentation

Congratulations, you did it! Take a moment to breathe and honour yourself for all your effort. Thank the meeting organisers for the speaking opportunity. If the audience has any questions that you can’t give a great answer to, it’s no big deal, invite them to speak with you after the event for a more in-depth conversation.

PhD student Sophie Millar from the University of Nottingham agrees: “Tell them you’ll be around after/at the break for further questions – especially for some people interested who might not want to speak out!”

Nice work! Now, before you rush to your next project, communication and leadership expert Gilda Bonanno recommends taking a few minutes to reflect on your presentation experience while it’s still fresh in your mind. In this blog post, she encourages writing down answers to some contemplative questions, such as:

  • What did I do well?
  • When did I feel really connected with the audience?
  • How could I add even more value next time?
  • Something I want to work on to become an even better presenter is...

In summary

Presenting at a conference is a valuable way to strengthen your knowledge, skills and promote yourself and your scientific work. Here are our five top takeaway tips:

  1. Presenting can be a nerve-wracking experience, but by reframing your anxiety as excitement and telling yourself: “I’m excited because...” you’re more likely to come across as confident and competent
  2. Being as prepared as possible with a helpful visual element to support your talk also goes a long way to giving a great presentation. However, keep visuals minimal to avoid overwhelming your audience.
  3. Practising in front of others is a great way to get feedback and gain experience in sharing your ideas with an audience.
  4. When it comes to delivering your talk, smile and use your body language to convey confidence. Don’t rush, but also make sure you allow time for questions at the end.
  5. Congratulate yourself afterwards, and take time to reflect on your performance by asking yourself some simple follow up questions about how it went, and what you could do better next time.

Above all, be prepared and exude enthusiasm – and you’ll be well on your way to a stellar presentation. Good luck!


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