Tips for Oral Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences

Tips for Oral Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences
6 years ago

Tips for Oral Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences

By Nina Lichtenberg

Tis’ the season for the biennial, annual, or semi-annual life science conference; and this time around, you’re scheduled to give a presentation in front of every known expert in your field of study (yikes!) Your thoughts may range from “I can’t wait to share my shiny new data with a room full of scientists!”, to “Why me?”

Never fear, whether thrilled or terrified, follow these tips below to engage your audience and give a stellar presentation. Please note that the advice below applies to all forms of presentations but is focused on those that take place at scientific meetings or conferences. If you don’t have any presentations scheduled but would like to give one, check out the last section on seeking presentation opportunities.

You have an upcoming conference presentation scheduled, now what?

The first step to giving a talk is creating a presentation. The book Designing Science Presentations by Matt Carter is an excellent visually-oriented guide to designing and delivering presentations, and even offers tips on other forms of science communication, like creating figures for manuscripts. Plus, it’s free to download via your university network (see link here).

Prior to your presentation, and generally throughout your PhD, it’s a good idea to take notes on presentation organization, style, voice, and audience engagement techniques. As a graduate student, you’ve probably attended dozens of talks – both good and bad. Take notes on what stood out to you and what you thought made each presentation successful (or unsuccessful) at getting the speaker’s story across. What made the talk engaging? Was it the way they introduced their research using a witty, real-life or pop culture example? Perhaps it was the way they paused during transitions between topics to ask if the audience had any questions. Maybe it was simply the speaker’s demeanor, or the font, color, or layout of their slides. Integrate what you learned into your presentation. About 25% of the notes I jot down during talks are about the actual manner in which data are presented.

Practice, practice, practice – but don’t over practice

In the few weeks leading up to your presentation, 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. It’s important to practice in front of others, professors or your peers, for a few critical reasons: this experience will be the closest to the real deal, allowing you to work on your voice and audience engagement, and importantly, your audience will give you feedback on how to communicate your data. They may point out topics you rushed through and/or give you tips on organization. Work on the timing – one slide (or less) per minute is a fairly universal rule. This is especially important for short data blitz style presentations, which are often strictly limited to just 5 or 10 minutes.

Even if you don’t have an imminent conference presentation scheduled, presenting your work throughout your PhD will well prepare you for future conferences and job talks. At my university there are several opportunities for graduate students to present their recent findings in short (5-20 min) and long (1 hr) formats in seminars open to professors, postdocs, and fellow students. If you prefer an informal audience, practice your talk in lab meeting. Additionally, there are often graduate student led organizations that host informal after-lab meetings exactly for this purpose.

If such resources are not available on your campus or at your institution, create them yourself! Not only will these forums give you the chance to practice your talk, but they may expose you to research topics, presentation styles, and individuals from across disciplines. If you’re short on time, gather a handful of science and/or non-science friends and practice your talk on campus or at home. Practice in front of non-scientists (roommates maybe?) – this will benefit you in the long run. “Talking shop” with those outside of your field will strengthen your skills in communicating your data to a broad audience, which is critical for publishing in high-impact journals, getting grants, and for so much more.

Practice, but don’t over practice. Some scientists, including myself, need to spend the time going through what they plan to say for each slide many times before the talk. But for others, this results in a presentation that sounds too rehearsed and a bit robotic. During the presentation, you may need to deviate from the talk that’s drilled into your head to answer unexpected questions or to speed up if you’re running short on time. Preparing an over-rehearsed talk will make adaptation difficult.

So, practice until you’ve memorized every line, or go over your talk just a few times? Practice until your nerves are calm in front of your mock audience, then quit practicing and brush up on some background knowledge that will help you answer tricky questions from audience members.

Tips for the actual real-life presentation

If you’ve but the time into creating a well-organized presentation and have practiced, even a little bit, you will be fine.

Before the presentation: If you’re speaking as part of a symposium, familiarize yourself with the other speakers (and their research) in the panel and at the conference in general. You don’t want to get caught not recognizing someone important. Upon arriving to the conference venue, check out the room in which you will be giving the presentation so that there are no surprises – make note of where the podium is and the microphone, of course.

During the presentation: Take it slow. This will help calm your nerves or jitters. Pausing for a few seconds after each sentence will help. Speak at an appropriate volume and clearly. Remember to look at your audience members for a majority of the time, and not at your slides or down at the floor! Also, the audience doesn’t know your data as well as you do – don’t be afraid to elaborate a bit or remind them of certain goals of your research, even if a technique or result seems elementary to you.

After the presentation: Take a deep breath (you’re done!) Thank the meeting organizers for the speaking opportunity. If there are any questions from the audience, answer them as best you can. If you don’t have a great answer, it’s not a big deal. Offer to speak with the attendee further after the talk or symposium.

The final tips below may seem obvious, but nonetheless important.

  • Check your presentation for any errors in spelling, grammar, and file conversion, and make sure it is formatted as requested by the organizer/your contact person (i.e. the dreaded Mac to PC, or vice versa PowerPoint conversion issues)
  • Dress to impress – you and your data will be well-received if you look put together
  • Get a good night’s sleep

Getting a speaking opportunity at a conference

The easiest way to find speaking opportunities at conferences is to browse the conference organization’s webpage for calls for abstracts. Typically, a conference organizing committee will ask for an abstract anywhere from 1-6 months prior to a conference. Tip: keep abstract deadlines marked on a calendar!

Word of mouth is powerful. Ask your colleagues and/or other graduate students in your program about conferences they’ve attended, especially more senior students who may have already given talks at a few conferences. Also, don’t be afraid to ask professors if they are organizing any conference symposia. You never know if they’re looking for someone to fill a spot – perhaps your shiny new data would be perfect for what they’re organizing. They may also be able to refer you to their colleagues in charge of organizing other scientific meetings.

Of course, attending a conference requires (many) expenses: abstract submission fees, registration fees, poster printing, flight, hotel – it adds up. Travel awards are excellent resources, especially for graduate students. Typically, travel awards are open to both national and international students and typically cover costs of registration, and often offer a discount (or full coverage) on travel expenses. Travel award deadlines are often different from those of abstract submissions and require a recommendation letter – these details can be found on the conference website.

If you win a travel award, awardees are usually invited to attend professional development workshops and to present their data as a talk at the conference. So, not only does the cover some of your travel expenses, but it gives you an opportunity to present your data – win-win! Don’t forget to put the award (and your talk) on your CV. Tip: outside companies and research foundations, like Hello Bio, offer travel awards to students.

Presenting your research at a conference or meeting is a unique, exciting opportunity. It’s not just a chance to share your newest data with your scientific peers, but a chance to build communication skills and boost self-confidence; thus, benefiting both your career and well-being. So, if a speaking opportunity arises don’t hesitate, jump on it!


Nina Lichtenberg earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. Currently, she is working on wrapping up her PhD in the Psychology department at UCLA by studying the neural circuitry of memory retrieval and decision making. Apart from research, she spends her time developing a neuroscience outreach program that connects undergraduates with the local LA community and builds their scicomm skills.

You can follow Nina on Twitter @NTlichten or connect with her on LinkedIn. Want to meet Nina in person (and see her present some data)? She’ll be at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, CA, from November 3-7 giving poster presentations on her outreach and science.

Read Nina’s other blog post: Tips for poster presentations at scientific meetings and conferences

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