One of the advantages of working in a relatively small, non-research intensive institution such as the University of Northampton is that events such as yesterday’s Annual Postgraduate Research Conference expose staff and research students to a diversity of topics and approaches, beyond the narrow silos of our own disciplines. I spent the day listening to talks as varied as 21st century Gothic fiction, sediment sources in an English river; automating traffic control systems; and the role of younger grandmothers in raising their grandchildren.
It was a great day, very stimulating. However it struck me that whilst the research was sound, in some cases (certainly not all) the presentation of the research could have been improved. I’m writing this in the spirit of a recent discussion over at Dynamic Ecology about the “advice” posts that they present and why they are so popular. It seems like the consensus in the discussion is that often supervisors (or advisors as they are called in North America) often neglect to give some basic advice to their graduate students, assuming that they already know those “basics”, and focus instead on very detailed, technical advice.
Conference presentation skills are one such set of basics which, although covered by many universities in their training programmes (Northampton included) need to be reinforced by supervisors and by practice. In my opinion, the following advice applies to all disciplines, not just the sciences:
1. Always use a visual aid, such as PowerPoint, even if you think you don’t need it. Even a single slide with your name and the title of your presentation provides a context and focus for your talk. Better still would be some information about the structure of your talk on a second slide – “free-form” talks rarely work unless you’re an exceptional presenter.
2. On PowerPoint, etc. use an absolute minimum text size of 18pt, preferably larger. This includes graphs, tables, figure legends, screen shots, etc. Anything smaller is not going to be visible beyond the third row of the audience unless you’re projecting onto a giant screen. And do you know for certain that the venue has a big screen?
3. Related to that, use the full width and height of your slides, don’t cram text and figures into the middle.
4. Keep text to a minimum – just bullet points to give you a prompt as to what you’re going to say. These bullet points don’t need to make complete sense to the audience as long as they give you that prompt: you’re talking, not reading.
5. Ask someone (a friend, your supervisor) to double-check all your spelling, grammar, spacing, formatting, etc. It’s well known that we read what we think is there, not what is actually there.
6. A good rule of thumb for most presentations is to use more-or-less one slide per minute. So if your allotted time is 10 minutes, use about 10 slides; if it’s 30 minutes, use about 30 (not including introduction and acknowledgements slides). Do not try to fit 15 minutes worth of material into a 10 minute talk, it will irritate your audience and your conclusions at the end will be garbled and unclear as you rush to finish. You can ALWAYS effectively summarise your research into the time allotted – don’t complain that you can’t.
7. PowerPoint etc. provide all sorts of fancy backgrounds for slides, wonderful fonts, including shading and 3D, tricksy text animations, etc. Don’t use any of them. Keep your backgrounds a plain neutral colour, your font a basic sans serif (Trebuchet is my personal favourite), and don’t use animations unless they are really adding to what you’re saying, or building suspense by introducing elements one at a time.
8. Tell a story. Start with a broad introduction, take the audience on a journey through your work in logical order, and sum up at the end. Then let your audience know that you’ve finished by saying something like: “Thanks for your attention, I’d be happy to answer any questions”. Don’t just stop talking and stare at the audience.
9. Stay focused and relevant to what you’re presenting.
10. Enjoy yourself. It’s hard the first few times but it gets easier.
Finally I should add that I’ve seen mid- and late-career researchers make these kinds of errors, it’s not just PhD students! Feel free to share your own tips, or to disagree with any of these.