Some basic tips for PhD students for giving effective conference presentations

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.

39 thoughts on “Some basic tips for PhD students for giving effective conference presentations

  1. Catherine Jones

    Hi Jeff, I think I agree with almost everything that you said – but I think that you should include that pictures, images, graphs…..convey information far more effectively than text 😉

  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    All good advice, especially #7! “Fly-in” animations make my patience with a talk fly out!

    Although on the issue of packing too much in: in my experience this is a sin committed more often by senior researchers than by early-career ones. I have a post coming up on this…

  3. James Borrell

    Very good suggestions Jeff,

    I would add that the talk should be pitched at the level of your audience, which is obvious of course. But I’ve seen many many talks that delve into complex methods and lose the bigger picture, and the audience. By contrast, very few talks that were pitched too simply.

    A good aim is to try and get it just right for your audience, but if not I think a 50:50 chance of too simple vs too complicated is a good rule of thumb.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Great point James. It relates to what I say about telling a story – you need to set the scene before diving into the details. And don’t assume that the audience knows the background.

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  5. Nick

    Great! Now we need some basic tips for audiences, including not opening your pack of biscuits in the middle of someone’s presentation when you’re only ten minutes away from a tea break for crying out loud. Unless you’re on the verge of a hypoglycemic episode, and frankly even then I’d prefer it if you took a chance.

  6. Michelle Gibson

    I agree with everything except the bit about not ‘building suspense by introducing elements one at a time’. I tend to introduce each bullet point or each idea on a slide one at a time and am careful to not spend too much time on each. I don’t do this to build suspense- rather, I find that when presenters go to the next slide and all bullet points are already present it can be overwhelming for the audience and people are more inclined to skip ahead to future bullets and stop listening to the one being presented. I’m sure there are people that don’t like this approach, but so far I’ve only received positive feedback.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Perhaps it’s about the pace with which one discusses each point in turn? But agreed, introducing bullet points one at a time can be effective.

    2. Jeremy Fox

      Yes, agree 100% with making the elements of a complex slide (or a series of bullet points) appear one at a time. Not to build suspense, but to give the audience information in digestible chunks and to force them to listen to each chunk as it’s being presented. Otherwise everyone will stop listening to you and try (often futilely) to read and digest the whole slide at once.

  7. Jeremy Fox

    All of your advice is good Jeff, I might differ in a couple of minor details:

    Re: font size, I suggest nothing smaller than 24 pt Arial for text everyone needs to read (not that you have to use Arial; that’s just a size guide). 18 pt will be too small for people at the back of even modestly-sized seminar rooms. The exception is text that no one needs to read but that just needs to be there, like image credits. That can be smaller.

    Re: using the whole slide: try to avoid using the bottom 1/4 or so of the slide if you can. In many flat rooms, it can be tough for people in the back to see the bottom of your slide over the heads of people in front of them.

    Shameless plug: my own tips for talks are here:

      1. Jeremy Fox

        I sometimes make graph axis font a bit smaller, or at least make the numbers smaller while keeping a big label. Or only label the lowest and highest numbers on the axis, so as to be able to place the label close to the axis. Kind of depends how important it is for the audience to be able to read the axis label and the axis scales. But in general, I’d say err on the side of making the labels and scales too big rather than too small.

        If you’re trying to do a multipanel figure on one slide, no doubt you’ll need to use unreadably small axis fonts. In which case you’ll just have to do an extra-good job of walking the audience through what they need to see.

  8. Ian Hayes

    Excellent advice as usual Jeff. When doing conference presentations my wife has been known to include teddy bears and getting the audience to use crayons. Seems to keep them awake.

      1. Tracy Hayes

        I will be presenting at the University of Northampton in September – come and see for yourself 🙂
        Although not sure if I will be accompanied by the Adventure Bears (or Boggarts) this time.

  9. Cristina

    Thank you for this Jeff. I agree in general about the tips but i am not sure about writing the slide as a prompt to yourself. I think the slide should have all the information the audience requires to understand what you are talking about. I write the ppt for the audience not for me and i write it so that it tells a story even to those who were not there to listen to me. I also wonder whether the rule of thumb of one minute per slide works better for the natural sciences. My rule of thumb is two minutes per slide as we tend to be much wordier in the social sciences. As we do not tend to use many graphs, but more quotes from interviews, more time is required to explain the context and the findings. I agree totally with the last tip: tell a story and enjoy it. An added tip is ‘rehearse, rehearse, rehearse’ with fellow students, colleagues or your cat. Just rehearse.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Those are fair points Cristina. However quite a number of social sciences talks I’ve seen, which use long quotes, tend to expect the audience to read the quotes themselves rather than the speaker reading them. I think that’s bad practice because the quotes add to the story.

  10. philipstrange

    All good points. Can I suggest the following additional points:
    Try to imagine yourself in the position of a typical audience member (without biscuits) and think how your talk would be for them.
    Look at the audience when you are presenting, it make a big difference!
    And I agree strongly with rehearse, rehearse ….

  11. Chau

    Thank you, Prof. Jeff. I will definitely apply these tips on my presentation in the conference of School of Education next week 🙂

  12. Alan Swinton

    All good points Jeff but there is one which is in my view just as important namely voice projection!! Although the presentations were interesting and good some of the speakers were difficult to hear, sitting as I was at the back of the room. Perhaps as well as rehearsing the slide show and timing the speakers could have a trial voice test with a friend to check their audibility.

  13. Stephen Valentine.

    Hi Jeff,
    V Good tips as many have said. Having made and suffered too many presentations over the years As well as teaching presentation skills I would like to add a few points:

    A great story teller doesn’t need any viual aids and can make bad ones interesting. However, the rest of us need all the help we can get!
    Be clear about your structure, it will help you and your audience –

    Tell ’em what you are going to tell ’em
    Tell ’em
    Tell ’em what you’ve told ’em.

    Talk to your audience not your slides – if you don’t it is a good way to get them to open their biscuits!

    Don’t write your story on your slides. Just the key points.

    As a guide:
    6 words a line
    3 lines a page
    Then you can use a big enough font for your slides to be seen from the back of the room.

    A picture is worth a thousand words…
    Only if it is a good picture!
    This apples to graphs, graphics as well as photographs.

    Remember KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid!

    Cheers, Stephen.

  14. Wanda

    Some fabulous tips Jeff. As an add on to the one about bullet points I always say to students to aim for odd numbers of bullet points on slides rather than even (i.e. have 3 or 5 points). I know it seems weird but our brains are set up to like odd numbered sets of things and it actually does make a difference… I challenge people to try it out.

    My other point would be when adding your neutral coloured background please don’t pick white – there is something very depressing about reading black writing on white backgrounds and some people find it really difficult. A simple change to cream or a pastel colour makes a huge difference to viewers.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Wanda – I agree about the odd numbers: it’s the same when putting plants in the garden, or cheeses on a cheese board – always group in odd numbers.

      I’d not describe white as “neutral” so I can only but agree!

  15. jsilberg

    Great set of tips Jeff (along with very thoughtful comments below)!

    I disagree a bit with #1. A slide telling me the structure of your talk can disjoint the story. Unless your talk is very long (>15 minutes) or deviates from the typical science talk structure, I think an ‘outline’ wholly unnecessary.

    You may waste valuable seconds telling me that you will first introduce the topic…then describe your methods…then the results…and then put it into a wider context. I would rather people focus on telling a narrative than foreshadowing that you will eventually tell me your results.

    Also, similar to a comment above, I use simple fade-in animations to gradually bring in (minimal) text or pictures to not overwhelm the slide off the bat. These also act as cues for me when speaking.

    At the end of the day, how much you use the slide design to prompt you as a speaker depends on your presentation style. The # of slides ‘rule-of-thumb’ could also depend greatly on your presenting style, but not cramming in too much is great advice.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for your comments Josh. Perhaps I was unclear, but my point about the structure slide was to provide a focus if you do not use any other slides in your presentation. Personally I sometimes find it difficult to follow a talk that is visual aid free, unless the speaker is exceptionally good. Otherwise, yes, an outline slide isn’t necessary for shorter talks, though can be an advantage in longer talks.

      “Presentation style” is such a personal thing, agreed. But if someone’s “style” is to be wacky and kooky and to use every visual trick available on PowerPoint, then I’d argue that they are detracting from the main point of the talk, which is to be informative, stimulating, inspirational, etc., with clarity.

      My number of slides rule of thumb is based on seeing a lot of talks in my field (and outside) over the course of 25 years or so, and I don’t see it varying that much with “presenting style”, other than where style = speed of delivery. But if someone is delivering 20 slides in 10 minutes they are going much too fast for the audience, and if they use 5 slides they are probably not doing their work justice. But I’ve certainly seen 15 slides per 10 minutes work for some people if they are really clear and on top of their presentation.

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  17. Tony Denman

    All good points, Jeff. I would add that you need to carry a spare copy on a memory stick, and check out how the computer works, especially if you have an audio or video clip, or the laser pointer is essential. if you do use a complicated and important slide, try and get time to project it in the room, and walk round to see that you can see all the important features from anywhere in the audience.
    Colour, as Wanda says, is alos important – I tend to go for Yellow on a blue background.

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