The All-Important Research Talk: Learning How to Do It Better

Few people like to get up in front of a room full of people and speak. In fact, surveys have shown that people fear public speaking more than death, which leads comedian Jerry Seinfeld to quip that the average person at a funeral would be better off in the casket than giving the eulogy. Scientists often need to present their ideas to an audience, but all of us have been to at least one incomprehensible talk that left us scratching our heads or annoyed that we'd wasted an hour of our day. But hey, what does it matter if the presenter gave a terrible talk? Good science will ultimately triumph, right?

Well, not necessarily. "I've seen a number of students go out on interviews, and it's not their qualifications that impede them, it's their communication skills," says marine biologist Mark Moline of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. "If you expect that you're just going to walk into a room and dazzle someone with your work, that might get you 60% to 70% of the way there. But the real kicker is that you connect with people."

And connecting with an audience, which usually won't consist of experts in your field, is increasingly important. Giving adequate background and telling people why your work is important and where it fits into the larger picture can ultimately make or break an interview, whether in academia or industry. With the focus on more interdisciplinary collaboration, clear presentations are also essential, because people won't be able to sift through jargon or a mountain of data to understand the importance of your work and how it might benefit them. Industry scientists may present their work to nonscientists in sales and marketing, and business-minded academic scientists may be involved in presenting their work to venture capitalists. Employers consistently rank communication skills higher than technical skills.

So how can you improve your presentation skills?

The best known way to get public-speaking experience is to join Toastmasters International. There are more than 8000 Toastmasters clubs around the world in corporations, universities, government, and the community. Groups, usually consisting of 20 to 30 people, generally meet once a week for about an hour. There are no teachers or instructors, and members receive a series of manuals and resources on speaking when they join. At the club's meetings, members get experience conducting meetings and giving impromptu speeches. Members also give prepared speeches and are assigned a person to evaluate the speech and suggest ways to improve. Toastmasters executive director Terry McCann says that a lot of scientists are members, and they have more people with Ph.D.s than people without degrees. (Read a recent testimonial from a Next Wave reader in Scotland who joined her local Toastmasters club.)

An entertaining, 20-minute video called Talking Science: The Elusive Art of the Science Talk, which was written and directed by filmmaker and former marine biologist Randy Olson of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in conjunction with the Annenberg School for Communication, might also be useful. Olson says that he got the idea to make the video after attending his first conference in several years and realizing that some people needed work on their presentation skills.

The film follows marine biologist Moline, a former colleague of Olson, as he gave a talk at an ocean sciences meeting last year. It mercilessly catalogs his presentation, pointing out that he looked at the screen 87.6% of the time and said "um" 92 times in 11 minutes. The film also has comments from scientists in various fields on talks they've attended, as well as advice from experts in communication, film, and theater. The video, which provides tips on giving presentations, including the use of visual aids and pointers, is available from the Wrigley Institute for $39.95.

Moline says that he probably learned the most from the video, which he uses in a class he's taught for several years called "Communicating Biology" for undergraduates and master's students. Biophysicist Peter Basser of the National Institutes of Health hosted a screening of the video for the Biophysics Interest Group, and the NIH director's office now has several copies. Marine ecologist Suchana Chavanich of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, recently ordered the video after seeing it at an ecology meeting and says she plans to use it to teach her undergraduate and graduate students.

Some universities offer courses to teach students to give better talks. Through the University of Texas, Austin's Graduate School Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (see also a Next Wave article on the program), students can take a semester-long course in academic and professional communication. The course is taught by Thomas Darwin, who emphasizes using conversation and orienting your talk toward the audience. Darwin teaches students about principles of communication, and students give several formal presentations that are videotaped and evaluated by him and other students. Students also have opportunities to give short impromptu talks and practice thinking on their feet through question-and-answer sessions. In addition to improving their presentation skills by explaining their work to people outside their disciplines, Darwin says that students learn to be good audience members and ask questions, which is "part of being a professional and academic colleague." The program offers a similar course for people whose native language isn't English.

At the University of Pittsburgh, neuroscientist Michael Zigmond and colleague Beth Fischer run the Survival Skills and Ethics Program. One of the workshops they run teaches students and postdocs how to give a research seminar through a combination of lectures, discussion, and practical exercises. Because the workshop is only for a day, for long-term help Fischer encourages people to join Toastmasters, which she says is a "fabulous" organization and has a chapter at the University of Pittsburgh. She also encourages students to volunteer to give presentations to lay audiences at schools and at local organizations (for example, talking about research being done on a disease to a support group) to help them develop their speaking skills and minimize their nervousness. Zigmond and Fischer also train people from other schools to start their own Survival Skills programs (see Dave Jensen's Tooling Up column on the program).

To help its postdocs with their presentation skills, the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems' Office of Postdoctoral Programs held a workshop last year by anEdge, a company that gives seminars on how to give technical presentations. Lisa Marshall, anEdge's managing director, gave two workshops, one on informal presentations and the other on formal presentations. She tailors her presentations to her audience, she says, and works with someone at the institution beforehand so she has examples, such as slides, that are relevant. The formal presentation workshop consisted of the basics of giving a presentation (organization, delivery, and visuals). The informal presentation workshop covered how to deal with anxiety, handle question-and-answer periods, explain what you do in 45 seconds or less, and cope with disasters, and it also gave presentation do's and don'ts. (Some of Marshall's basic advice on giving technical presentations is available online, as well as the full details of her presentation.)

"I thought it was very helpful and should be a part of postdoc or graduate student training," says postdoc Cindy Dowd, who attended the anEdge workshops. "It's one of the few opportunities we have to say what we do."

Even without outside help, scientists can help each other polish their presentations. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, postdocs organized a bimonthly forum focused on giving each other a chance to give a talk and get feedback. Normally, postdocs give talks only at lab meetings, where everyone already knows what they're talking about, or at large conferences, according to forum organizer Margaret Harmon. The talks are voluntary and are usually reports on research in progress, presentations about proposed research, or job talks. The speakers can invite whomever they want and are encouraged to invite a faculty member as an outside mentor, although it's not required. Postdocs at the University of Chicago have organized a similar monthly series, which is open to everyone, at which postdocs have the opportunity to give 45-minute talks on their research to a general audience and get feedback on their presentations.

Learning to give a clear presentation is just as important as learning technical skills. "In building one's reputation and doing well in science, and doing well in the politics of science, the talks are all-important," says neurobiologist William McClure in the Talking Science video. "If you can't give a good talk, you can almost kiss your scientific career good-bye."

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