“The best lessons are those that learned on your first fall” anonymous
Yesterday I’ve pitched for the first time a scientific lecture in front of crystallographic professionals. I was lucky to have my first baptism of fire within the confines of a small annual meeting which is a “soft” landing into the rocks of the presentation’s beach.
Overall, I had an excellent talk for a first-time lecture and as part of the “post”-lecture atmosphere, I would like to share with you some of my insights in regard to presenting scientific content. You might not believe it now, but once your lecture capabilities improve you will soon find that you’re actually enjoying it!
This was the point which was hard for me, as I am a talker. But, this is one of the most important aspects of giving a lecture. If you blabber too much people will get board, and will start to talk with their neighbors (or just scroll through their Smartphone).
Be concise with your lecture. This point is failed again and again by profs as well as undergrad presenting their final project. True, you’ve got 20/40/60 minutes to talk about your research; it doesn’t mean you need to squeeze inside all the stuff you’ve done in your research or in your scientific career – people will get bored, eventually (and also impatient!). Don’t forget, the aim of the lecture is to present a point in a clear and concise manner. Not less, not more.
Nobody likes to practice but this is one of the most important aspects of good lecturing, especially if this is your first time lecturing on a certain subject. How much is a matter of personal capabilities, but I would say, a week before D-day, practicing twice a day alone and at least 2-3 crowd practice (lab members, friends, family). Time your slides and see that you meet the allocated time – people get inpatient and pissed off when a lecturer postpone the lunch time/coffee break/smoke puffs. If you practice enough you will reach a certain point in which you could run though your lecture in your head, knowing by heart the slides sequence and your main points that should be stated. However, don’t memorize word-by-word your entire lecture; people can see parrots in the zoo and it will be much more colorful (you can memorize the 2 first sentences, though, so you’ll have a clean start – again thanks for the advice from a twitter user).
Recommended number of slides
There is a common rule of thumb that runs from 1 slide/1 minute to 1 slide/2 minute (i.e., with 20 minutes at hand you should aim at 10-20 slides). Better err on the higher rate of time as it is far better to give a clear and relaxed lecture then a breath-less one. We actually had an accomplished post-doc giving a lecture which was delivered excellently if not for her machine-gun style in which she covered ~100 slides in 30 minutes. At a certain point I just lost her completely and was only enjoying her lovely images. No use showing off your hard worked data if people loose you after five minutes.
Look them straight in the eye
This is tricky bit as people in many cases are either shy/nervous/don’t remember the current slide thus lay their eyes most of the lecture on the screen, telling the screen great stories about their research and not the audience. This is one of the most irritating presentation behaviors and it leads to boredom as there is no connection between the lecturer and the audience. Yeah, it can be scary to look at the people you are talking to but there is no other way. Practice standing in front of your lab as much as possible or even better, ask to give a lecture on your department’s seminar.
Talk with confidence
It’s a cliché but it is also true – if you’re confident in your stand then people will be attentive and will be caught by your statue. This is hard to come by and is acquired over time with your experience in lecturing in front an audience.
Both your speech tone and your body language should not be monotonic – even in our sleep (!) we keep on moving from time to time so do your best no to anesthetize your audience. Be dynamic with your voice, playing with your tone and pitch in certain points to emphasize and to be interesting. Also, keep on moving. Don’t stand behind the podium and hold to it (and to your computer screen) like they are your savers from this lecture. If the auditorium is large and people have difficult time to hear you without the podium’s microphone, ask the organizers for wireless microphone. In the event I had a talk the first session were all confined to the podium area due to the need for a mic, which was to their knowledge only at the podium stand, making most of them planted in their place. Once I have realized there is a wireless mic, the rest of the sessions took use of this device.
Listen & answer
You’ve crossed the hard part of giving the lecture and people actually have questions. Excellent!
First, make sure you listen attentively to their questions and only then answer. This is a very tricky part, which I had the most difficulties in my lecture, as this is the part where preparation can help to a limited success simply because you can’t expect the variety of audience’s questions. Do your best to answer to the best of your knowledge and don’t be shy to say “I will need to check your question” or “it’s a good idea, I will have to look into it, thanks for pointing out this fact..”. Make sure that you know the basics and excersice Q&A with your lab mates and other colleagues.
Do you have any other tips? Or any funny event in conferences? I will be happy to read your experience with presenting scientific work in conferences.
PS – I would like to thank all the advice I’ve got from people on twitter before my lecture as your ideas helped me to prepare for this one.