We're a little crazy, about science!

The how to of presentation design

With my three minute talk coming up (more here) I need to design my two slides and get my poster set. Since I don’t like doing more work than needed, instead of trying to figure out the order of things and blog about something else, I wanted to go over how I would be presenting my science, both for the talk and my poster. Ideally this would help others, but mostly it’s for me since I could use the format in the future. I would copy from my previous talks, but I like to mix it up a little and this isn’t quite as formal as some of the other talks I’ve had to give.

I don’t think there’s ever a “perfect’ talk. I think there is a sliding scale of horrible to okay, but that’s not the fault of the speaker, it’s due to the imprecise nature of language. I say some words and they may mean something completely different to you than they do to me. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but a good talk isn’t one that is complex. You don’t need to show off your knowledge of the field, I think a good talk is one that gets people engauged. You obviously care about the topic you’re researching (or at least I hope you care), the point of a talk like the one I’m giving is to make sure others know why they should care.

When I start a talk like this I try to get people interested right away by proposing a somewhat unrealistic situation where they would experience a situation like the research I’m describing. For a long while my research was on prosthetic legs so I would start with a example where you would wake first thing in the morning, get out of bed, when suddenly your leg falls off. Sometimes people would laugh, sometimes they wouldn’t, but I always follow up with the fact that unless you’re born with a congenital defect, you could wake up one day and your leg could have fallen off via accident, disease, whatever. I don’t know if this is the best way to communicate, I really don’t, but I like it because frankly most people don’t care about something that doesn’t affect them, so I try to point out a situation where it could really affect them.

Then I like to follow with actual statistics, to remind people that this is a real problem and people live with this problem. This talk is on something a lot of people deal with, so the statistics are pretty bleak, which will hopefully help explain why this is so important. Next comes state of the art and limitations, which explains how the problem is currently treated and why that solution (or those solutions) isn’t (aren’t) perfect.

If the first portion and second portion take two minutes total (one minute for why people should care, one for state of the art, statistics, etc.) then the last minute is left to introduce the solution I’m working on. Talks like these aren’t for teaching people about how you do what you do or why it works, it’s to get people excited. So instead of explaining mechanisms of action, benefits, or risks, I will spend the time showing some of the results and explaining what they mean. Basically get people excited about the project. I think people tend to try to cram way too much scientific detail in talks like this, but the idea is to get people interested to come visit your poster so you can explain the science to them there, not during your talk.

So that’s about as good an outline as I can give without giving details about what my project is or why it’s important. For my two slides I plan to have little or no words on them. Big blocks of text don’t help people (or at least I don’t think so) so I use my slides often as a visual aid for the talk. I will use one slide for the data, and the other for the experimental setup or something of that sort, just to give people an idea about how the process works and generally speaking a visual explanation of the procedure is better than anything I could describe.

As for the poster, same logic applies. I’ve seen posters that look more like print copies of a thesis. Big blocks of text are a no-go a poster, in my opinion, should be a storyboard, not a giant wall of text. The point of the poster should be clear, what’s the big idea? Then plaster that big idea in a large and very obvious way. My last poster for the talk I gave (here) followed these principles. There was a one (or maybe two?) sentence explanation of my findings. You could see my poster from across the room and know what I was doing because you could really read this that far away.

Everyone has their own style for posters/talks, but this is typically how I give mine. I really like the style I use and I’ve generally gotten good feedback from people about it. But again, this may not be the best way for you to present or your research may not fit so cleanly into my categories. No worries, do what’s best for you, this was more for me anyway. There are some universal things though, I think the no wall of text applies to just about anything you do. I opt for the extreme end of that, with little or no text, but you could do what you think works best for you.

Often times I find talks where people just read the bullet points they have right off the slide and I think that’s silly because at that point the slide adds nothing of value to the talk. Instead I try to make sure the slides relate to my talk, but generally speaking aren’t part of the talk (as in, not anything I’m saying verbatim). Slides are there to enhance your talk, or at least that’s my feeling on it. So if you are here for some quick tips, hopefully you’ve found something of use. If you’re here because you’re following my journey to the PhD, well thank you! But also, I look forward to posting the update with how this all went.

Since my talk is the end of next week, I suspect I’ll have an update for everyone next weekend. There will be some prize money involved for best poster (not sure if talk is included) and while I don’t expect to win because everyone is doing super amazingly cool science (the industry standard term) I play to win, so I’m going to do my best and if I’m lucky maybe I’ll win something more than I already have!


2 responses

  1. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    November 4, 2021 at 6:55 am

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