Monday, January 27, 2014

Keep your outline to yourself! (A random walk through how I run my lab, Item 3)

The best talks (presentations) are the ones that look completely unrehearsed, but for which the speaker's extemporaneous talent somehow causes them to hit every high and low dead on. That can only be achieved with tremendous preparation. To that end, I encourage my students to practice their presentations often. I ask them to present at least once, often twice, in one of our research group weekly meetings, to present it in front of my research group (without me present) at least once more, and to send me the slides several times for feedback. Depending on the importance of the venue, I also ask them to practice it in my office. In that setting, I often video record them. This ensures that they are not as relaxed as they would be in a one-on-one setting. It also gives them a recording that they can use to self-analyze their performance. Repetition alone is not enough because inherent mistakes will persist unless they are checked. As such, it is important that every practice presentation be followed by a lengthy critique.

Here follows a necessarily incomplete set of suggestions on how to deliver a better science presentation:

  1. Lead with an example that is cool and illustrative of the problem that you are solving in your work. (Make sure to tell the audience the problem that you are trying to solve!)
  2. Tell the audience your solution of the problem early on. This is not a detective story.
  3. An outline slide should consist of phrases unique to your presentation. There is no need to have a bullet called "introduction" because you are evidently already doing this. There is no need to have a bullet called "conclusion" because everyone in the room knows that you will eventually stop talking. Don't have a bullet called "method"; instead write the name or names of the unique methods that you are using. 
  4. Don't wear anything that will distract the audience.
  5. Don't wear anything that will distract you. 
  6. Your presentation is an opportunity for you to teach the audience about the work that you have done. It doesn't matter if there are one or more Nobel Prize winners in the room. You are the only expert about your work in the room.
  7. Busy slides are worse than no slides at all.
  8. Each slide requires at least one minute of air time, if not more.
  9. Colored text should be used sparingly and intentionally to highlight or associate text.
  10. Animations should be used sparingly and intentionally to highlight or associate concepts or transitions in your presentation.
  11. Text should be used as cues to you and the audience in an abbreviated form, and not in long narratives to be read. (Occasionally important quotes may be necessary.)
  12. Text and figures should be large enough to be visible in the back of the room.
  13. Each slide (particularly those showing data, a figure, or some other kind of result) should be shown for a reason. Make sure to include prompts or bullets for each such reason.
  14. Appropriate literature citations should be included within each slide, not at the end. 
  15. All images and movies not created by you should be appropriately credited with references. This includes the ones that you "borrowed" from Wikipedia.
  16. Do not speak in a monotone; a little enthusiasm goes a long way.
  17. Look at your audience. If they appear to be inattentive, then throw in some relevant metaphor to bring them back in at the next pre-planned point in your presentation. (That means that you should have such examples at the ready to be dropped in at various places in your presentation.)
  18. Detailed equations, algorithms, methods and/or lab set-ups are cool and you worked really hard to make them. But nearly no one wants to see them in a brief presentation. Try to have at most one such slide so that you may indicate how it was done without losing your audience in a quagmire of details. Have extra slides at the ready in case someone asks for such detail during Q and A.
  19. It's hard to keep anyone's attention longer than 5 minutes or so. This means that you need to stop once in a while to remind the audience where you are in the story you are teaching them.
  20. Good lecturing is good teaching. Think about using techniques from research-based education research (DBER) in your presentation. (For example, active learning!)
  21. Feel free to violate any rule above if it makes your presentation better as long as it is not intellectually dishonest to do so.

I welcome more tips to be added to this list through your comments!

(This is the third post in a series of items on how I run my lab. Check out the list here.)

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