Master the Art of Preparing for an Oral Presentation

A research talk may seem like frosting on the cake to the labor of your project, but it is just as important as the days (weeks, months!) spent laboring in the lab. Even the best science can fall into oblivion if it is poorly communicated, so you need to be able to talk effectively about your research.

Short research talks that take less than 15 minutes are in some ways harder to pull off than the hour-long ones found in a weekly seminar. Short talks require careful planning, tight editing, and lots of rehearsal. Unlike a poster session, which allows you to engage directly with your visitors and tailor what you say to what they ask, a talk requires you to distill the essence of your research in a way that is understandable to most people in the audience. Mastering the art of presenting science is a valuable skill that you will need no matter where your career takes you.

Organize your thoughts

Before populating PowerPoint slides, organize your thoughts. This means thinking about the big picture and how your research fits into it. Put yourself into a “less is more” mindset by developing a 25-word summary of your work using everyday language.

“I start by trying to get my students to put together that little elevator speech that answers the questions of ‘What are you doing, and why do you care?’” says Michelle Boucher, a chemistry professor at Utica College in Utica, New York, and chair of the Undergraduate Student Advisory Board (USAB) for the American Chemical Society.

With a focused message in hand, outline the content of your talk. The traditional components of a scientific presentation—introduction, methods, results, and conclusion—offer a logical framework for telling your story.

Start with a very brief overview of your work—that 25 word summary. While it may feel like you are giving away the end of your story, it actually helps engage the audience and gives them a frame of reference for what you will present.

For the introduction, state the problem you are trying to solve, give some background explaining what is currently known, and tell people what motivates your research question. You may be surprised by how much time setting-up your question takes, but don’t cut corners here. Providing this context will help your audience follow the rest of the talk.

The methods section should briefly cover the techniques and study design you used. Assume your audience is familiar with general chemistry techniques, so you just need to tell them which ones you used. But be prepared to go more in-depth if someone asks follow-up questions about your methods at the end of the talk.

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