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Research intelligence: how to give an effective academic talk

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 1 Oct 2020

With the immediate future of the academic conference circuit looking uncertain, some scholars may feel that the pressure to create the next scintillating presentation of their results has been lifted.

But the demise of in-person conferences – replaced, in some cases, by virtual events that generally cannot accommodate as many speakers as traditional scholarly gatherings – will not make the ability to present clearly, concisely and memorably any less crucial for academics’ careers, insists Alexia Youknovsky, whose book Sell Your Research: Public Speaking for Scientists explains how scholars can sharpen their presentations.

“Many research conferences may have been cancelled this year, but making effective and concise presentations remains fundamentally important for academics, whether it is talking to visitors to your laboratory, speaking at internal meetings or having to argue for resources for your project,” explained Ms Youknovsky, a chemical engineer-turned-stage actor who later founded the Paris-based science communication agency Agent Majeur.

“We have trained more than 2,500 scientists over the years, and we explain how giving a good presentation is more technical than people think − it involves having a clear structure and asking questions in a certain order,” she said.

Here, Ms Youknovsky and Helen Watson of the University of Plymouth offer a few tips.

Set out your main argument early
“One big mistake is that people just do not have a message,” Ms Youknovsky said. “They are talking, but the audience has no clear sense of what the scientist’s main message is, and they don’t know why they should listen,” she added.

“If you don’t state why this talk is important to audience members or society at the very start, you tend to lose audience members quickly and they’ll struggle to remember anything you said,” she said.

Focusing on a key takeaway will also require speakers to consider exactly who their audience is, said Ms Youknovsky. “If you are presenting to investors or funders, you may need to focus on their potential return on investment. If it is the general public, you may want them to become more curious [about] an issue − each audience will require a different approach.”

Keep slides simple
“To me, PowerPoint slides must be understandable at a glance. If they’re not, your audience is probably not listening to your talk as you’re competing for attention with your own slides,” said Ms Youknovsky, who also recommended that each slide should contain only a single image or idea.

Use alternatives to PowerPoint
“Scientists work on many different and exciting projects, so think about whether you could use physical props instead of, or alongside, your slides,” Ms Youknovsky said.

A recent talk by an expert involved in the International Space Station project was enriched when the presenter pulled a coin out of his pocket. “He used it to demonstrate the fine margins involved when different parts of the space station were docking, and the experience was much more immediate,” explained Ms Youknovsky. “We also had physicists bring a large battery into the room to explain how much lighter certain elements are to each other, which worked really well.”

It’s not just about ideas
“Communication is not just about conveying your ideas – it is about conveying your passion and enthusiasm,” said Ms Youknovsky. “If you believe in something, you need the audience to feel it, perhaps by being more expansive than you would normally be.

“You shouldn’t pretend to be someone else – it needs to be natural, maybe a better version of you. Speak in a loud voice and practise the talk several times so it looks natural.”

Be more imaginative with graphics
As universities move lectures online, scholars have been forced to consider how they address their students – with many looking closely at how graphs, charts and data tables used in previous presentations work (or don’t) when teaching remotely.

As a judge for the Biochemical Society’s recent Science Communication Prize, Helen Watson, associate professor of bioscience (education) at Plymouth, has viewed hundreds of undergraduate submissions and believes scholars could emulate some of the best student entries.

“We had some excellent animations, but most students used simple graphics in a very clever way – that might mean filming their hand drawing a diagram, rather than just putting it straight on screen,” said Dr Watson, who also chairs the society’s committee for education, training and public engagement.

“You don’t need to get bogged down in expensive graphics – it is much more critical to tell an engaging story with the scientific facts layered underneath,” she said.

All six of this year’s winners submitted short videos, now available on YouTube, rather than written entries, the first time this had happened in the competition’s 10-year history, said Dr Watson.

With students upping their science communication game, academics cannot afford to stand still when it comes to their communication skills, she said. “There is a huge need for academics to explain what they are doing to the public and justify the funding they receive – public communication skills are more integral to our role as scientists than ever,” she said.