Jeremy Côté

Giving Good Scientific Presentations

If you’re like me, you dreaded presentations in school. Not only were they nerve-wracking because you had to speak to a large group of people, but you also didn’t really know what to say. You ended up muddling through the presentations, never doing an amazing job.

Going into graduate school (and beyond), the need for presentations shifts from being something you have to do for class into something that’s expected as a scientist. Now, presentations are much more important. They are vehicles for distributing your ideas, and the worse you do, the more difficult it is to have your ideas spread. Furthermore, most graduate students have to give a talk at the end of their program presenting the details of their research, so knowing how to craft a good presentation is crucial.

This forced me to become serious about giving good scientific presentations. I’m sure you have sat through enough boring presentations to know that listening to a good one is like spotting a unicorn. When you find someone who knows how to give a good presentation, it can be revelatory. They seem to have an ease about them that’s so different than most presentations that they can’t help but stick out.

In this essay, I want to go over a few of the main points I think are required thinking about when giving a good scientific presentation. Note the “scientific” here. That’s a big part of the suggestions below, so keep that in mind.

Fit is everything

Whether you’re presenting on the details of path integrals in mathematical physics or talking about numerical simulations, shaping your presentation around the expected audience is critical. It will literally make the difference between an audience being unmoved by your talk and having them hang on every word.

Imagine you had to explain to a child what quantum information is. Unless this is a precocious child, I hope you wouldn’t start out with mathematical descriptions of superpositions, unitary transformations, and complexity classes. Instead, I would expect some discussion about what information is, the difference between classical and quantum information, and perhaps some qualitative explanations about what makes quantum information powerful.

The key is that you would adjust your description based on the audience. And yet, I’ve seen so many presentations that do not keep this in mind. The consequence is losing the audience before you even get to the interesting parts! If you want to succeed in a presentation, audience fit is probably the biggest factor.

How do you determine what will fit well with an audience?

First, think about their level of expertise. If you’re presenting to people who have no idea of what you do, avoid the mistake of ramping up the complexity too quickly. Yes, these details might be what occupy most of your time, but the audience isn’t ready to think about those. Instead, focus on simple examples and small cases that the audience can use to leverage themselves to understanding your main point.

Second, think about what you want the audience to get out of your presentation. If you’re giving a lecture, people will likely want to write things down. This should affect the dynamics of your presentation, since there needs to be time built-in to let people take notes. If your presentation is a whirlwind, it will be difficult to keep up. On the other hand, if people aren’t taking notes, it might not be important to write down each and every step.

The moral of the story is that fitting your presentation to your audience will maximize your chances that they enjoy the talk.

Make me feel thirsty before giving me water

Too often, we rush to get to the details. That’s understandable. We want others to see what we did, not the boring elementary ideas that any textbook has. That’s why many presentations give just a little bit of introduction before jumping right into the new work.

The issue is that doing this robs the audience from appreciating the problem you’re solving. It’s one thing for your audience to be told what the problem is and how you’re fixing it. It’s quite another to make them feel it.

To get the audience to understand why what you did matters, make them grasp the significance of the problem. This varies from one research topic to another, but the main lesson is the same. Make them feel thirsty before handing them a glass of water.

Pulling this off isn’t easy. You need to really explain the background details, at least to the point that the audience feels like there is a genuine problem at hand. Then, like a magician, you can execute your trick and impress the audience with your elegant solution. Done right, the solution will stick with the audience.

The details probably don’t matter

Despite what I wrote above, there’s still a balance to strike. You want to get the audience familiar with the problem, but you don’t want to overload them with information. In my experience, overburdening the audience with information results in them tuning out.

That’s why you need to be careful with the amount of information you give. There’s a tendency in presentations to be complete, but this works against you. The audience isn’t going to remember much about your presentation. If they recall a few details by the end, you should consider that a win (particularly if this is a topic they don’t know about). Any extraneous details you add will simply detract from your main message.

From my experience giving presentations, there was always this tendency to pack a lot of information in order to make sure that I could go on for the allotted time. This has turned into a habit that I have to fight against each time I give a presentation, because the density of information in a good presentation is much less than you might think.

What is your goal by the end of the presentation? It would be great if the audience remembered everything, but we know this isn’t realistic. A more reasonable goal would be to have them remember one thing, which means you should be picky about what you emphasize. Too much information results in nothing being absorbed.

Stick to the main point, and you have a better chance of getting the audience to remember something.

Diagrams and pictures are always good

When I’m attending a presentation, I’m not trying to gain a complete understanding. Rather, my goal is to get a few interesting pieces of information from the presentation.

Because I’m not looking for a deep understanding of the material, I rather see diagrams and pictures during talks. There are two reasons for this. First, diagrams give us a visual sense for what’s happening with an idea. In mathematics and physics, a lot of ideas are based on change and movement. While these can be compactly expressed in terms of equations, I find it difficult to grasp what they are really saying in this form. Yes, once I’ve internalized the concepts the identification is easier, but that’s not the state I’m in during a presentation! I’m still in the beginner stage, and I would argue this should affect how you structure your talk.

Second, diagrams encourage storytelling. If there’s one thing I’ve realized throughout the years of listening to presentations, it’s that the ones that stick in my mind involve story. The presentation isn’t merely a transmission of information. Instead, it’s enveloped in a story, which is probably the easiest method of delivery for people. Diagrams are a natural way to incorporate story into your presentation, and I would highly recommend it. Doing so also has the side-benefit of not allowing you to read directly from the slides, which is something that nobody wants.

I find it difficult to follow presentations when there is no story element involved. I suspect it’s the same for many people. As scientists, we aren’t trained to wrap up our research into our story, but it’s something we absolutely should change. Stories are what move people (yes, even scientists!). Diagrams and pictures are a great way to bring story elements into your presentation.

Just to give you a quick taste, here’s a diagram from an upcoming presentation I’ll be giving. I’ve animated it, but I think you can make it work as a series of diagrams as well. (It will also be featured in a huge essay I’m working on for the blog, so stay tuned for that too.)

“Trivial” is a dirty word

Okay, this last one is definitely subjective, but hear me out (I’ve also written about this here). The word “trivial” is thrown out a lot within mathematics and science. In the technical sense, I have no trouble with the word. It means a zero solution, or perhaps a solution that is true almost by definition. In that sense, there’s no problem with “trivial”. The problem is that it also applies a judgement on the difficulty of the topic, and that has no place in a presentation. All it will do is discourage people who don’t immediately see why your statement is “trivial”.

Remember, you are the expert. That means you know the details and have been in the playground of this topic for a while. The same is often not true for your audience. Being able to pull back from the sense that the basics are “too basic” is something we all should strive to do in our presentations. Simple cases are probably the only thing you should expect an audience to pick up on the fly. Anything else you say won’t be caught by everyone. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s something to keep in mind while presenting. Nonetheless, the word “trivial” is unnecessary.

If you think some idea is trivial, then it probably isn’t difficult to show, so do it. You still should know your audience, but I would argue that we are doing them a disservice by using a word like “trivial”. It doesn’t add anything to the presentation, but can make others feel stupid.

As you can probably tell from the points above, giving a good scientific presentation is tricky. But it can be done. The issue is that we aren’t taught good habits while in school, and this carries over into our academic careers. It’s easy to only give a little bit of effort when we know we just have to pass a course. Unfortunately, we then get to situations where giving presentations is important, and we are ill-equipped to deliver.

The key point here is that preparation matters. Whether you keep in mind all of the above or not, scientific presentations require care and attention. If you only put in a bit of effort, it’s not exactly surprising that the result is less than stellar.

Start with the audience in mind, prime the audience before showing them your great solution, don’t get bogged down in the details, use plenty of diagrams if possible, and avoid using the word “trivial”. Check all those boxes, and you will be well on your way to creating memorable presentations.