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Some Advice on Oral Presentations

Oral presentations at scientific conferences can be a daunting prospect: not only do you have to distill the essence of your research into the allotted time (for most SCB conferences 12 minutes plus 3 minutes for questions), you also have to ensure that the information remains clear and tells a logical and compelling story. Below, we offer some tips from our own experience to help produce an oral presentation that does your research justice:

Content of the Presentation

  • Like a written paper, your presentation will probably follow the standard format of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.
  • Skimming off the cream of what would appear in a written paper may take multiple attempts. It is not just a matter of cutting out details and thereby conveying less information. By using clear, concise language and aiming for a focused message you will increase the amount of information that your audience actually understands and retains.
  • Remember you are presenting to an international audience at most SCB meetings. Where possible, avoid the use of jargon and consider that the audience probably includes people for whom English is a second language.
  • Avoid generic statements referring to the conservation or management implications of your research. Remember there may well be people in the audience who would like to apply the results of your research - be specific.

Timing

  • It is critical to get the timing right since session moderators are very strict about timing at SCB conferences where simultaneous sessions need to be kept in synchrony.
  • Allowing time for questions is important. This is where you can elaborate on the material covered in your presentation, and often where you can make the greatest impression. It also gives you a buffer in case you run over your allotted speaking time.
  • The key to timing is practice. Try your presentation out on your colleagues and ask for feedback. Was it too rushed? Were any points unclear?

Use of PowerPoint

  • PowerPoint is a fantastic technology if well used. You will not go wrong if you focus on using the images as an ancillary aid to help your audience listen to you and understand what you are saying. Remember: you are the most important part of your talk, not your visual aids.
  • Keep most slides to a single idea, two or three ideas at most.
  • Remember that as soon as a new slide appears, the audience will be looking at it. If you don’t want them to get ahead of you, don’t show the information until you’re ready.
  • If you put text on a slide, people will read it. Therefore, it is very important to keep text to a minimum and limit to key phrases to avoid having your audience reading the text instead of listening to you.
  • To help reduce the amount of text, you can use it in an outline format to introduce topics or unfamiliar terms, and then elaborate verbally (for example, if you are talking about an insect species known only by its scientific name presenting this name as text will help people retain it).
  • Make sure text is legible by using an adequate font size and contrasting colors.
  • Avoid busy slides. If you have a picture shown, it should be relevant to what’s on the slide. Avoid the overuse of montages unless there is a real reason for showing multiple images simultaneously.
  • Limited animation can be useful, but for the most part, it is a distraction. If you have text or figures appearing, it’s usually better to have them simply appear, rather than flying in from off-screen.
  • If you show figures, clearly state what the figure and the axes represent.

Style of Presentation

  • People adopt different approaches to oral presentation. Some of this is dependent on how comfortable you feel standing in front of an audience. Remaining close to the podium generally feels less exposed.
  • Avoid putting your hands in your pockets.
  • Moving around and using your hands can help the presentation seem more animated and increase the attention paid to you by the audience. Too much movement can be a distraction.
  • Similarly, using a laser pointer can be useful tool, but avoid waving it around constantly.

General Tips

  • Have your opening and closing sentences well rehearsed. It can take time to recover from stumbling at the beginning of a presentation. A clear concise end to a presentation may well be what sticks in the heads of the audience; you want to end with a bang, not a fizzle.
  • Tell a story: the best presentations are where the audience can’t wait to see the next slide and learn what happened next, rather sit through than a litany of seemingly unconnected slides.
  • To help with answering questions at the end, practice your talk and ask your colleagues to think of questions that might arise. Respond positively to every question even if you don’t think highly of it. If you don’t understand the question, feel free to ask them to repeat it.

 


This material was adapted by Malcolm Hunter, University of Maine, from “Saving the Earth as a career: Advice on becoming a conservation professional” by M.L. Hunter, David Lindenmayer, and Aram J.K. Calhoun, published in 2007 by Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom. Click here to purchase the book
(All royalties from this book support activities of the SCB Education and Student Affairs Comittee)