Give a Good Talk

By Dr. Curt Walker, Professor of Biology

An important part of higher education is communicating with others. From classroom teaching to international research meetings, communicating what you’ve learned with others is an important skill. Here are a few tips for doing it well:

Know your audience, and tailor your presentation accordingly. If you are presenting to high school freshmen, you cannot assume that they will have any background in your field, and you must therefore spend a major portion of your time providing background. If you are presenting to college undergraduates from many different fields, you can assume they are familiar with many basic concepts, but you must remember that your biology classmates are less familiar with Shakespeare and Hemingway than English majors. Plan accordingly. If you are presenting at a national meeting of neuroscientists, of course you can assume that everyone present will be familiar with most aspects of the nervous system.

Include an introduction.
As you are building your presentation, be certain to include an introduction to give the audience some background, and try to make this portion of the talk especially interesting and attention-getting. You know why you found the topic interesting so let others know too.

Use visual aids sparingly.
The main portion of the presentation should flow well, which generally happens when you have a clear logic for what information should be presented in which order. Use visual aids sparingly, and only use the best available, as AUDIENCE MEMBERS WILL LOOK AT THE VISUAL AIDS, NOT YOU, AS LONG AS THEY ARE VISIBLE. If that is your goal, fine, but be certain that you understand this point, and use it accordingly. While examining visual aids, audience members will tend to be unable to focus on your explanations, unless you interact with the visual aids often and in a powerful way.

Practice your presentation, formally, in front of an audience, at least ten times.
Each time you practice, you will discover something you could improve, and your speech will become much smoother, with fewer jarring pauses and mistakes. This also allows you to time yourself. You should know exactly how long your presentation would be, within about thirty seconds or so.

Always end your talk before time runs out to allow time for questions.
This is crucial, and in many professional meetings, there will be monitors who will literally stand up and stop you if you do not stop yourself on time. Remember that no one ever receives praise for going on and on, even if your presentation is the best ever given. Continuing to speak while taking time from the next presenter is the ultimate in rude behavior.

Pauses are fine, as long as they are planned.

After making a particularly important statement, or while the audience is examining a new slide, you can be silent. Just be certain that you are relaxed about it, and everyone knows that the pause was planned, not awkward. Pauses are much better than filling the air with sound, especially “ummm” and “like.” While practicing, have audience members count the number of times you use those fillers.

Conclude with a short re-hash of the main points.

Try to finish with an especially strong sentence or two that makes it clear that you are finished. Something like, “I hope this gives you a greater appreciation for the work that went into Mark Twain’s writing, thanks for your attention,” is so much better than “ummmm, I guess I’m out of time.”