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Giving presentations is an important part of sharing your work and achieving recognition within your field. However, there’s no part of your academic journey dedicated to teaching you how to present your research effectively and professionally. Supervisors usually just focus on the science and not on developing your presentation skills as a PhD student. You are just thrown in at the deep end and the thought of standing up in front of experts and your peers is, quite frankly, terrifying.
It strikes fear into many of us faced with the task. These reactions to public speaking are very common. Presenting research is without doubt a daunting task and one of the more stressful aspects of being a scientist.
The following tips can help you overcome the fear and help you become more confident in both your presentation and yourself.
Getting a mental block in the middle of your presentation isn’t the end of the world.
Pause for effect, no one needs to know you are having a mental block; your audience will just think you’re building up toward your next point. Take a deep breath, don’t panic, and remember that it’s acceptable to look at your notes every now and then to help you keep on track.
Still scared you will forget literally everything? Prepare by writing out a summary of each slide from memory when you are in a relaxed environment. This can help you subconsciously recall your train of thought even if you feel like you are losing your head.
There’s always at least one “I’ve got a question” guy sat right in your eyeline who interrupts you at every slide. If you find that questions are disrupting your flow, politely ask the audience to save all questions until the end of the presentation. That way you know what to expect when you finish and there are no awkward silences in the Q&A.
Many people fear that their nervousness will be perceived as a sign of insufficient knowledge. Of course, that’s not the case at all. 99% of scientists will feel nerves as they step up, knowing all eyes are on them. And that’s OK.
No one knows your research better than you do. Remind yourself that your audience has come to listen to your presentation because they are interested in your research and because they want to learn – not because they want to intimidate you! Taking this perspective can make presenting your research much less stressful.
1. Know your audience
The best way to understand your audience is to put yourself in their shoes. Try to attend some earlier talks by other presenters as this will give you the chance to actually become part of your audience. It’s important to identify who you are speaking to. Are they experts in the field? Lab members? Undergrad students? Research their scientific background/interests/jobs/authority and ensure you tailor your presentation to the audience’s knowledge level.
If you are using key terms that may be new to the audience, introduce them early in your presentation with a clear definition. Once an audience gets lost in unfamiliar terminology, it’s difficult to get them back on track.
2. Think positively
Don’t let negative thoughts take over. Say to yourself “I can do this,” “I am well prepared.” Consider what you might say to a friend to encourage them if they were in your position. Having a positive mentality will help you hugely with your career as a scientist—being able to take onboard feedback and criticism, having perseverance when things don’t go to plan, and powering through the long hours in the lab. Having a positive mindset throughout all these things will help you progress and be successful in the long run.
3. Break your presentation down into manageable chunks
Segment your presentation into small, manageable chunks, e.g., abstract, intro, results, description. Expose yourself to each section step by step and visualize them as separate small talks, not as one huge, daunting speech. Keep your notes neat and easy to glance at, write in brief phrases instead of full sentences, and don’t try to cram too much onto each page. Using bullet points/short phrases will deter you from getting locked to your notes, avoiding eye contact and reading as if from a script.
Use a similar approach with your slides—keep them simple and limit the amount of text on each slide. Cluttered slides just leave your audience confused about what’s on the screen, moving the focus away from what you are saying.
Sometimes you don’t even need to do the talking; instead, ask occasional questions to the audience to encourage their participation. This enhances the learning experience and moves the spotlight away from you.
The best way to familiarize yourself with the material and get the talk’s timing right is to practice.
Don’t just read through your slides in your head; visualize and hear yourself speak through each slide to your allocated time limit. Note: Nothing annoys an audience more than a presentation that runs into the lunch/coffee break!
A good way to familiarize yourself is to practice in the actual lecture room in which your talk will take place. This way you can get a feel for how your voice carries, where to stand, and iron out any (often overlooked) technical issues such as connecting your laptop or opening up your presentation file.
5. Teaching / mentoring
If you are lucky enough to have lots of time to prepare, try to organize an opportunity to speak in front of others. It doesn’t have to be a scientific presentation, it could be as simple as speaking up in a lab meeting, a journal club, or holding a small mentoring session for undergrad students. Ask your lab mates to grill you with questions about your research as this will prepare you for even the most curious of audiences. Practicing your public speaking in a familiar setting and with a variety of different audiences will help with your confidence and is a great way to get some honest feedback to work with.
6. Relaxation techniques
Don’t forget to breathe! It sounds so simple but taking deep breaths feeds oxygen to your brain and will help combat those nerves. Once your breathing is under control you will feel more confident and better able to concentrate and remember what you want to say.
7. Slow down
When you speak, it’s important that your audience can hear you and understand what you’re saying. Speak clearly, slowly, and with enthusiasm. It’s good practice to pause at key points to allow the audience to process what you are saying. Try to take deep breaths and force yourself to speak slightly slower than you would normally.
When it comes to presenting, nerves are inevitable, and you will probably never escape them (unless you are superhuman). The goal is to not let your nerves get the better of you by being able to convert them into motivation and determination to deliver a great presentation.
And remember – you never look as nervous as you feel!
Marilynn Larkin. (2015). How to give a dynamic scientific presentation. Available at: https://www.elsevier.com/connect/how-to-give-a-dynamic-scientific-presentation. Last accessed 2nd August 2018.