How to Make Your Conference Presentation Shine

22. October 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Prof. Artal: As a graduate student, I have some experience presenting my research at meetings. But I must confess that I always feel extremely nervous and I am not satisfied with my talks. Could you please advise me on how to improve my presentation skills? --Clare, Holland.

Scientific meetings are very important for science and for scientists. They are even more critical for those of you starting your career as Ph.D. students. So, you should try to go to as many as possible. Approach your supervisor on this issue directly. I think all students should attend a minimum of one international meeting per year.

Perhaps the best reason to attend conferences is to get to know the important people working in your area. Networking is key for advancing your career. And of course you will also meet new friends from all over the world and have fun together. As for your question, here are some general guidelines for improving your presentation skills.

Before the conference, select your abstract wisely. Be sure you have something solid to present. Making a presentation is stressful enough without having to worry about the strength of your research. If your work is weak, the audience and moderators may be tough of you when asking you questions—although this is often dependent on your field and the specific meeting.

Show the audience your own enthusiasm for your results. Try to communicate what you enjoyed about your research and share your passion for your topic with the group. You spent a lot of your time working on this and you want to show why it was important.

Understand that no research is finished or perfect. Be prepared to recognize any weakness or non-complete part of your work. Don’t be afraid to state these things directly. However, if you are asked about additional issues with your work, do not try to hide any unclear parts of it. On the contrary, openly discuss limitations or difficulties.

Present a complete context for your work. Do not forget to introduce the area and mention why you wanted to study your particular topic before discussing your results. Also mention the main implications, potential applications and future areas for further investigation.

Don’t put too much information in your presentation. More details are not necessarily better. Be sure that your talk remains within the time allotted for it and ALWAYS practice your talk several times alone—or, even better, in front of your advisor—in advance of the meeting.

Make slides clear and easy to be read. Avoid small letters and low contrast. Pictures and schemes are important and, please, do not include tables full of small numbers that no one can see.

Don’t worry if you’re not a native English speaker. Most in the audience will not be affected by your accent, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. Simply try to speak as loudly and as clearly as you can. Avoid difficult expressions and try to go right to the point. In your first presentations, you can read some of the slides to help guide the audience. However, I would NOT recommend reading the entire presentation. It is not very natural, and you will not learn much that way.

Try to enjoy the moment. It’s natural to be nervous, but don’t let it get the best of you. Good presentations are essential for your scientific career, but your career is a lifelong work in progress. If things don’t go perfectly, you can always learn from it for your next presentation.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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