As everyone knows — and has experienced — there are good talks and bad talks. The good ones often leave the audience with a sense of what the speaker studies, what's new in his lab, and why the field is important. Bad talks can leave the audience confused or trying to poke their eyes out with a conference pen. As disheartening as giving a bad talk can be, it is also a learning opportunity. "Everybody gives bad talks and, although there are exceptions, generally speaking, it tends to be better than you thought it was," says Boston University's James Galagan. "You'll be up to bat the next time, so if you can learn something from the experience … it'll be better the next time."
Play to the audience
To keep attendees involved and engaged in your talk, you have to know what they expect from you. The University of California, San Diego's Phil Bourne says that you have to play to your audience. "You really have to talk to the audience. You have to figure out who they are and what they are interested in knowing and tell them that," he says. To do that, he suggests speaking to the conference organizer or the session chair to get a sense of what the topics of discussion will be and who else is going to be there so that you can gear your talk appropriately.
The majority of the people in the audience haven't been following your career all that closely, so don't take for granted that they know all about you and your work. To play it safe, Galagan says to "assume that most people there are like you — they are scientifically curious, they want to understand things, but they are also busy, really busy, and they want to therefore not feel bored or completely baffled. So put it in context and make it clear."
Talks should also entertain the audience, says Bourne — advice that always shocks his students. He doesn't necessarily mean that in the sense of having people laughing in the aisles, but rather that it should include interesting tidbits. If possible, he says, the talk should contain something that the audience can relate to. "[Try to get] some human element into it, to describe the motivation or what went wrong with the experiment, whatever it might be," he says. "People remember things when there's some level of entertainment."
Galagan says that even the most scientifically dense talks can tell a story. It's a story in the sense that it has an introduction, a middle, and an end. That outline can help the talk flow, he adds. "Set the stage, introduce the dramatic characters, then get into your data, but have a flow to it. Lead up to your result and then present it. At the end, of course, wrap it up and make it clear to people what you've told them and why it's important," he says.
If you're using slides, don't try to jam everything from your note cards onto the screen. "You sometimes see slides that are so over-laden with information you get a headache before you even get anywhere," Bourne says. "In a scientific talk, a good graph is worth a huge amount."
Also, whatever is on the slide should be relevant to the talk. "If it's on a slide, make sure people know why it's there," Galagan says. It'll also keep you on task.
Of course, practice, practice, practice. Have people listen to you while you give mock talks so that you can get their feedback. Try not to be defensive, adds Galagan, when getting feedback; just listen, because your labmates are trying to help. Also, the more prepared you are, the easier it will be to engage the audience, he says, because you are no longer worried about what you are going to say or how you're going to say it.
Practicing also makes sure that your talk fits into its time slot. "There's nothing more annoying then somebody who comes to give a half-hour talk and gives an hour talk," Galagan says. He and Bourne also recommend leaving time for questions from the audience.
Bourne says that people have a tendency to try to cram everything in. Instead, practice staying on point and avoiding tangents. "There are tools to help you there now, having the slide projected plus notes … to help keep yourself on the rails," he says. But you should know your material inside and out. He insists that his students know their material so well that they can give their talk without any visual cues at all.
When it's all over, you'll know if you've given a successful talk. Galagan says that he is encouraged when he sees people in the audience nodding along with him — not nodding off — and smiling. "It feels like they are sharing your excitement about what you are doing," Galagan says.
Bourne says a measure of success is whether your talk gets people talking. "One is getting a dialogue going either during the talk or after, and then the next is follow-up, when people follow up with you even at some later date," he says.
Another measure he uses is whether people remember your talk after the fact. "If you ask them in a week and they remember three things that you'd said, you've done pretty well," Bourne says.
Even if they don't, don't despair. "It does get easier," Galagan says. And you can always learn from your mistakes.