Scientific presentations and the art of storytelling

How many talks have you attended in the last year? And how many of those did you enjoy? Even when the topic itself is interesting, one often leaves disappointed. Some speakers spend too much time on technical details and do not have time to discuss the main results; others are not well prepared and keep jumping backwards to remind us of something they mentioned ten minutes ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t consider sharing their work important enough to warrant careful preparation.
No matter the situation, I always have to prepare; it’s not entirely voluntary. Because of my stutter, I have to make sure that I know what I’ll say—less stress means that my speech will flow better. These preparations cost me a lot of time that many would spend working on something else. But a thorough preparation often beats my handicap, and my presentation can be above average at a conference.
In the course of my PhD, I developed an effective workflow for preparing academic talks. It takes time (a lot of time, sometimes). It’s not the only method to prepare. And possibly not even the best one. But it works for me. And the main idea is simple enough that anyone else can adapt my approach in no time.
It all boils down to a single piece of advice: You are telling a story, and your job is to make sure it’s a good one. That’s all. If you know what story you want to tell and how you want to tell it, you’re prepared.

The what

Figuring out your story is the most critical part. There are many ways how you can frame your research in the context of existing work. Maybe you started studying social behaviour of dolphins because you love the animals. Or you think that we can learn from them and improve our own relationships. Or you want to understand the variations between dolphin species.
You will also have to choose the right story for your audience. A group of academics might not care for your love of dolphins but it can be a good way to connect with a class of middleschoolers. Different academic audiences will want to hear different talks as well.
Finally, your story will depend on the time allocated for your talk. If you have to give a short talk, you can’t delve into all the fascinating details of your work; you have to pick the most interesting and important results.

The how

Once you figured out the story you want to tell, you can think about how to tell it. This is, of course, entirely up to you, but there’s one rule you should follow if you’re preparing a powerpoint/keynote presentation: Each slide should be one step forward. Not more, not less. If you jump forward too fast, you’ll lose your audience; if you’re too slow, you’ll bore them.
To ensure that I stick to this rule, I design each slide around a short sentence. This way, it is easy for the audience to understand what the main message is. The rest of the slide supports this statement—by illustrations, equations, or graphs.
Once my presentation is ready, I make a simple check that I created a good story: I copy all sentences into an empty document and make sure that they build on each other. Each sentence is a logical step in a sequence leading to the grand finale. If this is not the case, I can see where the problem is and rewrite the spot accordingly. In the end, each slide is a concise, independent idea and together they form my story arc. Each slide is so simple that I could tweet it if I want.
The rest is practice, practice, practice. I make sure I know how to transition from one slide to the next without awkward pauses. This also gives me an idea about how much time I need. I identify places where I can speed up if need be and create a few checkpoints throughout the presentation—I write down how much time I need to get to particular slides. When presenting, I can see whether I’m following my schedule and adjust my tempo as I present.

Example

I will show you my approach on an actual presentation I will be giving in a few days. This week, the annual spring meeting of the German Physical Society is taking place in Mainz. On the last day of the conference, Friday, March 10 at 15:15 CET (9:15 am EST) I am giving a presentation about my current research.
Since not everyone can attend my talk, I will tweet it live. For me, it will be an interesting experiment. For everyone else, it’s an opportunity to follow my presentation; you will also see how I can fit each slide into a tweet. Later (probably next week) I will write a second blog post in this miniseries looking into this talk in more detail and comparing it with the live tweeted version.
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2 thoughts on “Scientific presentations and the art of storytelling

  1. Pingback: How I live-tweeted my own conference talk – PhD Life

  2. Pingback: How I live-tweeted my own conference talk – Ondrej Cernotik

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