Here’s some tips for a high-impact research seminar presentation

I think we can all remember a handful of seminars that we have attended where at the conclusion we were overwhelmingly impressed.  What made those presentations so impactful?

Science at its core is about discovery and communication.  When we write our manuscripts and papers, we scrutinize every sentence and figure.  We should do the same for presentations.

In Stockholm one year I sat next to my friend and mentor who was about to receive the Nobel Prize.  He said that he was going to present his life’s work in the required Nobel lecture in 30 minutes.  When he finished (28 minutes), he sat down, pumped his fist, and said “I nailed it!”  At first this struck me as odd, but then I realized that even at this level, the good ones take pride in the product and take great care in its preparation.

In my opinion, a critical element of a good presentation is to get everyone in the audience, regardless of background, on the same page within the first 5 minutes.  Similarly, be sure that when people leave that they remember your main points.  Some speakers go about it like this: they tell you what they are going to tell you, then tell you the details, and then conclude by telling you what they just told you.  That is not my style, but it works.

I prefer to weave a story, leaving the punch lines towards the end.  Regardless, clearly stated hypotheses are needed.

The relatively new issue of too many figures or fancy graphics on a slide may be based on the mistaken notion that it’s necessary to overwhelm the audience with data.  Each slide should include a reasonable amount of data, and, should the audience tune out of what you are saying, the slide should have all the information necessary to lead those who are just reading the slide down the path.  And of course, the “2 to 3 minutes per slide” rule must be followed.

Eye contact with the audience is also important.  I use it to gauge whether I am conveying the message.  I have been known to stop and ask a particularly confused looking person if what I was saying was making sense.  These approaches draw the audience into the talk.

Another axiom to follow is that you never know who is in the audience.  As a new graduate student, Richard Feynman’s first seminar was attended by Einstein, Pauli and von Newman.  You know, research is all about telling a story, one that never really has an ending, but perhaps your seminar can represent a chapter.

Sincerely,

Stephen Liggett, MD
Vice Dean for Research
Professor of Medicine, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology
USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
Co-director, USF Health Heart Institute

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