Speak Up: How To Ace Your First Podium Presentation

The power of public speaking is a profound thing, and one that adept researchers can use to both improve their experiments and advance their careers. Unfortunately, it’s also one that many scientists grossly neglect. Just check out any research conference and you are guaranteed to find talks where excellent science goes unnoticed due to an unengaging presenter. On the contrary, an outstanding orator can seamlessly turn a mundane project into the talk of the town.

As a student researcher, an oral podium presentation can be a terrifying thing compared to the much lower stakes of a simple poster presentation. In most cases, the ubiquitous fear of public speaking is responsible. However, much of this fear stems from the potential to make a mistake or appear inept, which can easily be prevented with careful strategy and diligent preparation. On top of this, the audience will often have lower expectations for a student presenter, making this the perfect time to get experience and hone your presentation skills before the bar jumps way up.

This article will present basic information regarding oral research presentations, a format that is essential for a successful career but one that students rarely have the opportunity to practice. Armed with these tips, you will be in great shape to ace your first podium presentation and many more after it!

The 5 W’s of Podium Presentations

Oral presentations are the primary format for sharing scientific findings at research conferences, with others such as posters taking a backseat. However, the fact that students are less likely to be chosen to give a talk means that we are often unfamiliar with their finer points. Before tackling the strategies behind acing a presentation, we must therefore lay a solid foundation with the who, what, where, why, and when.

Who gives oral presentations? The best abstracts submitted to a conference are usually those chosen for a podium slot. Thus, the majority of talks are given by established scientists or higher-level trainees. Still, students who apply themselves and put together a great abstract have just as much of a shot at the podium as anyone.

What is an oral presentation? The most common format is a 15-minute talk on stage with the aid of PowerPoint slides. The audience will vary in size from a few to over a hundred depending on the scale of the conference. They may include all attendees of a regional conference, or just a subset of them at national meetings where abstracts are grouped by topic. In general, oral presentations are more substantial than posters and contain more material and stronger findings.

Where are oral presentations given? Just like posters, oral presentations most frequently appear at local, regional, and national conferences. Unlike posters, oral presentations are not as limited to conferences. For example, you might be asked to give one on your third-year clerkship or at the end of an away rotation. The ability to wow an audience with a great presentation goes a long way, as students are rarely expected to be expert speakers.

Why give an oral presentation? For many, the incentive is purely to add some bling to their CV. An oral presentation, especially at a large national meeting, is a badge of honor due to the relative competitiveness of being selected for one. Thus, even just a couple will catch the eye of program directors reviewing your residency application. However, I’d argue the real value is in the experience gained and the skills honed. The average scientist is often a below average speaker, so even the smallest effort can help you stand out both now and throughout your career.

Finally, when should you give an oral presentation? Ideally, before you feel ready but not so early that you fall flat. Try to get a few low stress posters under your belt first if possible. A 15-minute talk requires more content than a simple poster, so consider waiting until your project hits a milestone or wraps up before submitting it. Most importantly, go for it before you feel like you’re 100% ready. This will motivate you to prepare in excess, and the confidence boost of doing something well that previously scared you is truly invaluable.

Success Is In The Slides

Preparing your PowerPoint slides is a crucial first step to delivering an excellent talk. The process is much more friendly than putting together a poster, as you don’t have to do any of that tedious zooming, aligning, and squinting for typos. With an oral presentation, you create a handful of simple slides as opposed to a single, massive, complex one for a poster. While this might be easier overall, there are still plenty of rules to be followed and pitfalls to avoid if you want to create a truly memorable visual aid.

The most important thing to remember is that the slides are just that, a visual aid. You, the speaker, must be the focus of the talk and the slides should merely back you up. Sure, some things like graphs are best suited for the slides, but overall they should be a reference point and not the focal point for your audience. For this reason, outlining your intended talk in words on paper before making your slides—as opposed to putting the slides together first and crafting your narrative after—is a great way to ensure that they assume the proper supportive role.

A few general principles go a long way in accomplishing this careful balance with the slides. First, keep it simple. A white background with black text might seem boring, but this scheme (plus or minus a single accent color) is much easier to read than a complex design and color palette. Busy slides will make them stand out, sure, but for the wrong reason. Next, keep the word count down. Limit your slides to the key points, and then use your voice and presence on stage to flesh it all out. Nobody wants to hear you read your slides verbatim, but at the same time having a few brief key words to stare at will help them follow along.

While making the slides, keep the talk’s structure at the front of your mind. Most presenters will use their abstract as a roadmap, starting with background information before jumping into methods, results, and then conclusions. This order is tried and true, and can be enhanced by posing interesting research questions right away that you then answer with your most impressive findings just before concluding. Wrap things up with an acknowledgement slide that thanks your supporters and lists your social media accounts so that those interested can connect with you later on.

Timing can be tough to judge and is honed with experience and practice, but in general you should allocate about one slide per minute. Some will be faster and some will take more time; use your best judgement here. To really maximize your time on stage, spend most of it exploring your results and driving your conclusions home. Explain your most interesting methods but gloss over the basics like Western blotting. This balance can be tweaked based on your individual project, but the general rule is to spend the most time on what you found and why it matters.

Talking The Talk

The day has finally come. Your slides are more polished than the Vince Lombardi Trophy, you’re dressed to impress, and your mind is in the zone. Soon you’ll be walking off the stage after delivering a top-notch oral presentation. But how’d you get to this point, and what’s left to do to ensure a slam dunk?

After you make your slides, practice is the name of the game. You should do as many dry runs as possible, both alone and in front of mentors and friends. Your goals here are threefold. One, dial in your timing and progressively work down to the limit. If they give you 12 minutes, make sure you can do it in 10 just in case. Two, fine-tune your flow and phrasing. Often times it will take a few practice runs before you stop tripping over statements and start getting a feel for where to place emphasis. Three, commit as much to memory as you can. This will allow you to maximize eye contact and engagement with your audience and is a lifesaver if you get off to a rocky start.

Your preparation doesn’t stop there, however. At the conference try to scope out other presentations the day before your talk to get an idea of how things are being run. Is the projector dim? Consider adjusting your slides to ensure visibility. Will the moderator announce your talk’s title or should you? Where is the best place to sit for a quick walk to the podium without any cords to trip on? The more details you identify and plan for, the lower the chances that something will go wrong. If you’re like most students, controlling for these variables will help you sleep the night before and stay relaxed the day of.

With all the prep taken care of, now it’s your time to shine. As you wait, do some deep breathing to control your heartrate and clear your head. Mentally run through your first few slides. Utilize cognitive framing to set yourself up for success. Think to yourself how well it’s going to go, how excited you are for this opportunity, and how fun it’ll be to share your findings with the room. Even if this isn’t necessarily how you’re feeling, try to buy into it and you might just create your own destiny. Once you get up there, take a deep breath, smile, and dive right in.

Public speaking is a broad enough topic for an article in itself, so study up on those skills elsewhere and for now just take note of these pearls. Smile throughout, be energetic, and convey a passion for the work you’re sharing. Even if it was just a summer project, act like this is your life’s work. If you radiate energy and interest, your audience will too. Just like your slides, keep it simple and linear to avoid confusing people. Use just enough detail to let them know what you did, but not so much that you leave them scratching their heads. If an expert is out there, they can ask detailed questions at the end. Finally, resist the temptation of speaking rapidly to fit more information in. It’s much better to have them hanging on every word than struggling to keep up.

Lastly, be on your A game for any questions that are asked. Often, the ability to field questions is a major component of how your presentation is graded for any awards. This skill alone can separate a novice presenter from a grizzled veteran. Prepare ahead of time by anticipating what might be asked and gathering the info needed for a satisfying response. Regardless, you will need to be able to think on your feet as well. In doing so, be sure to restate the question, give the best answer you can, and avoid rambling. If you’re truly stumped, never be afraid to tactfully state that you don’t know the answer but will plan to address that question in your future work.

Oral presentations may seem intimidating, but with the right preparation they certainly don’t have to be. These strategies should give you the framework for success, but for even more high-yield tips and tricks check out this insightful blog post by Colin Purrington. Above all else, enjoy the opportunity to share your work and be humble and thankful throughout. The ability to ace an oral presentation is one that few students will master, and doing so early will set you up for success during school and throughout your career.

Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between. 

Trevor C. Hunt is a third-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track. He authors the SDN column “Research for th...