The Science Behind Presentations: Background

 

CONTENTS

 

Meeting Audience Member


Hello! Welcome to the Strategic Results Scientific and Technical Presentation Site! Here, you will find a multitude of useful instructions and pointers on how to make effective scientific and technical presentations. Whether you are a research fellow, resident, doctor, doctoral candidate, medical researcher, engineer, government official, or someone entering a related profession, you will most likely have to make presentations at some point in your profession. You might use public speaking to secure a new job, apply for funding, network with new contacts in your field, or just present your research and discoveries at a conference or symposium. Whatever the scenario, we hope that you will find this information helpful.

Why Communicate

Making oral and visual presentations of your work is an essential aspect of having a career in technical and scientific fields.

This site will instruct you on:

1. What to do

2. What not to do

3. How to do it

A Scientist's Career

The scientist who presents well is usually the scientist who:

1. Gets job opportunities

2. Receives awards and funding

3. Develops a positive reputation

4. Participates on committees, boards, and in public policy discussions.

Communicating scientific concepts skillfully is paramount to the ultimate benefit and application of the results within the larger world: "If presentations are not of the highest caliber in content and delivery, communication is flawed, and science is neither properly served nor facilitated. If your talk is not well prepared, and you do not deliver it in a manner that gains and holds the attention of your audience, much of the knowledge you hope to share will be lost." [see references]

There are few positions within the scientific community that do not require oral presentations and public speaking as part of the job. It is better to excel at this now than to stumble later.
Public Speaker

Why give a talk?

The presenter should make clear from the onset what the purpose is of attending a lecture or talk. Scientists are masters of their professions and have devoted countless hours to research, but in many ways, they are still students. They are passionate and eager to practice applied science, to perceive their knowledge in different lights—even those that challenge their own assumptions—and altogether to reside in a state of perpetual learning. Lectures and scientific talks can often be confusing, even if the material is interesting, because the audience isn’t clear about what exactly and why exactly they are learning, what the main emphasis is, and what can be skimmed or summarized. For that reason, the presenter must convey the purpose of the talk in a concise format from the beginning. Often, it is helpful to explain the purpose of the talk in the context of the entire conference: the audience should know why the subject is important to understand at that particular time.

Informing and Instructing

The presenter should:

1. Present multiple relevant viewpoints on the subject to avoid seeming biased. A scientist who offers only his own perspective will make the audience wonder whether he has thoroughly researched his topic and understood that there may be either dissenting opinions or possible flaws in his argument.

2. Entertain the audience by inserting a well-placed anecdote or joke, or by including a live demonstration to further emphasize his ideas. However, he should not overuse these strategies, or he will risk sacrificing the gravitas of his subject matter.

3. Foster an environment of learning that leads to a sustained appreciation of his subject. [see references]

The primary purposes of a talk are to inform and to instruct. As the presentation unfolds, the audience should feel absorbed in the subject matter; they should not struggle to keep up with the material. The new information should be enlightening and include sufficient demonstration to keep the audience interested and actively involved. The presenter might even try to persuade or engage the audience with entertainment, but this should not detract from the primary goal. Normally, persuasion should be reserved for speaking to audiences about a proposal or grant, not for reporting on a scientific discovery.

Persuading

A speaker who is proposing a scientific idea or promoting some concept in order to gain a research position or grant funding will typically try to persuade the audience that the idea is one worthy of their rewards. He should approach the concept of persuasion with caution, as the audience will most likely be comprised of a large variety of individuals from different scientific disciplines or professional fields. It may be difficult to reach certain types of people, while others may follow the talk with ease; the presenter should modify the depth and scope of his scientific content accordingly.

The Model of Persuasion [References] involves five components:

1. Attention - The subject should be interesting enough that the audience is willing to listen. Attention allows the audience to be open to possible changes in attitude towards the subject.

2. Comprehension – The audience must understand what the speaker is trying to convey. They should realize what the central issue is and why something needs to be done.

3. Agreement – The audience should take the speaker's viewpoint into consideration and accept the terms of the presentation—specifically, that the proposed solution will solve the problem based on the evidence provided.

4. Retention – The audience should agree, for the duration of the speaker's talk, that the proposed solution is a good idea, and something should be done to implement it.

5. Action – The audience should want to act based on the speaker's proposed course of direction and the specific steps the speaker recommends.

The speaker should structure his presentation around these steps in order to deliver a persuasive and convincing message. Even if the audience is not persuaded, the speaker will at least have convinced himself that the proposal is good, and he might persuade another audience to support his proposal and research.

Persuasion has an ultimate goal – to encourage people to act with a certain behavior. In this case, that behavior includes understanding the importance of what the speaker is trying to convey, deciding the proposal is worth pursuing, and supporting the speaker in his scientific efforts.

Audience

A proper presentation provides the audience with knowledge that is both absorbable and retainable. An oral presentation should be akin to an interactive dialogue between speaker and audience, not a monologue. Positive interaction between the speaker and the audience will determine the effectiveness of the talk.

Remember that it can only benefit the audience to have a speaker explain the material, regardless of whether the speaker is a renowned expert in scientific research or an emerging prospect. In either case, new material must be presented in an interactive and personal manner. If you are a relatively unknown speaker, take advantage of the fact that you can say almost anything with clarity and conviction and people will start listening to you; know that your audience has little with which to judge you. If there are people in your audience who have significantly contributed to your work or the ideas behind it, acknowledge them. Also, if there is someone in your field of research or study who has extensively explored a similar topic, acknowledge their work.