PhD= Presenting Happy Data

After spending weeks helping students prepare for lab meeting presentations and then seeing some crash and burn, and others really excel, I decided to put fingers to the keyboard in an attempt to point out the 15 most important things I like to see PhD students and early career scientists focus on when giving a talk about their biology research. I tell my own students ALL of these tips during presentation preparation, but it’s not until they are “tested by fire” in front of an audience that some of it makes sense and their importance is valued.   My hope is to spare someone the more painful learning approach with these tips. If not, maybe you will remember this post and come back to it for suggestions after your own failed talk (or good talk) to try and make it better!

Effective Verbal Communication (and the Art of Storytelling):


  1. Your audience dictates the content. There is no one-size-fits-all research talk. Ask yourself “Is this talk meant to be a troubleshooting “work in progress” type of talk?”. Where you want feedback and ideas about your progress and what is planned next (think dissertation committee meeting or friendly data talk to other grad students). “Or is this meant to concisely and cleanly tell a complete story all tied up in a pretty bow (think talk at a meeting or conference)?”.  Think about your objective carefully while crafting your presentation.
  2. Provide (and KNOW) the background or history for your line of work/research. You must study and KNOW the literature for your project! So STUDY up before giving that talk! You need background and foundational knowledge to include as a part of the intro slides, but you also need that knowledge to be able to discuss how your findings fit in with what has been reported by others at the end. Don’t forget to include at least the 1st authors last name and year on any slides where you cite the work of others (Otherwise people don’t have anyway to verify that the information is not just your own thoughts or opinions and you’ve failed to give credit where credit is due!).
  3. Establish significance. This will make people want to listen and follow along. Be sure you present the BIG picture problem/debate in the field, and then where your project/research/findings fit in to it.
  4. Let the audience know how you will approach addressing the problem and testing your hypothesis before you show any real data. This is usually best accomplished using a visual picture/diagram of the methods you use and what your read out is (what was evaluated). This goes a long way to helping the audience understand what you are asking and how you will go about getting the answer. Now they are prepped and ready to check out your data.
  5. Innovation is an easy way to get audience interest. No one gets a PhD for showing exactly what someone else showed before. At the end of your degree you should be able to say “my project/research showed for the first time that……” So what is new here? It could be as simple as a new technique. Or even a new approach to asking a question with the hopes of provided new (or different) answers. Though we are all unique and special, typically YOU doing the work (that someone else already did) isn’t sufficient to add innovation or excitement to a research question.
  6. A picture is worth a thousand words. YOU are the text. There is NOTHING more painful than slides full of text. Your audience just starts reading and tunes you out. Please don’t take this to mean that all figures and graphs should not be labeled perfectly and clearly. Don’t make the audience rely on your words THAT much. (Even if your graphing program doesn’t label things perfectly you can always hide those labels on your slides and then insert the pretty labels directly in the presentation program.)
  7. Show a map of your research questions. This is especially important as you get further along in your studies and may have worked on multiple projects or have multi-part research questions. Try presenting them as clear Aims (like you would in a grant application) that you will use to address your overall hypothesis or line of questioning. Your hypothesis can come before or after this depending on how you want to spin your story. Once again, a picture is worth a thousand words and works wonders to show the different pieces of a bigger research story. If you are really good, you can show that same slide throughout the talk, but have the specific section you will cover highlighted in some way just before you begin talking about that part of your story.  This helps create continuity throughout the talk.
  8. No spelling mistakes or typos on your slides. NONE. Not one! This will immediately make the audience think that you do not value them, or their time, as you couldn’t even spell check you slides for them. They need to be PERFECT. Have a person not working on your project review your slides just for typos or spelling errors. In science there is always more than enough stuff for people to be critical about. Don’t make them eager to sniff them out just because you irritated them with a typo.
  9. Watch the transitions. If you find it difficult to transition from one slide to the next while talking, then chances are the audience will find it hard too.  Telling a good story means that the slides and visuals have a natural flow and building progression to them.  It’s an art that you should strive to perfect and could very well be the difference between getting a job and not getting one (I swear every job I have gotten, including my post-doc, was because they liked the way I gave my data presentation).…And if a person in the audience interrupts and asks a question, and the very next slide you were going to show addresses that question….well, YOU have just experienced a perfectly placed slide! Your audience is following right along.
  10. MODEL. Present a summary or model of your ideas to complete the story. Pictures or animations are a must here! This is how you ‘close the deal’. There is nothing worse than showing your findings beautifully if the audience is left wondering “what now?”… Or “What does this mean all together given everything else we know?”. Don’t assume they ‘got it’.  GIVE IT TO THEM.


11. Be verbally slick. Practice, practice, practice (out LOUD). Not just once or twice during slide and data preparation….but SEVERAL times once you have decided on the final slides. This will go a long way to preventing you from getting tongue-tied or losing focus if you get flustered by an unexpected question.  Never forget, that even with the most beautiful data, that there is an “art” to telling a good story.  And good storytelling can even make not-so-pretty results interesting for the audience.

12. Be enthusiastic. Your energy transfers to the audience!

13. Watch those non-verbals. Beware of making funny faces! Your audience can interpret them in some pretty unexpected ways. Best to stick with a smile (not a serial killer one though) or a more neutral/impartial expression.

THE NEVER ENDING JOURNEY (with a landing that you need to “stick” in the END)

14. Every talk is an opportunity to get even better! Your presentations should always be a work in progress and never totally “done”. This is something I am always striving to get better and better at. I will have times where I think back and say “this point really could have been a lot clearer” or “they really didn’t get that part as easily as I expected”. And just so you know, I wasn’t able to do #10 all that great at a recent research presentation. I was able to “close the deal” during the Q & A, but it would have been much better if I had been able to nicely wrap up and put it all in perspective during the talk.  It was good enough to formally establish a new collaboration I needed (bam!), but could have been done much more seemlessly. Why did this happen? Because I did not stick to my time agreement and went over! So that’s my final tip…

15. Stick to your time limit and don’t try to cover too much data. Just don’t do it. We all LOVE our data and talking about our research but nothing gets communicated while rushing and then its just information overload for your audience. You may not be so lucky as to get the extra time afterward like I did….

Helpful links:

Here is a great 9-step Cheat Sheet For  Public Speaking by Karan Chopra

PhD student Jordan Gaines Lewis talks about “The purpose of science communication is to simplify, but not dumb down, your work….” in a recent column for The Conversation.  And she is definitely doing it right because she recently got to give a TED talk about her work.


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