Nicola Hemmings’ Top Ten Tips for Giving a Great Talk

I originally wrote these tips for a science communication workshop at the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) Easter Conference 2014, but I thought they might be more widely useful, hence this post. I’m aware that this blog has now developed a ‘top ten’ theme, which was not my original intention – new blog posts and different writing styles coming soon!

Nicola Hemmings’ Top Ten Tips for Giving a Great Talk – ASAB Easter Conference 2014

  1. Ask yourself: “What would happen if my Powerpoint completely failed?”

Would you still be able to get your message across? Don’t use Powerpoint as a crutch – your slides should compliment your message, not mirror it. If you must use text on slides (must you?), it should be for the benefit of the audience, not yourself.

  1. Don’t have an “Outline” slide.

If your talk is less than twenty minutes, you don’t even need to give a verbal outline of what you’re going to talk about (it’s debatable whether you need an outline regardless of the length of your talk). Formal presentation guidelines often suggest that an outline aids structure and helps to keep the audience with you – this is a myth. An engaging, well-structured talk will flow easily and logically, so the audience should have no problem following.

  1. Text on Powerpoint slides is generally bad.

There are probably some exceptional circumstances, but none spring to mind right now. If you are going to say it, don’t write it. You want the audience to listen to you, and not be distracted by busy slides.

  1. Practice!

No matter how well written your talk is, it will flop unless you practice it. Practice it to others. Listen to their feedback. Act on it. Practice it again.

  1. Make your figures/images/plots fill the slide.

Don’t have bullet points all around the sides telling the audience exactly what the figure shows – it’s distracting and often confusing. Walk your audience through the figure and explain it clearly. This is the most effective way to get your message across. If your figure is very complicated, you are fighting a losing battle. Simplify it. Make your axes labels bigger. Show different factors in different colours. Etc. Etc.

  1. Treat your talk as a story.

Your audience, just like any other audience, wants to be entertained. Don’t bore them. Grab their attention from the start, imagine you’re taking their hand and guiding them through the fascinating story you have to tell them. Build anticipation and excitement. Keep them engaged all the way through. Make them think “Wow!”

  1. Slow down.

Only talk about what you have time to cover. You might think that the seven hundred hours you spent labouring over preliminary trials cannot be skimmed over, but I’m afraid your audience doesn’t care how hard you worked and how many problems you solved along the way. They want to get straight to the meat. It’s OK to just talk about a single exciting result – this is much better than trying to rush through everything you’ve ever done, ever.

  1. Your audience will not forgive you for being boring.

How can you make sure you are interesting? Start by making sure you sound interested in what you are talking about! If you don’t come across as excited and passionate about your work, how can you expect your audience to be?

  1. Keep it simple.

You might feel the need to spew out all the relevant technical information, every fine methodological detail, every statistical assumption – after all, it was a lot of hard work to master all that stuff. It’s a hard fact to learn, but the majority of your audience doesn’t care about any of that extraneous detail. Don’t send them to sleep.

10. If your audience doesn’t “get it”, it is 100%, unarguably YOUR problem.

If at any point, people listening to your talk lose track or feel confused, you have lost them. And that isn’t their problem; it’s yours. Don’t assume knowledge and never EVER try to make yourself look clever by doing/showing something unnecessarily complicated. The cleverest speakers are those who master the art of distilling even the most complex topics down to their understandable basics.