Death by PowerPoint? Take heart, scientists

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Death by PowerPoint? Take heart, scientists

Public-speaking expert offers four tips to researchers who must present findings to an audience
Michael McCarthy

One of the best things about working with scientists, says speech coach Matt McGarrity, is that they already have good content.

“They have a story to tell, so you can focus on helping them develop their delivery.”

McGarrity lectures in UW's Communication Department and directs the UW Public Speaking Center. He gives workshops around the country and leads two massive online courses on public speaking, one hosted by Coursera and the second by edX.
To present successfully, he said, one must realize that speaking and writing are very different communication mechanisms. “Too often, researchers view a conference presentation as an opportunity to read their paper to an audience. But what works on the page does not necessarily work when spoken,” McGarrity said.

McGarrity video
In his online video, Matt McGarrity takes presenters through a sequence of how to make points effectively.
picture of Matt McGarrity's online video

He offered four tips to scientists who present.
1. Speak to your audience. The first thing I tell scientists is what I tell everyone: Speak to your audience. Have a conversation. Don’t read at them. Learn your material, plan how you’ll deliver it and practice presenting so you can put down the paper and just talk to the audience about your work. It will be more engaging and will allow you to use your voice, gestures and pacing to communicate what you want to say.

2. Focus on your findings. In a journal article you might spend as much as a third of your space providing background that led to your study. But people come to conferences to learn what’s new – new findings, new ideas – not to review what is already known. For a presentation, especially a 15-minute talk, keep your discussion of background minimal. Talk about what’s new and the implications of your findings.
3. Start with a road map. Start a presentation with a preview of what you’ll talk about. For instance, “There were three big findings that came out of this study: X, Y and Z.” I know this not the standard form for scientific presentations, and some people don’t want to give away the ending, but a speech is not a mystery novel. As an audience member, I want to know where you are going from Minute 1. Knowing your main findings at the start gives me a framework for the rest of the information you’ll give me. Speakers often worry that they will repeat themselves if they list major findings at the start, but providing a preview – just a few sentences – makes it easier for them to follow you and remember what you said.”

4. Slides should support, not replace, your presentation. Too often the PowerPoint slides displace the speaker, who ends up standing off to the side narrating in the dark. You should be the main attraction, not your slides. Cut the number of slides and keep them simple. Don’t get lost in the data. Include only the information needed to support your key points.

To make slides more memorable, arrange them in an “assertion > evidence” format. Slides created using PowerPoint’s default format consist of a topic at the top and a long list of bullets underneath. In an assertion > evidence format, you put your claim at the top, for example, “Drug X prolongs five-year survival,” and under it you put the evidence. This format makes slides more engaging and memorable.”

"People tend to think you are either born a good communicator or you’re not, but speaking is a skill like any other you can learn," he said. "It takes work and practice; the more you do, the better and more comfortable you become. I’m disheartened when I hear people say that the very idea of having to give a talk makes them miserable. Speaking can be tremendous fun, especially for scientists, who have an opportunity to share their excitement and to explain why their research is interesting, important and relevant to listeners’ lives."
McGarrity’s free 10-week course, “Introduction to Public Speaking,” will be offered again on Cousera starting March 31.