N00b's First Talk

Feb 01 2011 Published by under Uncategorized


Today, I’m going to give some monktress advice on wth to do when it’s time to give your first n00b talk*. Giving talks may sometimes feel like part of the 13 steps of being dragged to hell, but is necessary for your advancement in the Elder Monk world. You may believe the only people good at giving talks are ones that are natural extroverts- that is a lie. Giving a presentation is an act, and as the fantastical Cary Grant faked being a charming gentlemen until he grew into that person, you too shall fake being a good presenter until you become one.

I am going to presume you know how to properly construct your slides; there are a plethora of websites devoted to such things. If the minions demand it, I might do a mini baby-getting-your-feet-wet version of how to make not sucktastical slides (Ed: dude just read Dr Becca's awesome shizzle here, and Scicurious' epic stuff here). But for now, here are Hermitage the D-List Monktress’ basic tips to be an awesome presenter:

Heart in your throat

This is normal, and may never go away. That might not be what you want to hear, but you should embrace the adrenalin as fuel to do your best, and push the nagging thoughts to the background as you take the stage. My heart still goes Ba Thumpa Thump Thump for the first two slides of every talk, but at this point it’s like an obnoxious neighbor playing loud music, not that srs. You can also trying various breathing techniques (such as inhale five counts, hold five counts, and release five counts, repeat) to regulate your heart rate.


If you have seen the recent, and fabulous, film The King’s Speech you should remember the part where Geoffrey Rush’s character is shaking his jaw and warbling with a reluctant Colin Firth. While it looks ridiculous, it is a method of loosening your throat and jaw, which is important to reducing that tinny ‘nervous’ voice. Since you’re probably unwilling to do this while you sit in the front row waiting to be called, we’ll settle for your yawning. You can’t have a tight throat/jaw while you yawn, and you can look like you’ve been so busy discussing uber science that you got no sleep last night.

Stand straight

The last thing you want to do is be hunched over while you give a talk. It reduces your ability to project and conveys an idea to the audience that you’re nervous. You want your body to be straight and tall- but not stiff as a board, that looks just as bad! Take some time to look at yourself in a mirror and practice a confident stance that doesn’t look too rigid, or too sloppy. It will feel unnatural, like you’re acting. But that’s exactly what giving a presentation is, an act, which you will practice over and over until it becomes a series of checkboxes you subconsciously run through.

Watch your hands

It is not unusual for a speaker to A) Be in a large auditorium with a bajillion people and/or B) Be off to the far side of their projector. Which means, while you may indeed be able to demonstrate the intricacies of fuel combustion with finger puppets, most people won’t be able to see it. At best they’ll see nothing, at worse they’ll see you wildly gesticulating for no apparent reason, distracting them from your slides, transparencies, etc. 90% of your talk your hands should be loosely at your sides, or holding the laser pointer to demonstrate something. This again, is something that feels entirely unnatural but looks calm and copacetic once at the podium. Practice this in the mirror as well.

The audience members are not kittens

So making constant figure eights with your laser pointer is not going to increase their attention span. I have attended too many talks where the speaker’s laser pointer bounces all around the ceiling, all over the slides, and into the seating, FSM knows why. There are also people who never turn the laser pointer off, in which case I am in constant fear I’m going to have my retina burned out and am paying no attention to what the speaker is saying. The laser pointer is for EMPHASIS, which means it should be used SPARINGLY. You should NEVER BE HIGHLIGHTING EVERY WORD ON THE SLIDE. Also, if you’re extremely nervous, you’re probably going to have a shaky hand with the laser pointer, so use both hands to add some control. You may feel silly, but the audience will appreciate your being able to actually circle the formulae or axis you are trying to underline.

Figure 1: There will come the day when the Belly Butterflies will not be man-eating, just evil. Because they're still flies (it says so in the name!), and therefore are not of the Lord

Seriously peeps, I need some linebreak advice because this is getting fucking ridiculous.
Face the audience

It is very tempting to look at your slides for the duration of your talk, you know your slides, they’re full of your beautiful data that is safe and alluring, instead of the audience which may be full of scowling faces or people snoring. Ignore the impulse; face your peers because your shit is awesome! A person who has confident body language and is comfortable scanning the audience, making occasional eye contact, is subliminally communicating that they are in charge and that they know their shit. You wouldn’t pay to go to a Broadway show where the thespian delivers his lines to the drapes, would you?

Take a breath

It doesn’t matter if your jaw starts out loose, if you run through your slides at breakneck pace, never pausing to take a breath, your voice will naturally get more and more nasally because your lungs are running out of air. Always pause and breathe, preferably at the end of each bullet on your slide. When you’re about to change slides, take several breaths, even. If this is unmanageable for you, take a drink of water, because it’s also important to…

Stay hydrated!

According to your heart rate, you’re running a Boston Marathon while giving this talk, so you should hydrate accordingly. At first, it feels like the rudest and strangest thing in the world to stop what you’re saying to uncap a water bottle and drink from it. In reality, no one cares. It gives people a break to stop and think about what you said, and if your voice is getting raspy, they’re thankful for your stopping to fix the situation. You can also use it as a tool to pace yourself, as I mentioned above. When you need a break between slides, or on a slide, but you don’t trust yourself to do it naturally, it’s a great time to stop and take a sip of water.

And finally, but most importantly,

Never criticize yourself

Pointing out caveats and draw-backs to the techniques you’ve chosen is being honest. Talking about why your results ‘suck’ or this graph is ‘not that great’ or how this schematic ‘doesn’t really illustrate’ makes you dead in the water. If it’s something you can fix, FIX IT. If your schematic is too small, or the graph type isn’t the best, or the threshing on the photo isn’t correct, take the pride in your talk to correct it before showing it to the audience. When it’s go time, own your talk. If you spend your entire presentation talking about how much you suck, I’m sitting there wondering why I wasted my time on you. Don’t kill enthusiasm for your data with your low self-esteem.

Fixing these things is NOT EASY, it will take time and PRACTICE to accomplish. I’m self-deprecating and will drive Professor Positive verrückt with all the reasons my data is unworthy to be seen anywhere but dark lighting under the influence of roofies. But when I get in front of a podium, or a poster, I am confident, my data is awesome (not perfect, but awesome), and I am commanding. For some people it’s a natural state of being, for others it’s like flipping a switch, but either way, the end result is impressive.

Go forth, ye childrens, and blow some minds with your awesome shizzle! N00b and elder monks/monktresses are welcome to add points I forgot. Because y’all know I write this shit on my slurpee break.

* While my advice is mostly oriented towards oral presentations, these rules are just as effective in front of a poster. Since becoming part of n00b academia, every time there’s been a poster award to win, I’ve won it, so I would say these general guidelines are pretty effective.

19 responses so far

  • Fiona Jordan says:

    These are great tips (for all, not just for n00bs). Presenters who give their talk to their slides make me feel like I shouldn't have bothered to be there. I know why people do it (lack of confidence etc) but practice, preparation, and familiarity with your material minimise the need to talk to the screen instead of the audience.

    Notes seem to have gone out of fashion, which is odd - some of the most seasoned presenters I know have a little card with reminder points for new data etc. And notes keep you facing the audience, at the very least.

    My trick for overenthusiastic gesticulation or shaky hands (or both!) is to have a pen and hold each end. I don't like to over-use a pointer, so this stops me lasering every slide as well.

  • sciencegeeka says:

    Another thing is to make sure that you are wearing something comfortable. I'm not saying jeans and a T-shirt, but if your left boob really itches, you aren't concentrating on what you are supposed to be doing.

  • brooksphd says:

    Face the audience:

    ZOMGF yes. Some of us have bad hearing and need to partially lip read. FFS, look at the audience.

    And smile. And gesticulate a little. Be natural.

    My fave is slightly cheesy - catch someone's eye and pause briefly and give them a smile at an appropriate moment. Not a frozen rictus or grimace, or pervy lear, but a smile of confidence that says, "I know you know I rock, and now you know that I know that you know that I rock."

    The best bit, in a large lecture hall you can't usally see fuck all of the audience, so even if you give The Smile, no one knows who you're smiling at so you don't have to worry about any reaction.

    Done badly however, this move makes you look like drooling imbecile.

  • Bob O'H says:

    The audience members are not kittens


    It's all good advice. The only thing I would add is don't worry - nobody expects you to be perfect.

  • Ooh, I like the yawning bit. I tend to yawn when I'm nervous, but if it doubles as loosening of the jaw exercise, right on!

    Might I also add, please please please don't fill your presentation with slides full of nothing but text?

  • Liz says:

    This is brilliant! I have to do a presentation on my final-year project in a couple of months, so I'll be bookmarking this for later. I think you're right that it's all about acting it until it becomes natural - that worked to get me to be more extroverted, so hopefully it'll work for talking to large groups of people, too!

  • gerty-z says:

    super advice. I especially agree with your advice to moderate use of the laser pointer and to not self-deprecate. Seriously, if you tell me your data is crappy I will believe you and not even look at it.

    Another thing: Don't put up a slide and say "I know you can't see this very well, but..." FFS, if you want me to see something then fix your damn slide. If you don't want me to see it then don't put it on the slide.

    I think it is good for noobs to realize that giving talks is a learned skill (posters, too). Find something that give good talks and emulate them. I also find it useful to arrange for people to give me feedback. You have to find someone that you trust so that they will actually tell you how you could be better, not just say "good job".

  • Dr Becca says:

    Awesome post, Hermitage. And I daresay there are many non-n00bs who could use this advice as well! I'm adding it to my TT search advice aggregator!

    Finally, f I may indulge in a bit of self-promotion, this post goes along nicely with my own scribblings on the subject, though mine is more concerned with content and organization.

  • K says:

    Ugh, I have to give a seminar in front of the WHOLE DEPARTMENT next month. I'm terrified.

  • scicurious says:

    I have also given some advice out on this one, a lot of it's very similar: http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2009/08/17/and-now-a-powerpoint-presentation-redux/

    And PLEASE, if you are a girl (or a boy, or anyone), do NOT flip your hair, bat your eyes, and giggle, and say that it's your very FIRST TALK. Just...don't do it.

  • Jade says:

    Really great advice - and great post.

    The one thing I see people do wrong very often, and even very experienced speakers, is not using the microphone. People assume that everyone can hear them when they can't. It is frustrating to be in the audience and barely hear the speaker.
    I suppose I could just be brave, raise my hand, and ask the person to speak up, but usually I just hang on for as long as I can before my attention is lost.

    On more than one occasion I have invited very high profile scientists to speak and they are at the podium but do not adjust the microphone for their height. Or, they are turning to face the slides and move away from it. No one could hear them.

    Another issue that came up for a speaker I invited to present, she had these slides with purple background and the writing was another color that could barely be seen with the lights out in the room.

    Maybe in a room with the lights on, it looked good, or maybe it was the projector, but be careful about the color selection of words and backgrounds.

    Mainly, I think making sure people hear your voice is key to showing confidence and keeping people awake and interested.

  • I tend to overdo the hydration thing and have to pee every 5 mins. Can get embarrassing when BigWigs want to chitchat after the presentation and all I want to do is pee.

  • mb says:

    These are great. I also try to:
    1. Wear dark colors. I sweat like a pig when nervous. If I'm wearing black, I'm the only one who knows, and knowing that the cascade going down my back is invisible is a great confidence booster.
    2. For women, especially if this is a big talk with microphones and stuff: be prepared for the microphone clip and dress accordingly. Wear a jacket, wear something that the stupid microphone can be clipped to. A high necked dress that fastens in the back is a nightmare.
    3. Practice. With a clock, and with other people. My advisor had a hard and fast rule that anyone from the lab giving a talk outside the lab had to practice. She was a bit feudal, and felt that if we gave a bad presentation it reflected more on her than us. So, we practiced, and did so enough in advance that slides could be changed/added/deleted before the talk itself.
    4. Do not, under any circumstance, feel that you can 'hurry' through 30 slides in a 15 minute talk at a meeting, or for that matter, mosey through your first 10 background slides, and then have to sprint through the interesting data. This is partly addressed by practicing with the clock, and partly by acknowledging that not even your fabulous data is so amazing that the attendees will hang on your every word until you feel like concluding. If you have an hour time slot, make your talk fit into 45 minutes, leaving 5 to let people settle down, and 10 at the end for questions. I see that Dr. Becca has included this one, only stated in a more pithy and to the point manner. I couldn't agree more with her.

  • ZOMG please for the love of all that is sciency, listen to hermitage and DO NOT play with the laser pointer!! i live in fear that someone will have a laser-pointer-inflicted seizure at some of our dept. presentations.

    ladies and gents, please pin back your hair so it's not in your face.

    DO NOT read your title after it is read by the person introducing you (and second, don't read your slides either).

    last, like she said, practice and make sure your lab has vetted your presentation so 1) the PI knows whats being presented and 2) you don't put up a slide and have your PI say to the dept "no, that's not right."

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    The audience members are not kittens

    I have only ever used a laser pointer to entertain my sitting charge, Diabolical Black Kitty. She likes laser pointers more than I ever will.

  • Hermitage says:

    Fiona: I think notes have gone out of fashion because it's become extraordinarily easy to use them as a script and rigidly follow it to the letter. I've seen some Professor Graybeards with small independent nations for labs, and they do use notes effectively, such as remembering who actually worked what project.

    sciencegeeka: Agreed, your suit should always fit comfortably, and your shoes should not be excruciating. If you're constantly tugging something down because it's too tight you're making yourself uncomfortable and that communicates to the audience.

    brooksphd: Smiling is a dangerous business, I think it should only be undertaken by those used to delivering casual smiles to people they don't know. Otherwise it's just really freaking weird.


    monkeyLOLogist: 1st, I <3 your name so hard. 2nd, I agree that wall o' txt is a bad idea, but I intentionally tried to focus on delivery, and not content, of slides. Because talking about all the ways that slides can go wrong kind of gives me an aneurysm.

    Liz: Knock 'em dead (and hide the bodies appropriately)!

    gerty-z: Yea, I tried to cover that in the 'take pride in your slides and fix it' bit. Way too many times I've seen someone present the same graph over and over, and apologize for the axis being too small Every Freaking Time. FIX IT!

    Receiving quality constructive criticism is crucial to becoming a better presenter. I never understand practice talks that are a carebear party where no help is actually given, such a waste of time.

    Dr Becca: Added to the post! And omg I'm in the TT aggregator, I feels famooos.

    K: That is perfectly NORMAL. You've just got to fight through it, take your time, don't be afraid to pause if you lose your train of thought. No one expects perfection, but try to do your best you first time and you've got no where to go but up!

    scicurious: I hate that shit. Are we at the same institution, because srsly wtf? Throwing the Minnie Mouse voice isn't going to exactly make me think you're a respectable scientist.

    Bashir: Your day shall come where you will witness the ridiculousness.

    Jade: That is very important, thanks for pointing that out. Way too many times I've seen people refuse to adjust the microphone, or stand 2 feet to either side of it, rendering it useless. Very few people posses the skill the project to the back of a huge auditorium without yelling, and guess what? You're probably not one of them, use the freaking microphone.

    PiT: Depends?

    mb: Excellent points. I've witnessed many unfortunate 'sweaty butt + khaki pants' incidents. Not a good look for anyone.

    quietandsmalladventures: Kind of a failing on the PI's part as well if they don't care enough about the slides to fix egregious errors. Calling out your student in public juts makes you both look dumb.

    Juniper: You should bring her to some bad laser pointer use talks, would provide some crowd entertainment.

  • "The audience members are not kittens"

    LOL, I have taken to putting the laser pointer down during my talks because, despite a calm everything else, my hands go crazy with the damn thing.

Leave a Reply