Science Resources

Ten Rules for Brilliant Short Presentations

Want to learn how to give awesome scientific presentations that allow you to impress others with your knowledge and skill? Presentations that make listeners actually understand and learn, rather than make them dazzled and confused? Mastering the presentation format is a key research skill that can benefit both scientists and science advocates.

Giving a talk on a complicated research topic can be daunting. It is easy to cram way too much material into each slide and have way too many slides for the presentation to work. While it is very tempting to show the audience everything you have done in order to impress them, chances are that the information deluge will overwhelm and confuse them. Many people in the audience will probably stop paying attention after a few slides.

This issue becomes even more challenging when the talk is just five or ten minutes long. Now you have to really start making decisions on what to include and what to leave out, as well as how to create a compelling narrative and highlight specific findings and conclusions. What is an effective way of doing this without losing the audience? How do you structure a rapid-fire talk? How many slides? What are some helpful tips for a successful talk? What are some dos and don’ts for nailing that important presentation?

Ten simple rules for short and swift presentations is a paper on delivering high-impact presentations in a short time written by Christopher J. Lortie and published in PLoS Computational Biology in 2017. These rules cover everything from planning and practicing to specific tips on how to structure slides and explanations. It is a vital read for anyone who wants to improve their presentation skills generally, and for those who are about to deliver a rapid-fire talk where you only have a few minutes to make your core points.

Use a single story

The first advice given by the author is to have a single, focused story. There is no time for amusing anecdotes or stories within the story. Just plan a single story that is clear to the audience. No distractions, no side-tracking, no weird animations, no diversions. Just boil it down to the core story you want to deliver to those that view your rapid-fire talk.

You do not have time to cram multiple stories into the talk or show off how many cool experiments you did. This is information you want to put into the presentation to impress people, but it does not enhance understanding. Enhancing understanding means having a single story that is simple and focused. You only have 5 to 10 minutes. The presentation should be understood and remembered. Not forgotten or derailed because you ran out of time.

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Ditch crowded slides

The second advice is an advise that is extremely useful no matter what talk you are giving and no matter how long it is: do not use crowded slides. Just have one single and specific message per slide. The goal is not to submerge your viewers or show off how much stuff you have done.

The goal is to highlight a message people can easily grasp. If you have five graphs per slide, no one will remember or even bother to understand your material. They will probably not be able to read the graph titles or axis labels. It is just a way for you to brag, not to help the listener understand what you have done, how you have done it and what it all means.

No text packing

The third advice is similar, which is to avoid packing lots of text in your slides. The reason for this is that reading text requires focus, and that focus is diverted from listening to you talk. No one wants to sit at a presentation and just read the text from the slides. They do not want to see you just read the text from the slides in a mechanical way. That sends the signal that sitting there and listening is a complete waste of time. In other words, it shows that you are unprepared and probably does not master the content of your presentation.

Make graphs simple and readable

The fourth advice is to make graphs simple to understand for the same reason as above. You do not want people diverting too much attention from your verbal message to search for small details in a graph. Make the graphs large and have one graph per slide. The axis text may look great on a computer screen when your face is right up next to the screen. However, they will likely be too small when you put the presentation on a screen. This means that you need to enlarge the text for the axes.

The remaining advice focus on many crucial things. Practice the talk to finish within the required time frame. It is terribly tiresome when someone runs over their allotted time. After you have practiced it, practice the talk some more. In your last slide, put contact information and website links for more information.

The presentation should not end abruptly. Wrap up the single, focused talk with the last couple of slides. Give the audience the pedagogical satisfaction they desire. Determine what content that needs explanations. Keep those explanations short and simple. Finally, instead of continually talking, a brief pause can give the audience the mental break they need to digest an important graph.

Repeated the most important point of your presentation with different content. Finally, use consistent themes and branding.

The paper on these ten simple rules for making great brief presentations can be read online or downloaded as a PDF. A cache of the online version can be found here and here, and a cache of the PDF document can be found here.


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