IEEE Professional Communication Society Newsletter • ISSN 1539-3593 • Volume 49, Number 3 • April 2005
Ask the Expert

Three Major Mistakes of Scientific Presentations

What do you think are the three most important considerations for an effective scientific presentation? Contrarily, what are the three major mistakes presenters customarily make? --Jacqueline Mintz (New York)

Scientists presenting their research work at a conference or other venue usually mean well, yet their presentations can be an impenetrable fog indeed. It is not that other professionals necessarily do better; public speaking is a difficult art for all. But when the subject matter is highly technical, the audience can more rapidly get discouraged. Here are three shortcomings I frequently witness on the part of scientists (and other presenters): trying to say too much, failing to reveal the structure of the presentation, and neglecting the beginning and end of it.

Simply Trying to Say Too Much

Scientists presenting at a conference typically report on a whole year of research in a mere 15 minutes: quite a challenge. As a result, most presenters simply try to cover too much detail, losing all but a few audience members in the process. These few--the experts in this very specific subject matter--are usually familiar with this contentif they are up to date at all, so they hardly need it repeated. Numerous details thus serve only one person's need, that of the speaker trying to establish how incredibly clever (or painful) his research has been.

Beginners somehow believe they must mention in their presentation everything that is already written down in their proceedings paper. Not so, of course. Written documents are for conveying details accurately and lastingly. In contrast, oral presentations are for convincing an audience of key messages, not with detailed evidence, but with nonverbal communication.

Failing to Reveal the Structure

Most audience members "get lost" in a presentation, not because they lack the knowledge or intelligence to comprehend the content, but because they lack a map. Oral presentations indeed lack the numerous visual clues orienting the readers of written documents, such as paragraphs, headings, or page layout. Most speakers do show a preview of their presentation (the map), but one that is usually too detailed and shown too early, so it is hard to remember. Few, alas, include truly helpful transitions between points, indicating where they are on the map. Fewer still provide a recap of their main points before the conclusion (and those who did provide one eventually drop it because the chairperson said "two minutes left" about four minutes earlier).

The lack of structural clues and the sequential nature of slide shows too often make a well-built hierarchical structure look like a long, flat, undifferentiated path, one that will progressively disorient even the most attentive audience members.

Neglecting the Beginning and the End

Professionals involved in long-term work, as scientists often are, too easily lose sight of the motivation for their work and of the outcome of it--precisely what most audience members are primarily interested in, especially in a presentation. Above all, they want to know the beginning and the end of the research story. Presentations that shun or under-develop both motivation and outcome, but jump at or stop with the work itself are self-centered, not audience-oriented.

By failing to relate to their audience at the beginning and at the end of their presentations, speakers fail to make a strong first impression and a lasting last impression. Taking the audience for granted, most presenters start with their name and the title of their talk. This title, which can easily run on four lines on a slide, is often so intricate that it requires further and immediate explanation, perhaps even a few definitions of terms. How attention-getting can it be? Similarly, too many speakers end their presentation because they run out of time or run out of things to say. How carefully prepared does it look? Effective presentations start and end in a forceful, relevant, audience-oriented way.

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Dr Jean-luc Doumont teaches and provides advice on professional speaking, writing, and graphing. He also trains instructors and can facilitate any process that requires solid structuring and effective communication. For more than 15 years, he has helped audiences of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities structure their thoughts and construct their communication, in English, French, Dutch, and Spanish. He is an engineer from the University of Louvain and a doctor in applied physics from Stanford University.