20.109(F14):Guidelines for oral presentations

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20.109(F14): Laboratory Fundamentals of Biological Engineering

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Scientific data are communicated in many ways. Data can be shared informally through email with a collaborator or in lab group meetings. Data can also be formally communicated as publications in peer-reviewed journals or as presentations at international meetings. Successful scientific careers require both written and oral presentations, and scientific reputations are based on BOTH. It is important to know that every presentation, no matter how informal, can impact your reputation. That's one reason you can find such detailed and numerous guidelines for giving scientific job talks.

Hour-long seminars, ten-minute conference talks, discussion-driven group meetings, and journal clubs are all ways scientists share data orally. While the content, length and purpose of each talk varies, they share certain common elements, including organization, clarity, and proper attribution for the work.

The individual oral presentations you give in this class will be ten-minute journal club talks. You will present an introduction to the topic, relevant data, and a summary. Afterward, you will have the opportunity to answer questions from your classmates and instructors. Realistically, only two or three ideas can be effectively conveyed in so short a time, and even that will require that you carefully plan what you will say and then practice saying it. You are expected to rehearse and ultimately deliver your talk with a timer running, and to adjust your presentation as needed to stay within the allotted time. Fairness to your classmates demands that you respect the ten-minute time limit.

In addition to the advice below, you should also consult with Atissa Banuazizi.

A few tips

  • A 10’ talk is NOT a 30’ talk given very fast.
  • It will help if you memorize the first few sentences of your talk. After that, sticking too closely to a script can sound artificial, plus you might get really thrown off and stuck if you forget your exact phrasing. A little flexibility is better for both you and the audience.
  • Think of ways to transition from one slide to the next: “The authors then identified the isolated protein using mass spectrometry.”
  • Generally speaking, you should figure out how to work the lights, slide projector, curtains, etc. before you begin. In this class, we'll worry about those aspects for you; however, you should get comfortable with the timer, laser pointer (see below), and your software.
  • Laser pointers or sticks should be used to direct attention to images on the screen. Be sure to always use a pointer with a specific purpose in mind, rather than constantly gesturing in the general vicinity of your slide; otherwise, the audience will not know what's important. Don’t aim your laser pointer at anyone since it can damage a person’s eyes.
  • Keep the lights as bright as possible. If you must turn the lights off for some image to be properly seen, then remember to turn the lights back on. People can and do fall asleep during dark seminars.

How to deal with nerves

  • Consider it excitement and turn it into enthusiasm
  • Remember that even the most experienced speakers get nervous right before a talk
  • Speak in a louder voice
  • Speak with variety in your vocal tone (not a monotone)
  • Do practice your talk, which will help eliminate crutch words such as “so,” “um,” and “like”


Section Minutes Number of slides Do Don't
Introduction ~2 2-3
  • Set the scene for the data you will present - introduce key concepts that the audience will need to follow along
  • At the beginning or end of the introduction, briefly state the overall scope and significance of the study - what is the central question and why is it interesting?
  • Try to summarize background material with a model slide
  • Assume you are addressing experts
  • Give more information than is absolutely needed to understand the rest of your talk
  • Put too much information on each slide. You can bring in a few details as you speak if you are using PowerPoint animation
Data ~7 4-6
  • Present the data in a logical sequence, letting each slide build upon the last
  • Include a title for each slide. The title should be the conclusion to be drawn
  • Make every element of your slide visible to the entire room. This means 20 point font or greater
  • Interpret each slide thoroughly and carefully
  • Point out strengths and weaknesses of the data along the way
  • Read your talk. Similarly, don’t read lists from slides
  • Put too much information on each slide. Each slide should make only one point
  • Ever say, “I know you can’t read this, but…” Everything on each slide should be legible.
  • Be afraid to remind the audience how the data fits into the overall question
Summary ~1 1
  • Review each of your main “messages”
  • Say what the study contributed to the field
  • Forget to acknowledge all contributors
Question & Answer ? 0
  • Answer the question being asked. If you are unclear about the question, ask for clarification
  • Respect every question and questioner
  • Take too long with one question. If the topic is involved, suggest you meet after the talk to discuss it more


You can find examples of short talks here and here