My worst presentation

My first ever scientific presentation was for my 6-month Masters project as part of my Physics degree. And it was bad. The presentation started off ok-ish, but  I began to increasingly panic during the talk, until the penultimate slide when I broke down and began to cry. I was giving the presentation to a room of around 30 experienced physicists and biologists who my supervisor had invited to watch. It was truly embarrassing!

This happened because I was poorly prepared and tired, which resulted in me being completely overwhelmed. It also didn’t help being a young Masters student who felt completely incompetent compared to everyone else in the room. The presentation was followed by my leaving do, which I left with my head hung in shame. I’m sure that the people in that lab must remember me as the blubbering physics student.

Now, when I am giving a presentation at big conferences, I always remind myself that it can’t and won’t be as bad as that experience. With this outlook I have even managed to bag myself a few awards for the best presentation at the conferences that I have been to during my PhD.

Here is some advice that now saves me from bursting into tears when presenting:

  • Keep it simple. It’s easy to over complicate presentations. If you have a simple narrative then you can avoid confusing yourself and thus confusing your audience. It’s actually rare that you hear someone say, “That presentation was way too simple”. Science is inherently complicated, so try to keep your explanations simple.
  • Practice! Rehearse your presentation to yourself, a colleague, your partner or anyone who is happy to listen. Practice it at least once, and the more that you practice the easier it will be. Compelling speakers who captivate audiences have probably given that same talk at least once (but more likely lots and lots of times) before.
  • Be enthusiastic. Your enthusiasm only has to last for the duration of the presentation. If you don’t show some hint that you are enthused by your project to the audience, why on earth will they be bothered to listen to you about it?
  • Find the story in your work. If you can find the story then you can take the audience on a journey. It also makes it much easier to work out aspects that should be included in the presentation and the things that you don’t need.
  • What is your message? Ask yourself what is the one thing that what do you want your audience to take away from your presentation. If you get nervous before, during or after the presentation remember that you are probably the person who knows the most about this topic, and at least you can be clear in your mind about the message that you would like to convey to your audience.

And finally, if you can, try to enjoy the experience. After all, you are just sharing work that you are passionate about with people who are interested in listening!