Reflections on a Short Scientific Presentation

During the summer, I undertook a research internship as part of the Amgen scholars programme. Towards the end, everyone on the programme had to present our work to our fellow interns. Communicating your work is an important part of being a scientist, and this was a useful chance to get some practice at it.

After giving my presentation I made some notes on what had gone well and what could have been improved. I recently found these notes and thought I would expand on them in a blog post for future reference!

The presentation

It needed to be ten minutes long, followed by five minutes for questions. The audience mostly consisted of students in the life sciences. Here are the slides I came up with:


(Please note: Boris is very fond of his great lab group and is not his own favourite colleague!)


I kept the slides basic, so they don't make much sense on their own without me standing there talking. Here's what that looks like:



Jimi presenting


(Oops, I should be looking at the audience, not the slides!!!)

I focussed on the use of the Game of Life as an educational tool for computer scientists getting their first taste of biology. Using myself as a case study, I pointed out how engaging flashy lights and circuit boards can be for some people. Then, just when they least expect it, they realise you're teaching them simple biological ideas through a medium they're (probably) already familiar with: the Game of Life.

At the end of the talk, I gave a demonstration of some Life patterns using an online implementation I had prepared earlier. At the bottom of the grid at that link you can see a drop down menu with some pre-designed patterns. I used some of these to demonstrate a correspondence between concepts in biological systems and emergent behaviour seen in Life. For example, the 'simple growth' pattern grows into an oscillator from a simple pattern, a little bit like a flower growing from a seed.

I clicked through these examples (which were projected on the screen) and talked through what they were supposed to signify.

What went well

Slides

I'm no designer, so I kept my slides simple and let my words do the talking. There wasn't too much text to distract people from what I was saying, but the slides helped set the tone for the talk. That said, the slides could definitely have been even simpler, more useful, and less distracting.

The 'Game of Life' slide was also helpful for explaining just how simple Life is. By having a small example grid labelled with the number of live neighbours, I was able to explain the rules more easily than I could have without a visual aid.

Accessible for my audience

As the computational odd-one-out of our group, I didn't want to scare people off with jargon and detail. I kept it light-hearted, and focussed on parts of the project relevant to them, rather than technical details.

Although not appropriate for every science talk, the light-hearted tone was great for a short talk to an audience mostly made up of friends. Based on feedback I got after the talk, they found it enjoyable and easy to understand.

Questions

I love chatting about this stuff, so I enjoy the question bit of talks. An important challenge is to make sure the questions section stays interesting for everyone by balancing the depth of your answers.

What could have been better

The demo

I was expecting the demo to be the best bit of the presentation, but in the end it was a bit boring. Life is really fun to play with, but I didn't really make it fun to watch.

Eyes on the audience

There are a few photos of me giving the talk and I'm looking at the slides in all but one of them! Knowing the content well enough not to need to see the slides and getting in the habit of looking at the audience are two things that I think would improve my presentations significantly.

Main points for the future

  • Simple slides.
  • Know your audience.
  • Think about what it'll be like to watch and keep it engaging.
  • Avoid rambling!
  • Basic presentation skills: look at the audience, speak clearly, and think about how to handle all kinds of questions.