Scientific talks: top tips

New to giving scientific talks or always looking to improve your skills? Read on...

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Seamus Martin, Editor-in-Chief of The FEBS Journal, recently co-authored with Rita Gemayel a 'Words of Advice' article in the journal on 'How to prepare and deliver a great talk'. See the article for an interesting walk through this important skill for scientists, covering everything from slide preparation to handling pre-talk nerves. And for a warm-up to the subject, here Seamus provides a personal perspective in reply to some quickfire questions:

Seamus Martin
Seamus Martin holds the Smurfit Chair
of Medical Genetics at Trinity College
Dublin, Ireland. His main research area
is apoptosis in the immune system.

Likely number of scientific talks delivered in your career

That's a difficult one to answer, but it has been about 10 conference talks per year for quite a long time now, so I would say that I have given over 250 conference talks at this stage. If lectures to students also count, I also give about 40 lectures per year to undergraduate students at Trinity College Dublin, for the past 20 years, so that adds 800 more talks to the total. So, quite a few!

Favourite talk moment

When you finish a talk and 30 hands shoot into the air to ask a question, or to challenge what you have just said. Job done.

A scientific talk that inspired you

There have been several speakers that I have had the privilege to listen to on multiple occasions in my career and who I have always found inspirational, incisive and thoughtful speakers. Martin Raff, Polly Matzinger, Doug Green, Ivan Roitt, Ruslan Medzhitov, Vishva Dixit and Gerard Evan spring to mind, but there are quite a few others. A great talk that focuses on key principles and insights, rather than bombarding the audience with data, is my preference. If I like the talk, I will read the papers later.

How to spend the time in a less than inspiring talk

Working through email (but I never do this while sitting in the direct line of sight of the speaker – I tend to sit to the side of the room) and thinking about work going on in my lab. I always keep an ear open to what a speaker is saying, a bit like listening to music while working, but if a talk is not that inspiring, I have to admit that I tune out and let my thoughts wander to things I have not had time to think about recently.

An awkward talk moment

I think the worst moment for any speaker is to finish a talk to find that nobody has any questions. I really feel for speakers when this happens and I always try to have a question to ask in this eventuality. However, as a speaker, if this happens to you frequently, don't blame your audience. Ask yourself how you might make your subject more interesting to your audience. Usually, the problem is that the speaker has assumed that the audience knows much more about their topic than they really do, and this has resulted in much of the talk flying over everyone's heads. The other problem can be trying to fit too much into one talk, which can also confuse an audience. So, keep things simple and clear and, above all, try to tell an interesting story from the perspective of your audience.

Point you find yourself repeating most when guiding PhD students on talks

There are a couple of related points. First and foremost: try to tell an interesting story. To do this, you need to put yourself in your audience's shoes and ask yourself: if I was a relative newcomer to the field, what would I find interesting about my subject? Then ask yourself: what would I need to know first, then second, and so on, to understand why I am exploring this problem? Another key point to remember, although this is obvious but it is easy to forget when preparing a slide presentation, is that giving a talk is about communicating to other people in the same room. This is very different to how you would present your story in a research paper. We don't need to see every control or every piece of data to understand your conclusions (although you can mention these). Use good, simple explanatory diagrams. Keep the talk interesting with lots of connecting slides, which contain key questions and explanatory diagrams, that help maintain the narrative and keep the story moving along. Even Pink Floyd needed inflatable pigs and light projections to hold the audience's attention. 

The FEBS Journal Words of Advice article:

Gemayel, R., and Martin, S.J. (2019) How to prepare and deliver a great talk. FEBS J. 286, 39–45doi: 10.1111/febs.14726

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The FEBS Journal

The FEBS Journal is an international journal devoted to the rapid publication of full-length papers covering a wide range of topics in any area of the molecular life sciences.