How to give a great speed talk

How to give a great speed talk

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So, your abstract has been selected for a speed talk: Congratulations! A speed talk is the ultimate elevator pitch, delivered to (one hopes) far more people than could be squeezed into the average elevator! (Or lift, if you prefer British English.)

Speed talks are, by definition, only a few minutes long (with the duration decided by the event), and so it may seem that they would be far easier to prepare than a longer talk; surely you could easily talk about your research for 3 minutes without any preparation? But could you guarantee that you would include all key points, keep the audience engaged, and stick to the strict time limit? In reality, speed talks require just as much thought and preparation as any other presentation, if not more.

As a FEBS Press editor, I’ve previously helped organize the judging for speed talk prizes at the FEBS Congress. To help you out, here are five tips on how to give a great speed talk:

1. Consider your audience

As with any presentation, you need to consider your audience: will everyone in the audience be familiar with your field of research? How much background do you need to provide? How much depth can you go into without losing the audience (and keeping to time)? If the scope of the meeting is broad, it is important to ensure you include enough information for researchers outside of your subfield to follow your talk.

2. Follow the event guidelines

This goes without saying, but don’t just jump into the preparation without first familiarising yourself with the session’s guidelines; it will save you a lot of time (and potentially frustration) in the long run. How long should your talk be? How many slides are you allowed to present? And what format should your slides be in?

3. Have a solid outline

if you’re giving a talk that will last an hour, you can be reasonably flexible when it comes to how long you spend on each slide; time lost on one slide can be made up later. This is not so with a speed talk; if you go on a tangent for 30 seconds early on, you may not have time for your conclusions at the end! Every second counts, and needs to be accounted for. Write a script, and then time yourself reading it out loud. Decide how long you want to spend on each section. For example, if you have only 3 minutes, you may consider something like the following breakdown:

  • 0–10 seconds: Introduce yourself and where you work. 
  • 10–45 seconds: Provide key background to the project.
  • 45–70 seconds: Introduce the question you are trying to answer in your research.
  • 70–120 seconds: Present your key findings.
  • 120–165 seconds: Place your findings in context and let the audience know the next steps.
  • 165–180 seconds: Let the audience know your poster number so they can find you if they have any questions, and thank any colleagues and collaborators involved in the project.

This is just an example of course, and you may need to spend more time on the background, or more time on the results, depending on the needs of your talk. However, it’s important to know EXACTLY what you’re going to say, and keep to the script! Don’t improvise, or you’ll go over time.

4. Design your slides with care

Some events may limit the number of slides you can include for a speed talk, while others may not impose any restrictions. Either way, the strict time limit will necessarily restrict the amount of data you can show. Don’t be tempted to include lots of slides or fill every pixel of the screen: a slide cluttered with information (or slides that keep changing every few seconds) will only confuse the audience. It is far better to think carefully about what you absolutely need to show the audience, and what you don’t. Ultimately, it’s a speed talk, not a research paper or a thesis, and you don’t need to show all your data.

On your slides, consider showing a single model, and/or one or two key pieces of data, while ensuring that all images are large enough to be legible. Ensure there is ample blank space around the images; this space acts as a buffer between images, and gives the audience somewhere for their eyes to ‘rest.’  The audience will leave with a far better impression of your talk if you show just one or two key pieces of data, than if you try to cram an entire paper’s worth of data into a few minutes. Finally, remember to show your poster name and number (if applicable), your name and affiliation(s), and any acknowledgments on one of the slides! You might also consider showing your email address if you are happy for people to contact you with questions.

5. Practise, practise, practise!

The secret to giving a relaxed, confident talk is to practise. Go through the talk a few times by yourself to ensure you can consistently keep within the time limit. Through practising it, you may also discover that it would be better to skip over some points, or add detail to others. You may also find that your slides could be better optimized to match the needs of your talk. Sleep on it, and then practise the talk again the next day. Once you are happy with the content and your own delivery, ask a friend or colleague if they would mind listening to your talk and providing feedback (as it’s only a speed talk, this should not prove to be a huge burden for them!). This will also give you experience of presenting the talk in front of other people. Remember that nerves may cause you to talk more quickly than you would while practising alone, or perhaps cause you to forget what you planned to say. You can help avoid such issues through practising on a regular basis before the event.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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