Is anybody listening? Part I: Giving scientific pitches and presentations for maximum impact

Increasingly, oral pitches and presentations are a part of securing research funding. For some grant programs, the first step is simply describing to a program officer what you want to do. For others, especially large, multi-million dollar programs, a formal presentation is required, followed by a Q&A session with an expert panel.

Boring presentations sometimes seem to be endemic to science culture. I’ve seen highly qualified, senior scientists face the screen for 15 minutes straight and read their bullet points, channeling the passion of a stale rice cake. You can do better! Unless you were lucky enough to have a mentor that values oral communication, though, what to do differently than the average is not always obvious.

In this series of blog posts on presentation style, the Innovology team will be providing advice on how to control nerves, formulate the logical flow of your pitch, create slides that help your audience understand your main points, and generally wow your audience.

To get warmed up, here’s some TED inspiration. TED talks are worth checking out as a master class in giving impassioned and effective presentations. The presenters are often discussing complex scientific information, but do so in a way that meets the audience where they are and gets them excited.

This talk, “Talk Nerdy to Me” by Melissa Marshall, a communications professor and researcher at Penn State University, is a great place to start in thinking about effective pitches and presentations.

Other communication researchers at Penn State have also done some great research on how we learn from visual aids, like slides, and what strategies are most effective (down to font size and justification!) My favourite resource, and one I base workshops on is Michael Alley’s book, The Craft of Scientific Presentations. It’s really worth reading cover to cover. You’ll finish convinced that it’s worth making the effort to think about what you’re really trying to say, the most logical way to link those messages together, and avoid lulling your audience to sleep with a monotone speech complemented with a mind-numbing set of Powerpoint slides.

One of the speakers featured in the book is Jill Bolte Taylor, and you can check out her TED talk here. You may not be able to bring a brain to your pitch, but we will talk more about props!

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