Conference Rundowns / Science and Communication

Some do’s and don’ts of scientific presentations

I have recently returned to coastal NC after attending the 2017 Biennial Coastal Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) conference in Providence, Rhode Island. It was an extremely productive conference that allowed me the opportunity to present my research, network with leading experts in my field, get out of the UNC bubble, and see lots and lots of presentations. These presentations ranged from the stellar to the not so stellar with many of the most engaging talks presented by students and some of my least favorite, not so stellar talks, presented by well-established scientists (which gave me hope for the future?!). This started me thinking about some of the do’s and don’ts of presenting and how scientists of all ages could keep some important things in mind when preparing for their next conference….

Yellow Slides

Please don’t use yellow slides or comic sans. It’s just not worth it. Instead, use more neutral tones and an easier to read font. It also helps to use an off-white background.

DON’T use yellow in any way shape or form. Seriously. Nobody wants to look at a yellow screen and yellow font is incredibly hard to read from the back of the room. Instead, DO use a pleasing gradient of colors that helps keep your slides cohesive yet interesting. Think blues in a range of shades or a variety of greens. Another tip I learned from my undergraduate advisor with regards to color: use a slightly off-white color for the background of your slides. White can be awfully harsh, and using a slight gray-white or even beige-white helps your slides to be a little less harsh.

Please DON’T use comic sans as your font. It’s distracting and hard to read. DO use a simple text that is easy to read. Things like Arial, Calibri, or Helevetica. Using a simpler font also helps keep your slides from feeling cluttered and overwhelming.

DON’T make your graphs (or text) so small that your audience can’t read it. The whole reason I’m going to your talk is to SEE your research, so DO make sure your graphs are readable (and clear) even from the back of the room. This may mean you have to use more slides or use less graphs, but it makes such a difference when your audience can actually see what you’re talking about.


Don’t be that person with the graphs that can’t be read by people in the back… comic from xkcd.

DON’T have slides with only text on them. They put me to sleep and make me feel anxious that I have to read all those words before you move on to the next slide. DO put pictures on all your slides (even if they are only on there to be ‘pretty’) and keep text to a minimum.

DON’T stare at the ceiling when you give your talk. DO scan the crowd and look at audience members at eye level. I know it’s intimidating to look at all those faces staring at you (even for well-established scientists), but making eye-contact with your crowd makes your audience feel way more engaged.

Finally, DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT, go over your time limit. For real – if you have 12 minutes to speak, keep your presentation to 12 minutes. Period. It’s disrespectful not only to your fellow speakers but to the audience and your session chairs as well when you go over your allotted time. DO practice your talk ahead of time (even just once!) to make sure your timing is okay.

And the biggest DO of them all? Smile (and have fun – our blog all-star Kathleen wrote about this for the last CERF meeting!)! The hardest part is over (remember the hundreds of hours stuck in a lab and countless statistical analyses you conducted? Those are over!). Follow the above tips, be human, and you’ll do just fine.

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