Structure is critical to a great scientific talk. Your talk needs the proper organization if you’re going to grab your audience’s attention and hold it all the way through to the end of your presentation. But what does the organization of a memorable scientific talk look like? Georgia Tech Professor Will Ratcliff suggests using a simple three-act structure that gives your talk a beginning, middle and end that everyone in the audience can follow.
The first part of your talk is about getting your audience’s attention and making it clear how your work will be impactful. It’s the most critical part of your presentation because if you don’t engage the audience early, you’ll never win them back later. Start with a slide that provides the big-picture context for your work. After that, you can zoom in from the big picture to the specific questions your talk will answer. Scientists love exciting questions, so use this section to add a little intrigue by asking the questions the rest of your talk will explore. When done well, viewers will know what you are doing, why it is important, and will naturally want to keep listening to hear what you discovered.
Include a description of your methods in the second phase of your talk. It’s important to remember, however, that most of your audience isn’t that interested in the nitty-gritty details of your work. The purpose of describing your methodology is to give your audience a general idea of what you did and to give them confidence in your conclusions. Rather than dwelling on the details of your experiments, tell the story of your work from the beginning, building on the questions you asked earlier. It’s also a good idea to work your acknowledgments in during the body of the presentation. Consider including thumbnail pictures of key people in one corner of a slide when discussing their contributions. This will allow you to transition smoothly from your conclusion section to the question-and-answer portion of the program.
In your talk’s final segment, you want to bring everything together. Use this conclusion section to answer the key motivating questions you identified at the beginning of your talk, and be sure to describe how your results have changed the way we now think about the big picture. Be prepared for common questions by placing slides with relevant data below the conclusions slide, so that you can easily move to them if they are asked during Q&A.
Once you have your talk properly structured, Ratcliff says it’s important to show the talk to a colleague for feedback, ideally before you’ve refined it and are set in your ways. After you’ve incorporated their feedback, remember to practice giving your presentation out loud until you are comfortable with every slide and transition between topics. This will improve your confidence and make your presentation style more natural and engaging and ensure you’re set to give a great scientific talk.