How to Present a Paper Orally

1. HOW TO GET TO PRESENT A PAPER

The first step in presenting a paper is to obtain a chance to do so. Sometimes, you might receive an unsolicited invitation. For major conferences, however, you normally must take the initiative by submitting an abstract of the paper that you hope to present.

Those organi zing the conference typically provide abstract submission forms; these usually can be accessed and submitted via the web. The submit­ted abstracts undergo peer review, and the submitters whose abstracts seem to describe the strongest research are asked to give oral presentations. For some conferences, those whose abstracts represent good work of lower priority are asked to give poster presentations. For other conferences, separate application processes exist for oral presentations and for posters.

Those who decide whether you should present a paper are likely to have only your abstract on which to base their decision. Therefore, prepare the abstract carefully, following all instructions. Word the abstract concisely, so it can be highly informative although it must be brief. (The word limit sometimes is higher than that for abstracts accompanying published papers, but be sure to stay within it.) If figures or tables are allowed, follow all instructions, and do not exceed the number permitted. Organize the abstract well—typically in the same sequence as a scientific paper. Also write clearly and readably, as those reviewing the abstracts probably will be busy scientists with many abstracts to review and little patience with those that are unclear on first reading. Of course, be sure to submit the abstract by the deadline. Present your research well in your abstract, and you may soon be presenting a paper.

For many conferences, the peer reviewers might not be the only ones seeing your abstract. Often, presentation abstracts are printed in the conference pro­gram, posted on the conference website, or both. Those reading them can include conference registrants trying to decide which sessions to attend, fellow scien­tists unable to attend the conference but interested in the content, and science reporters trying to determine which sessions to cover. All the more reason to provide an informative and readable abstract.

2. A WORD OF CAUTION

If you receive an unsolicited invitation to speak at a conference that you have not have heard of, check into the matter carefully rather than automatically accepting. In recent years, what are known as predatory conferences have arisen. These are not valid scientific conferences but rather scams to take people’s money. The organizers invite prospective attendees, obtain their advance reg­istration fees, and then either hold a conference with little scientific substance or hold no conference at all.

One clue that a conference might be predatory is an invitation to speak at a conference that is outside your field. Other possible clues include an invitation that emphasizes the beautiful location rather than the conference content, lists fees that are much higher than usual, or has many grammatical errors and misspellings. If you are early in your career, perhaps consult a mentor or senior colleague to help determine whether a conference is valid. Also, online searching can help identify conference organizers that credible sources, such academic librarians, have deemed questionable.

3. ORGANIZATION OF THE PAPER

The best way to organize a paper for oral presentation generally is to proceed in the same logical pathway that one usually does in writing a paper, starting with “What was the problem?” and ending with “What is the solution?” However, it is important to remember that oral presentation of a paper does not constitute publication, and therefore different rules apply. The greatest distinction is that the published paper must contain the full experimental protocol, so that the experiments can be repeated. The oral presentation, however, need not and should not contain all of the experimental detail, unless by chance you have been called on to administer a soporific at a meeting of insomniacs. Extensive citation of the literature is also undesirable in an oral presentation.

4. PRESENTATION OF THE PAPER

Most oral presentations are short (with a limit of 10 minutes at many meetings). Thus, even the theoretical content must be trimmed down relative to that of a written paper. No matter how well organized, too many ideas presented too quickly will be confusing. You should stick to your most important point or result and stress that. There will not be time for you to present all your other neat ideas.

There are, of course, other and longer types of oral presentations. A typical time allotted for symposium presentations is 20 minutes. A few are longer. A seminar is normally 1 hour. Obviously, you can present more material if you have more time. Even so, you should go slowly, carefully presenting a few main points or themes. If you proceed too fast, especially at the beginning, your audience will lose the thread; the daydreams will begin, and your message will be lost.

Time limits for conference presentations tend to be strictly enforced. Therefore carefully plan your presentation to fit the allotted time—lest you be whisked from the podium before you can report your major result. If possi­ble, make your presentation a bit short (say, 9 or 9.5 minutes if 10 minutes are allotted), to accommodate unexpected slowdowns. Rehearse your presen­tation beforehand, both to make sure it is the right length and to help ensure smooth delivery. During your presentation, stay aware of the time. Perhaps indicate in your notes what point in the presentation you should have reached by what time, so that if necessary you can adjust your pace.

A few more pointers on delivery: Speak very clearly, and avoid speaking quickly, especially if the language in which you are presenting is not the native lan­guage of all the audience members. Remember to look at the audience. Show interest in your subject. Avoid habits that might be distracting—such as jan­gling the change in your pocket or repeatedly saying “um” or “you know” or the equivalent from your native language. To polish your delivery, consider video­ing rehearsals of one or more of your presentations.

Does stage fright plague you? Consider the following suggestions: Pre­pare well so you can feel confident, but do not prepare so much that you feel obsessed. To dissipate nervous energy, take a walk or take advantage of the exercise facilities in the conference hotel. Beware of too much caffeine, food, or water. Hide physical signs of anxiety; for example, if your hands tremble under stress, do not hold a laser pointer. Realize that a presentation need not be flawless to be excellent. Perhaps most important, realize that the audience members are there not because they wish to judge your speaking style but because they are interested in your research.

5. SLIDES

At small, informal scientific meetings, various types of visual aids—including flip charts, whiteboards, and blackboards—may be used. At most scientific conferences, however, PowerPoint presentations are the norm. Every scientist should know how to prepare effective slides and use them well, yet attendance at almost any meeting quickly indicates that many do not.

Here are a few important considerations. First, slides should be designed specifically for use with oral presentations, with large enough lettering to be seen from the back of the room. In general, use lettering that is at least 28 points in size. Choose a sans serif typeface, such as Arial or Calibri. Slides prepared from graphs that were drawn for journal publication are seldom effective and often are not even legible. Slides prepared from a printed journal or book are almost never effective.

Slides should be uncrowded. Each slide should illustrate a particular point or perhaps summarize a few. To permit rapid reading, use bullet points, not paragraphs. For text slides, try not to exceed about seven lines of about seven words each—or, stated another way, about 50 words in total. It has been said that if a slide cannot be understood in 4 seconds, it is a bad slide.

Beware of showing too many slides. A moderate number of well-chosen slides will enhance your presentation; too many will be distracting. One gen­eral guideline is not to exceed an average of about one slide per minute. If you show a slide of an illustration or table, indicate its main message. As one long- suffering audience member said, “Don’t just point at it.”

Speaking of illustrations and tables: If there are findings that you can pres­ent in either a graph or a table, use a graph in an oral presentation. Doing so will help the audience grasp the point more quickly. And speaking of pointing:

If you use a laser pointer, take care with it. In your enthusiasm or distraction, do not wildly gesture at the slide—or the audience—with a lighted pointer. Rather, turn on the laser pointer only when you want to call attention to a spe­cific item on a slide. Direct the laser pointer specifically at the item. And if, for example, you are showing a pathway, trace it with the pointer. If you shake dur­ing presentations, hold the laser pointer in one hand, and use the other hand to steady that hand.

If the conference has a speaker ready room (a room in which speakers can test their audiovisuals), check that your slides are functioning properly. Also, if possible, get to the hall before the audience does. Make sure the projector is working, ascertain that your slides will indeed project, and check the lights. If you will use a microphone, ensure it is functioning.

Normally, each slide should make one simple, easily understood visual state­ment. The slide should supplement what you are saying when the slide is on the screen; it should not simply repeat what you are saying. Except when doing so could help overcome a language barrier, do not read the slide text to the audience.

A nice touch, and a tradition in some research areas, is to include a closing slide acknowledging collaborators and perhaps showing a photo of the research group. If the research being reported was a team effort, consider including such a slide if appropriate in your field.

Slides that are thoughtfully designed, well prepared, and skillfully used can greatly enhance the value of a scientific presentation. Poor slides would have ruined Cicero.

6. THE AUDIENCE

The presentation ofa paper at a scientific meeting is a two-way process. Because the material being communicated at a scientific conference is likely to be the newest available information in that field, both the speakers and the audience should accept certain obligations. As indicated earlier in this chapter, speakers should present their material clearly and effectively so that the audience can understand and learn from the information being communicated.

Almost certainly, the audience for an oral presentation will be more diverse than the readership of a scientific paper. Therefore, the oral presentation should be pitched at a more general level than would be a written paper. Avoid technical detail. Define terms. Beware of using acronyms the audience does not already know. Explain difficult concepts. Repeat important points.

Rehearsing a paper before the members (even just a few members) of one’s own department or group can make the difference between success and disaster.

For communication to be effective, the audience also has various responsi­bilities. These start with simple courtesy. The audience should be quiet and attentive, no matter how compellingly a mobile device may beckon. Speakers respond well to an interested, attentive audience, whereas the communication process can be virtually destroyed when the audience is noisy, distracted, or, worse, asleep.

The best part of an oral presentation is often the question-and-answer period. During this time, members of the audience have the option, if not the obliga­tion, of raising questions not covered by the speaker, and of briefly presenting ideas or data that confirm or contrast with those presented by the speaker. Such questions and comments should be stated courteously and professionally. This is not the time (although we have all seen it) for some windbag to vent spleen or to describe his or her own erudition in infinite detail. It is all right to disagree, but do not be disagreeable. In short, the speaker has an obligation to be considerate to the audience, and the audience has an obligation to be con­siderate to the speaker.

7. A FEW ANSWERS ON QUESTIONS

What should you do if an audience member is indeed abrasive? If someone asks an irrelevant question? If a question is relevant but you lack the answer?

If someone is rude, stay calm and courteous. Thank him or her for the ques­tion or comment, and if you have a substantive reply, provide it. If the person keeps pursuing the point, offer to talk after the session.

If a question is irrelevant, take a cue from politicians and try to deflect the discussion to something related that you wish to address—perhaps a point you had hoped to include in your presentation but lacked time for. (“That’s an interesting question, but a more immediate concern to us was. . . .”) Alterna­tively, offer to talk later.

If you lack the answer to a question, do not panic—and definitely do not bluff. Admit that you do not know. If you can provide the answer later, offer to do so; if you know how to find the answer, say how. To help prepare for ques­tions that might arise, have colleagues quiz you after you rehearse.

Especially if you have not yet submitted for publication the work you are presenting, consider making note of the questions and comments (or hav­ing a colleague do so). Audience members can function as some of your earli­est peer reviewers. Keeping their questions in mind when you write may strengthen your paper and hasten its acceptance.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *