A Common Problem Among Scientists: Not Being the Best Presenters – Lesson One

With many conferences, symposiums and seminars always lined up throughout the year, a common shortcoming in scientists’ lives is the fear of public speaking and, consequently, a poor presentation.

As a public speaking coach and presentation skills teacher who happens to be a scientist too, I cannot emphasize how much of difference it can make when you present your data (most of the time, complicated data!) clearly and effectively. Presentations skills and public speaking skills are very useful in many aspects of work and life. Effective presentations and public speaking skills are important in business, sales and selling, training, teaching, lecturing, and generally feeling comfortable speaking to a group of people. Let’s not forget that having the confidence and capability to give good presentations and to stand up in front of an audience are extremely helpful competencies for self-development and social situations.

In a series of blog posts, my goal will be to discuss some details of how you can improve your scientific presentations and the key points that can help your presentation to stand out. Throughout the upcoming blog posts, the focus will be on the delivery aspects of the talk and visuals (slides).

Whenever I am starting a new presentation skills class, I always bring up what William Yeats, one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature, said years ago:

“I always think great speakers convince us not by force of reasoning but because they are visibly enjoying the beliefs they want us to accept.” – William Yeats

This brings us up to the first rule, which happens to be the most common presentation problem:

Not Being Boring – The Opening

It is a common bias to feel more interested in presentations when the speaker is passionate and excited to share the results. So how can you ensure not to be boring? Here are some tips:


1) Icebreaking Polls

Live polls are a great way to “break the ice” and capture the audience’s attention, especially in bigger crowds. As part of your opening remarks, you can use a fun poll to enliven the atmosphere and also to set the tone for your event (a good live example is what usually Dr. Kiran Musunuru does in his talks).

Here are a few examples that I personally like:

  • How energized are you feeling right now?
  • As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
  • If age is only a state of mind, what is YOUR state of mind right now?

Remember, funny answer options are also part of the polls.


2) Make a joke at your own expense

Before making a joke, remember to always be sensitive to your crowd. People have different values, beliefs, and experiences.

As it is beautifully mentioned by Public Speaking Powers: “You don’t want to make a joke at the expense of anyone in the audience, a joke at the expense of the company, or a joke at the expense who’s introduced you, but the joke at the expense of yourself tends to work really well because you’re pointing at yourself so people can just laugh along with that.”

For example, you could say: “Look, I have a bad feeling about this. I was talking to [whoever introduced you], and they said they were going to tell a joke before I spoke but instead they just introduced me.” So you’re implying you’re the joke.


3) Ask “raise your hand” questions

My personal favorite is this type of icebreaker. It shows confidence, it boosts up your stage presence and it makes your audience to physically move. When thinking about the question you want to ask, consider the following:

Do not create a negative environment with your question. Never ask questions that may put the audience in the spot. Negative examples include, “How many of you are suffering from dyslipidemia?” or, “Have you ever been into a Cath lab as a patient?”

Instead, ask questions that are more relevant and questions that most people are going to raise their hand to: “How many of you have read the CONSORT trial results?” or, “How many of you read the new hypertension guidelines?”

Keep in mind, the whole idea of the “raise your hand” questions is to get audience’s engagement and group involvement, so the people on the outskirts who aren’t really getting into your talk feel like they should get into your talk.


4) Start a story without finishing it right away

Open up your talk by simple phrases like:  “I want to tell you a story that I think it is very important for my speech today.” Or you go on and tell your story, but you leave the conclusion out and you say: “I’ll get back to that towards the end.”

This allows you to draw people into your talk with stories, but you’re not finishing your story right away so it keeps them engaged.


5) Start by breaking some news

A good way to keep the audience engaged is to talk about a recent news/paper/article that is relevant to your presentation. I was recently in an AHA’s Strategically Focused Research Network meeting about sex differences in aortapathies and the speaker opened up her talk by discussing an article from Times Magazine, which came out on the same day, discussing sex differences.


It can be tricky to know how to start a meeting. In fact, the introduction is often the hardest part to get right. But with a great start, you can relax yourself and your audience, making them more alert and receptive. In the next upcoming blog post, I will discuss the problems throughout the delivery and body of the talk. Stay tuned!


Leave a Comment