How to become a better scientific presenter

Presenting your work to your colleagues and peers is an integral part of being a scientist. However, sometimes presentation nerves can get the better of you. Never fear – you are not alone! 9 out of 10 people suffer from presentation nerves. If you’re in this majority, read on for some tips to help you become a better scientific presenter.

  1. Breathe

To overcome nerves, the best thing you can do is breathe. Breathe in to a slow count of 5, and then out to the same slow count of 6, and you will feel your pulse gentling, you’ll feel yourself getting calmer and the world will seem a better place.

  1. Pay attention to your audience

Don’t worry about yourself. If things go wrong – which they may do – just make it okay for the audience. As long as they’re sitting there thinking, ‘well that happened to me last Thursday’, you haven’t got a problem. If they’re sitting there worrying about you, then you do have a problem.

  1. Don’t be predictable

At the beginning of a presentation it’s best not to give your audience a boring and predictable introduction. If, for example, you get a set of results and you try and hit them with a whole bunch of data, they won’t remember it. If you tell them about the moment you got those results and how they thrilled or frustrated you, let them share your excitement or frustration. Then they’ll remember.

  1. Give them the shiny bits

Audiences are like magpies – they like shiny things. Any kind of bling is good. Those are the bits that get taken back to their nests. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you bombard your audience with mountains of data and expect them to remember it, they won’t. Give them little shiny polished messages, stories, analogies, anecdotes, case histories, specific examples, powerful pictures – those are the shiny bits that will go back to their nests.

  1. Look forward

There are so many presenters who seem to think the audience wants to see the back of their head, or possibly their right ear because they’re pointing or talking to the screen behind them. Big mistake. You want to be talking to your audience. Look forward, make eye contact (or at least appear to do so) with all your audience (not the one smiling, nodding person in the front row)!

  1. You have a face – use it

If you smile, the audience can hear it. If you are surprised, your eyebrows go up and your voice goes up with it. If you’re in despair, everything sags and your voice goes down with it. Facial expressions and voice work as one, so use them to your advantage.

  1. Don’t over-practice

One of the biggest mistakes is over-practicing. If you’re writing a script and trying to stick to it slavishly, you put yourself in a kind of straightjacket. If you do use notes that’s fine – but be obvious about it – don’t pretend you’re not using them!

  1. Keep it simple

With an academic paper people can read it as many times as they like over as many cups of coffee as they need.  Over time they’ll get it. With a presentation you have to get them on the first pass – they have to understand it straight away. So keep it really, really simple, even to the point it might mildly offend you – it won’t offend them!

  1. Three bullets

If you must use bullet points, three is the magic number. Never use more than three per slide – we’re pre-programmed to remember things in threes. If you are doing bullet points keep them tight and really short. Better still give them bullets (see shiny bits above).

  1. Avoid using a pointer

If you need to use a pointer there’s something wrong with the slide – it’s too busy. You can pre-select what you want the audience to see – circle things, draw boxes around them, highlight them. If you’re waving your pointer around manically – which happens a lot of the time – the audience may or may not bother to look at where you’re pointing. If you tell them where to look, they’ll look there.

  1. Finish with a bang

If you can leave the audience with a big idea – something to take home – that’s a good thing, but please don’t tell them “this is your take-home message”. It makes your audience very grumpy and makes them determined to take home any message except the one you’ve told them to.

  1. Have fun

Above all, enjoy yourself. If you enjoy yourself, the audience will have enjoyed your talk.

Original video with Media and Presentation Trainer Ali Sargent, UK

 

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Storytelling in science: How to (remotely) wow an audience

By Adam Gristwood, EMBL and EMBO alumnus, now freelance science writer and communications trainer

When I was 10 years old, I landed the role of Romeo in my school’s play. We had a fantastic cast, rehearsals ran smoothly, and the auditorium was a complete sellout. In my mind, we were not kids in an assembly hall, but an all-star cast at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. An amazing rush of adrenalin pulsed through my body as I walked out on stage.

Romeo and Juliet is a gripping story, full of battles, romance, deception, persistence, and tragedy. After being banished from Verona, Romeo sneaks to Juliet’s apartment in the middle of the night to declare his love. Onstage, as I waited impatiently beneath Juliet’s balcony, I caught a glimpse of my proud parents in the crowd. I felt ecstatic.

In our version of the play, however, Romeo never got to reveal his true feelings for Juliet. Suddenly, the lights in the auditorium went out. I panicked and searched for my mum and dad, but their faces were ablur. I looked across to my classmates, but they too had faded away. As the room was enveloped by darkness, I heard an intense ringing. I tried to call out for help, but my words were silent, as if I were shouting them in deep space.

Before I could get my head around what was happening, the light came flooding back. As objects slowly came back into focus, I saw blue sky and billowing clouds. Oak trees swayed gently in the breeze. I could feel the warmth of the sun on the palms of my hands. Someone was standing over me clutching a wet towel. Blood was trickling down my face. My sense of panic came roaring back. I had fainted. There were no understudies. The show had not carried on.

Maybe I would forever be remembered as ‘that kid who ruined the play’. Our teachers destroyed the recording that the children were meant to take home as a keepsake. I felt a deep sense of guilt and shame. I no longer wanted to become a West End superstar. Instead, I pursued a role that would keep me as far from public view as possible – a writer tucked away in a garden shed, perhaps. Or a scientist hidden behind a lab bench. Why not combine them somehow for maximum effect?

Serendipitously, the cowardice of my younger self paved a way back into the spotlight. Science communication is, in reality, an immensely interactive and rewarding field. My work involves writing about issues that lie on the intersect of science and society. I have also been thrust back on stage as a science communication trainer. I help researchers to communicate with audiences though storytelling.

The aim is to improve connections with public, media, policymakers, managers, colleagues, editors, funders, and many others. And the way you tell stories really matters.

In-person training is very rightly on hold as the world deals with the coronavirus crisis. But the downtime got me thinking about how my storytelling workshop activities could be taken on remotely, without direct supervision. So here is a little experiment of my own. Below are five exercises that I hope will boost your storytelling skills. Feel free to pick and choose depending on their relevance. And please let me know how you get on!

Personal stories

Activity length: 45 minutes 

Personal stories matter because you are invested in them. Therefore, when you tell them, your audience is more likely to feel they matter as well. Write a personal story (around 300 words) related to your life as a scientist for a non-specialist public audience.

You might reflect on adversities, adversaries, inspirations, friendships, hardships, or simply share what is on your mind. The story might be a commentary (like mine above), blog, script, comic, poem, or piece of creative writing.

The piece should be informative and entertaining. Send your story to friends or family for feedback. Integrate constructive criticism and publish on social media, a blog, or just keep in mind for future use.

Tips

  • Find three articles that you particularly enjoyed reading. Take a close look at how paragraphs are linked, characters introduced, and situations described.
  • Use a narrative arc: start high and end low, or vice versa.
  • If you are short of ideas, take a conceptual theme and use it to develop a story. I was reminded of my experience, above, when reflection on failure. Other examples of themes: failure, love, curiosity, systems, deep, the unknown, black and white, codes.
  • Avoid jargon but maintain detail. Provide enough description for the audience to follow, but do not overwhelm. Be clear, accurate, and succinct.
  • Edit your work at least three times. If a sentence is not part of the story cut it. Listen to feedback, but also trust your gut. Trim at least 10% in the final draft.

Interviews

Time: 1 hour

Telling someone else’s story can also bring new perspective to how you tell your own. Arrange a 15-minute video call with a colleague, friend, or family member. Conduct a friendly interview (you could ask them to interview you as well, in return). Briefly report five unique facts you learned about your interviewee.

Examples:

Kath is one of the world’s leading data scientists, despite growing up in an era where girls were discouraged from becoming researchers.   

Kath plays card games to relax and has won a national bridge championship.  

Kath wants to cycle from Lisbon to Istanbul to raise money for research into a rare disease her sister suffers from. 

Now choose one of the facts you have written and expand it into a 200-word story. Write it in the first person from the interviewee’s perspective – like an extended quote. You may need to do a follow up interview. For inspiration, see here. With your interviewee’s permission, share your story on social media.

Tips

  • Do some background research and write out your questions. If you’re stuck, some good generic questions are: what’s on your mind? What are your hobbies? Can you recall a time that you’ve failed? Where do you do your most creative thinking? What’s your greatest achievement? If you could go to dinner with anyone who would it be? What do you feel most grateful for? What’s your most treasured memory?
  • Put your interviewee at ease. Tell them what you want from the interview. Suggest they make themselves a brew before you start. Make yourself one, too.
  • If recording the interview, check the person is OK with it before pressing the button. Recording can help you to be fully engaged in the interview. Do a test as recorders and computer speakers don’t always mix well.
  • Try to allow the interview to flow but be prepared to guide the interviewee back to the point if they go off track. If it gets technical, try to repeat back to them what you heard in your own words to ensure that you understood what they said.
  • Edit your write up carefully – aim to be concise without losing meaning. Send the piece to your interviewee and ask them for feedback.

Analogies

Time: 30 minutes

Analogies and metaphors play a crucial role in aspects such as memory, perception, argumentation, emotion, creativity, and communication – as detailed in this wonderful book. When talking about research, they can also act as a bridge for people to better understand complex ideas and concepts. Develop an analogy that could be used to describe your work or an aspect of your work.

An Example:

“Think of gravity like a magnet, and everything in space has it. The bigger the object, the stronger the magnet. The sun is really big – big enough to attract the Earth, and the Earth attracts the moon, and because of gravity, they’re all attracted to each other. It’s like they all want to hug and be close. But they can’t, so they send out little waves instead.” – Fulvio Melia, University of Arizona

Create a social media group and invite some colleagues. Share analogies and give critical feedback. Ask: Does it improve my understanding? Is it accurate? Do I want to know more? Vote on your favourite analogue – the winner should then explain the thinking behind their analogy.

Tips

  • For more inspiration check our Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, a great analogy that gives context to the history of life on our planet.
  • Take a couple of long-form science features and highlight every sentence where you spot an analogy or metaphor being used.
  • Scribe your favourite analogies in a notebook.
  • If it is outside your field of expertise, send the analogy to an expert. If they reply with more than one exclamation mark, then ask them politely how it could be improved.
  • Heed the warning of journalist Jacob Aron: “Analogies in science writing are like forklift trucks – when used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll quickly drive them into a wall of laboured metaphors and cause some major damage.”

Speaking to school kids  

Time: 45 minutes

Write a 3-minute presentation about your life as a scientist. Your target audience is a 15-year old student who is debating whether to take up science in her ‘A’ levels. You might consider: your research; the bigger picture; a typical day/week; why you became a scientist; and advice for becoming a researcher. Build in as many analogies as possible. The more colourful, the better.

Get feedback from friends or family. When you are satisfied with your presentation, offer to chat science over a video chat with children of friends. Share your offer on social media. Join an initiative such as Skype-a-scientist. Or film your presentation and share wherever you can.

Tips

  • Ditch jargon, but do not shy away from complicated topics. Break them down to their components. Look at how others do it.
  • Use analogies wherever possible.
  • Use props, share slides, provide links to relevant articles, draw diagrams, write out summaries of your work.
  • Make a point of getting feedback: ask your audience what they learned, thought interesting, or found difficult to understand.
  • Be engaging and enthusiastic!

Write an entertaining presentation

Time: 45 minutes

Write, rehearse, and record an entertaining 3-minute presentation for an online competition. Your target audience is a general public, who are interested in science. There are just two rules: stick to time and make it enjoyable! You could tell a story, recite a poem, sing, rap, dance, act, mime, run an experiment, or anything else you can think of. Balance your phone on a window ledge. Press record. Send your video to friends. Get feedback. Re-record if need be. If you get a good response share it on social media. Don’t forget to keep a look out for online competitions, where your hidden talents might finally be discovered!

Tips

  • Shows such as science slams or initiatives such as the Story Collider provide platforms to talk about your work in an inventive and memorable way. Study use of words, eye contact, humour, and body language. Be as creative as you can when writing your presentation.
  • Remove jargon, excavate the important details.
  • Write it out. Recite it in the shower, on the balcony, and in the kitchen. When you think you have it nailed, practice it thrice more.
  • When in front of the camera: smile, never turn your back, speak loudly and clearly.
  • Finally, have fun – and don`t faint whilst the camera’s on.

Requests, questions, suggestions: adamgristwood@gmail.com, @gristwood

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How to use Twitter at a scientific event

PHOTO: Massimo del Prete/EMBL

Mariana R. P. Alves, 3rd year PhD Student in the Crocker Lab, Developmental Biology, EMBL Twitter @Mariana_RPAlves

When I was a 19-year old biochemistry undergrad, I had heard of Twitter but it was Facebook and Instagram that dominated my social media usage at the time. When I attended my first international conference, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2014, I noticed everyone was using Twitter and – not wanting to be left out- I created my account. Never would I have imagined that 5 years later it would be the only social media account I still have active, and that I would use it so much for work. This article is about my personal experience on the benefits of being active on Twitter,      particularly during scientific events, as well as some tips on how best to use Twitter to your (scientific) advantage!

Spread the knowledge

Sharing is caring! And scientists should share. Being at a conference is truly a privilege for scientific exchange. Some scientists might not be able to attend the event you are in because of personal commitments, lack of funding, or even to reduce their carbon footprint. I’m sure almost everyone has taken notes of talks to share with their lab colleagues – now you can share what you learn with a bigger scientific community! If you share the highlights of the event you are attending, you are making the new exciting information available to those who would otherwise not have access to it. Isn’t this a good enough reason to start your Twitter account?

Minimise missed opportunities

Conferences can be overwhelming and you want to maximise your networking and scientific exchange. If you tweet about the scientific event and use its hashtag, other people in the conference can find you and you might find people with common interests that you wouldn’t have bumped into in the crowd. It was on Twitter also that I found people inside and outside my institute who wrote interesting things – you can always DM them for a coffee, and you might find a new friend!

Exposure

This is again about networking. Not only do you minimise the missed matches you could have with scientific minds at an event, but you also maximise your exposure and that can bring you unexpected opportunities. Opportunities could be someone advertising a job directly to you, a journal editor becoming interested in your paper, or someone from the press at that event wanting to feature you.

Fun

It can be super fun to act as a reporter of a conference. In 2018, the Social Media Manager of the time at EMBL gave me the challenge of taking over EMBL’s official Twitter account to post about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. It was a wild ride, I was super scared at the beginning but it was a lot of fun, and definitely fulfilled the 3 previous benefits I wrote. It also caught the eye of the conference organisers, who thought it was really cool of EMBL to do this.

-> Check out the social media report from my Lindau EMBL Twitter Takeover!

Win prizes

If the sensible reasons above are not enough to convince you, maybe you will be interested to know that some scientific conferences and courses have competitions over Twitter where you can win prizes. I once won a brand-new multi-dispenser pipette in a CamBioScience Course in Cambridge, because I had the most likes on my Twitter posts. Moreover, I did not even have that many likes, but there was not much competition around. Now I am very proud of my pipette and brought it with me from the UK to Germany. With EMBL Events, you can also win prizes – see more in the how-to bullet points below.

10 Tips on how to use Twitter

These are just some tips I have written down from the top of my head, but you can find a lot of useful info online, and on Twitter itself. In addition, several institutes have guidelines on their intranets about how to use social media for work. Finally, get advice from your institute’s Social Media Manager or Communications Department – they are the experts!

  1. Check the hashtag and handle of the scientific event you are attending and use it to check other people’s posts and always include it in your tweets.
  2. Follow the scientists and institutes you are interested in and admire.
  3. Don’t know what to tweet about? You can start by the highlights of your favourite talks.
  4. Make sure you follow a diverse group of tweeters, this way your timeline will definitely be richer.
  5. You do not need to tweet just about data and new scientific findings, you can share interesting anecdotes from the conference, highlight some conference features that should be replicated such as accessibility logistics, diversity or environmentally friendly upgrades.
  6. Debates and discussions are also very good content for live-tweeting.
  7. You can group several tweets about the same subject in what is called a “thread”. You just need to make your first tweet and write the others as comments below it. Frequently people indicate how many tweets will be in the thread by adding something like “1/5” at the end of the tweet.
  8. If your institute is open to it, you can propose to them that you take over their Twitter account for that conference – it could be a very interesting experience for all!
  9. Do not start a tweet with a handle because it will not show on your timeline. You can add a dot before it. For example, instead of “@emblevents I had an amazing time” you can write “. @emblevents…”.
  10. Have you attended an @emblevents conference or course? Don’t forget to post a picture of the EMBL or EMBO bag in any location around the world using the hashtag #EMBLbag and @emblevents to enter the competition

Furthermore, Twitter can be a great tool to find new papers, share your new paper, ask questions (it would be interesting to compare the effectiveness of asking on Twitter vs ResearchGate), learn about other conferences and about scientific community topics – from struggles to healthy changes (great hashtag for that is #eLifeAmbassador) – support other scientists, find job ads, and more…

So, what are you waiting for?!

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We’ve proved it, biologists can also program

“Like punning, programming is a play on words.” Alan J. Perlis.

You don’t have to be a programmer to have programming skills. Writing code is an essential part of being a programmer (duh!), but is also a vital component of being a scientific developer, software developer or computer scientist. You can utilise computer programs to automate tedious and repetitive tasks, extract results from experimental data, apply models to solve your research questions or purely have fun with your own projects.

Today is Programmers’ Day (yay!🥳) and we want to recognise all those who submerge themselves in the deepest mysteries of code (especially their own) and aim to automate the future.

If you’re looking to start venturing into the programming world or embark on your next project, get some inspiration from some scientists who are helping out at our EMBL Events’ courses.

Florian Huber PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL

“What do I love about programming? It allows me to go from zero to one: gaining new biological insights from data.” Florian Huber (Postdoctoral Fellow, at the Typas Group in EMBL Heidelberg and the Beltrao Group at EMBL–EBI in Hinxton).

 

 

 

 

Ullrich Köthe PHOTO: Ullrich Köthe

“Automated image analysis has always been an interesting and fun field of research, but thanks to the deep learning revolution and the wide availability of wonderful neural network libraries, we can now actually solve hard practical problems.” Ullrich Köthe (Group Leader in the Visual Learning Lab Heidelberg).

 

 

Valentyna Zinchenko PHOTO: Carolina Cuadras/EMBL

“Programming skills allow you to automate the routineparts of your job and focus more on the exciting ones. At some moment you just have so much data, that you would not want to process it manually. You would not wash your clothes by hand if you have a washing machine, would you? Then why analyzing your data manually, when you can have it done by a machine as well?” Valentyna Zinchenko (Predoctoral Fellow in the Kreshuk Group).

 

Adrian Wolny PHOTO: Carolina Cuadras/EMBL

“Whenever I build something, be it a new machine learning model or my pet project, I always try to make it easy to understand and generic enough so that other people could use it in their work. I try to open source my projects whenever I can and contribute back to the community. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your little piece of software used by others to find answers to their own research questions.” Adrian Wolny (Visiting Researcher at EMBL and PhD candidate at Heidelberg University).

 

Pavel Baranov PHOTO: Pavel Baranov

“The relationship between computer science and modern biology is akin to that between mathematics and physics.” Pavel Baranov (Professor of Biomolecular Informatics, University College Cork, Ireland)

 

 

 

 

It’s no secret that managing biological data efficiently can be overwhelming and feel impossible. If you’re a biologist who’s interested in learning how to process, analyse, organise and interpret your almost innumerable data sets – preferably with the most suitable and state-of-the-art techniques and tools out there – EMBL Events has got you covered.

EMBL Course: Deep Learning for Image Analysis, Apply by 20 September 2019

EMBL Course: Exploratory Analysis of Biological Data: Data Carpentry, Apply by 5 November 2019

EMBL Course: Analysis and Integration of Transcriptome and Proteome Data, Apply by 10 November 2019

EMBL Course: Immune Profiling of Single Cells, Apply by 10 November 2019

EMBO Practical Course: Microbial Metagenomics: A 360º Approach, Apply by 27 January 2020

EMBO Practical Course: Measuring Translational Dynamics by Ribosome Profiling, Apply by 9 February 2020

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14 tips for a smooth conference experience

The date of your first EMBL conference in Heidelberg is fast approaching. You are excited, have already bookmarked interesting abstracts in the conference app and are ready to make your travel arrangements. Here are 14 tips that will help you stay out of trouble and focus on the science.

1. Don’t try to book a flight to Heidelberg

Although it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Germany, Heidelberg does not have an airport. The closest airports are Frankfurt International Airport, Stuttgart Airport and Airport Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden. More information on how to reach Heidelberg is available here.

2. Make sure you read the final logistical email (FLE) we send you

The information provided in this email is vital for your travel plans and conference schedule and will be your bible for the days you spend at the conference. It provides important attachments such as the programme, the onsite handout and the poster listing.

3. Try not to miss the shuttle bus

The EMBL campus is located on a hill outside of Heidelberg which makes it a beautiful and inspiring place to visit, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Heidelberg. However, it also makes it more difficult to reach by public transport. Although efforts have been made to improve the public transport connection to the campus, there is still the need of conference shuttle busses that operate on a strict schedule (included in the FLE). So if you miss the shuttle bus, your only way up the hill may be by taxi. Please note that there are no UBER services in Heidelberg.

Our team has prepared an onsite handout with pictures of all bus stops so that you don’t miss the bus because you don’t know where the correct stop is. This information is provided in the FLE.

4. Get the app instead of the abstract book

When you register online, you will be asked if you would like to receive a printed copy of the abstract book. If you click yes, you will get your copy onsite, but make sure that you don’t lose it as this is the only copy you will get. Many participants diligently take notes in the abstract book during the sessions, only to go home one day realising they have lost their copy.

One way to avoid that is by using the app instead. It includes everything contained in the printed abstract book and more, and it also allows you to review the abstracts ahead of the conference and offers the option to export your notes directly to your email.

5. Share your dietary requirements

The EMBL canteen makes a special effort to cater to everyone’s needs by providing fresh food every day and appropriate substitutes for participants on vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free or gluten-free diets. In our registration system you have the option to indicate your preferences, but should you have special requirements based on food allergies or intolerances, please do not hesitate to reach out to us, so we can ensure you are well fed.

6. Send your flash talk slides well in advance

If you are presenting a flash talk, make sure to send us your slides well in advance to make sure they are looped on the screen in time. You will have only 2 minutes to present your poster in the flash talk, so you don’t want to waste any second with technical difficulties.

For some more tips on how to give a flash talk, watch this video.

7. Avoid asking for a certificate of participation during the registration

As much as we’d like to help you out, registration is not the best time to ask for a certificate of participation. These are normally sent out after the end of the event via email.

8. Hold on to your badge

Your badge is your access card to the conference venue and your coupon for the lunch and dinner buffets, so make sure you don’t lose it or leave it in your hotel room.

9. No cash policy on the EMBL Campus

If you arrive on campus outside of the conference times and you would like to get something to eat or drink, it might not be possible. EMBL has a no cash policy on its campus and the only way to purchase something from the cafeteria or canteen is via a special guest credit card. Therefore, it would be a good idea to grab something to eat on your way to the campus, especially for breakfast as we normally only have coffee available in the mornings.

10. Do not ask us for medicine

As much as we would like to help you with your headache or cold symptoms, we are not authorised to hand out any medicine. However, we have a list of pharmacies that are close to the conference venue which we are happy to share with you.

11. When you sign up for a social event, show up!

Most conference social events like dinners, lunches, parties take place in the EMBL Advanced Training Centre (ATC) and are open to all conference participants without prior registration. In the case that there are organised social events taking place outside of the conference venue such as tours or downtown dinners, these are usually restricted to a limited number of participants, and prior registration is necessary.

All the logistics are meticulously coordinated with the service providers and very often there are waiting lists for these events, so if you are unable to attend, please inform us, so that we can give your spot to someone who can.

12. Stay on the paths in the woods

The EMBL Heidelberg Campus is surrounded by a beautiful forest which offers a great opportunity for lunch-time walks or runs. However, before you set on exploring the woods, please familiarise yourself with the paths so that you easily find your way back. In the app you will find 4 different walking routes of various lengths.

13. Take down your poster on the last day

You have put in so much work in your poster that it is a shame to leave it with us. Make sure you take it down on the last day of the event as you may end up needing it for another conference.

14. Stay away from red push buttons on the emergency exit doors

Not all exit doors in the ATC Foyer may be opened. Look out for a silver button with a key on it to open the door without activating the emergency exit alarm.

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