How To Make Yourself Presentable

Over my three years working here at COMPASS, I’ve come to witness a curious, repeated phenomenon. A significant part of my job involves engaging with scientists through trainings or helping them prepare for conference symposia, policy briefings, or media outreach. For the most part, scientists take on with gusto the task of more effective communication to non-science audiences – diving in headfirst to think outside the box and become better at sharing their research with the wider world. But then…it happens. I see that same scientist who was able to hook in a journalist or get a policymaker to sit up straight in his or her chair, get up in front of his or her scientific peers and again bombard them with fifty shades of n-dimensional graphs.

Taking a new approach to your scientific talk could win you hearty applause from your peers. Photo credit: open hardware summit

Taking a new approach to your scientific talk could win you hearty applause from your peers. Photo credit: open hardware summit

As we all know (especially as the end of January puts New Year’s resolutions in a new light), old habits are hard to break. However, it is possible to reach a science communication tipping point of sorts. In cases where a scientist has worked with COMPASS in multiple contexts, I often see that rather than using effective communication as a translation filter for certain audiences, they start to THINK in a more clear and concise manner. Even when engaging with their peers, these individuals learn that by starting with the core of their message, their audience has more energy for thoughtful discussion (since less is spent on having to connect the dots). They realize that just because an audience could follow jargon and data dumps, it doesn’t mean it should.

In this spirit, I am often asked how to get started on putting together an effective presentation whether it is for scientific or non-scientific audiences. Below is the advice I have repeated verbally or via email on numerous occasions to those brave souls who are willing to reconsider their slides of scatter plots and 11-point font tables:

  • As our own Nancy Baron often says, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Rather than approaching your talk by thinking about everything you WANT to include, think about what you NEED to include to get across your core message. Your audience is likely to only remember 2-3 key facts from your talk, so everything you say and show should be in support of those points. The details are the things you want to get people to ask about later.
  • Think about what makes things memorable to you: surprising facts, compelling visuals, and (for most people) a great story. Most of the best scientific talks I’ve seen don’t begin with an outline, but instead with an intriguing idea or question that the speaker develops and shares insights about over the next 10-30 minutes.
  • Speaking of compelling visuals, here are a few rules of thumb:
    • The less text, the better. You want the audience looking at you, not squinting at the screen. And the text you do use should be in easy-to-read fonts and colors at a size appropriate for the venue you will be in.
    • If you can use photos or illustrations to make your point, your audience will thank you. Just remember to respect copyrights and give credit as appropriate.
    • Do not put up anything you are not going to talk about or that requires the disclaimer “I don’t expect you to be able to read this”. Hopefully you will have a website or publication to point people towards instead.
    • If you are going to show graphs, choose only a key few, keep them simple and well labeled, and walk the audience through axes and any necessary caveats BEFORE you interpret the results.
    • Take advantage of design resources that are out there. A few good places to start are these books and entertaining video clips from Duarte and Todd Reubold’s Fight the Power(point)! slidedeck. (Got other great resources? Share them in the Comments section!)
    • Consider taking advantage of expanding your audience via social media. Encourage people to live-tweet your talk, put your Twitter handle on your title slide, and suggest a hashtag (or be clear if you don’t want your talk live-tweeted). You can also invite questions from Twitter and follow-up on online conversations after your session ends.

In the end, the goal of talking with your peers is often the same as with non-scientific audiences: you want to share ideas, spark conversation, and potentially form new working relationships. So before you head off to your next conference, I encourage you think about preparation in a new way (more help on this front in my previous posts here and here). Think of it as an experiment – you just might be surprised at the results…

About Heather Galindo

Heather Galindo was Assistant Director of Science at COMPASS.


  1. All good suggestions. Much of what is posted here should be taken to heart by those in the media as well, attempting to explain complicated issues (scientific or otherwise) in a minimum amount of time.

    Austen L. Onek, AMS Meteorologist
    Memphis, TN

  2. Vicki Martin says:

    Hi Heather,

    Thanks for the pointers. I’ve been working hard trying to upgrade my presentation skills over the last year – based on a lot of what COMPASS recommends (the message box has been particularly useful). But when it comes to the actual presentation I never use Power Point any more. I find Prezi much more visually interesting – they provide easy-to-use and attractive templates (far more creative and coordinated than I would ever pull together on Power Point) and they are quick to create and portable. There are apparently others like Prezi around, too, but that is the only one I’ve tried, and I like it so much that I’m happy to stick with it.

    Hope that helps someone looking for a different (and more interesting) option to Power Point!

    • Heather Galindo says:

      Hi Vicki,

      Thanks for your comment and you are very right that there are many alternatives to Power Point! I know Prezi is a very popular one and on my list of platforms to try. In addition, I’m a firm believer that everyone should know their presentation content well enough that if worse comes to worse, they could give some version of it without slides (gasp!) It seems like conferences are becoming a bit more flexible about presentation styles which I think is definitely a move in the right direction.

  3. I love this blog post Heather. Its interesting to hear that some scientists improve their communication skills to general audiences and then make the same old mistakes when they return to a scientific audience. This is an extremely important point that I think applies to any type of communication, especially writing.

    The ‘standard’ writing style for a general audience and a scientific audience (via peer-reviewed articles) is so different. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Even though, the basic skills of writing/story-telling apply just as much to scientific writing as they do to popular science writing.

    I suspect that if scientists learn to write for a general audience, they would still return to the ‘old’ way of writing when composing their scientific articles. Indeed, it’s tough to break free of the scientific ‘standard’ of writing, and I guess there are many reasons for this.

    I think this is an extremely interesting and important issue to discuss, and we’ll certainly be returning to it during our town hall event at Ocean Sciences!

    • Actually, I disagree somewhat with your argument that the standard writing style for a general audience and a scientific shouldn’t be different. It is a principle of good communication that you tailor your writing to your audience. You shouldn’t write the same way for different audiences. For example, there are terms you wouldn’t use in presenting to a general audience (e.g. ‘net primary productivity’–you’d say ‘plant growth’), but if you used the simpler, less technical term you would confuse a scientific audience—“plant growth? Do you mean net primary productivity, gross primary productivity, or something else entirely? To be clear to a scientific audience, you need to adjust your language and presentation style. But I agree absolutely, that many of the core principles are the same and we’d do better by pushing our technical styles closer to our “public” style–after all I wrote a whole book talking about just how to do that!

      I’m also not surprised that when put in the same old environment, we revert to our same old practices. Learning to speak to the public means learning a new set of skills. Learning to apply those to science presentations means first Unlearning ingrained habits. That’s harder. So we don’t. We should.

      • Joshua, I should have made myself clearer. As you say, we should tailor our style to the audience that we communicate with. I just think that there are (as you say) many core principles that should be common across genres of science writing. These are issues such as sentence/paragraph structure and flow, which you explain very eloquently in your book!

        I think you touch on a very important issue at the end. There are many organizations and people (such as COMPASS and yourself) that do a great job in educating scientists how to communicate to different audiences. But how can we encourage scientists to ‘unlearn ingrained habits’? How can we encourage them to take these lessons and apply them to different situations? Practice makes perfect maybe?

  4. What wonderful suggestions and such a timely post – my boss and I were just talking about this today, including the “old habits are hard to break” factor.


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