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April 22, 2010

The Attendee's Guide to Scientific Meetings, Part II

by Julian Davies


To begin with, attending a scientific meeting should be considered a privilege, especially if you have been invited to speak or present a poster. In accepting the invitation you are representing yourself, your lab, your colleagues, your institute or university, even your country. A poster is a living publication; this should not be taken lightly.

It may seem like it at times (i.e. the opening mixer) but a scientific conference is not to be considered in the same way as hockey game; improper behavior in a crowd of your fellow microbiologists will be noted. If you are giving a presentation, you must prepare adequately; ill-prepared talks or posters make a presentation into a bad impression!

Posters are important, you must have seen posters that have impressed you in the past and you should use these as models. They should have no more than four columns (three is best) and limited to nine figures and tables; the latter should be self-explanatory and uncluttered. Complex tables and figures should be avoided. The introductory text should be the submitted abstract and the concluding text should tell people what you have found, why it is important and what you will do next. A bold title will attract the passers-by. But, please, please, no photos of your children, parents, or partners!

Keep the text simple and writ large. Posters should be self-explanatory and arranged logically, so that viewers can assimilate the message without having you “lead them through the poster;” however, many of your viewers may request this. Be prepared!

Giving a talk is an art but it can be learned but that can take a lifetime! Attend lectures and pick up ideas from the good speakers; you can well appreciate a good delivery compared to the “ummers,” “now-ers,” etc. It is fun to count the number of “umms” made by even the best speakers; the most I have heard averaged out to about one every two minutes! Avoid saying “like” at all costs; only teenagers and undergraduates say “like” with every breath. Practice your talk with people who don’t mind insulting you.

Visit the lecture room an hour or so before your talk and check out the podium, know where the pointer is, how it works and recognize what buttons are needed to advance and reverse a slide. You don’t want to press the fire alarm by accident (although it could be a relief to everyone else!). When giving your presentation, look at your audience and speak to them whenever possible. Present your information to the audience and give them a smile from time to time! Concerning pointers, they are aids and not weapons, so use them with discretion. Don’t use it to try to cut holes in your slides, just point! In addition, it makes a bad impression if the front row of the audience ducks every time you wave the pointer around. Beware, they might even sue you for causing eye damage.

PowerPoint or KeyNote presentations should be carefully prepared; if you are speaking for 15 minutes, show no more than 10 slides (including title), preferably 7-8, and always plan time for questions. It is unfortunate if the Chair of your session has to say “no time for questions;” don’t let this be your doing! Animations and transitions may be helpful at times but keep them to a minimum; slides should be clear, simple and readily understandable. Above all, don’t try to impress people with your mastery of Microsoft. Sydney Brenner said “a good phrase is worth a thousand PowerPoint presentations.” Avoid too many colors; remember that 10% of the males in your audience are color-blind. Your audience is there to listen to a clear and precise exposition of your science and not to learn how good you are at making flashy, incomprehensible slides.

Finally, don’t read your title slide (everyone knows it); on the other hand always repeat questions clearly, especially if the audio system is poor. For one thing it gives you a little time to think of a good answer! And don’t laugh if someone goes to the microphone and when recognized by the Chair starts off by saying “I have a question…” Of course they do, or why on earth would they be in front of the microphone?

If you need an informative and engaging guide to giving talks I can do no better than to recommend Dazzle ’Em With Style: The Art of Oral Scientific Presentation by Robert R.H. Anholt. Used copies can be obtained for less than a dollar online.

Julian Davies & wine glass_Lrg

Note: For the Attendee's Guide Part I, click here.

Julian Davies is Professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a Fellow of the Royal Society. His previous contributions to this blog include A Letter to the Blog and The Parvome.


it is very helpful for the students and research scholars for preparing their presentation more expressive.key to management of time.

It seems counterintuitive, but the shorter the talk, the more you need to prepare (something I learned while a student in John Coffin's lab when, every May, we prepared our talks for the annual migration to the Cold Spring Harbor Retroviruses meeting). I have known people to argue that they don't want to plan exactly what they are going to say for a talk, because then it doesn't sound "natural". This is fine for a 30-60 minute seminar, when you have some time to "think" as you go, and your audience is prepared to sit still for up to an hour while you search for the right word. But this attitude can be fatal for a ten or fifteen minute talk - there's not a lot of "thinking" time, and just because you know your data doesn't mean you know how to explain it in a few seconds....or that you will remember anything other than your name when faced with a live audience and a timer that is quickly ticking down to zero.

Now we will see if Julian recognizes me at ASM, or runs away! Seriously, what a funny essay with some definite truths.

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