Two simple questions we should ask ourselves before giving a presentation

You're about to give a presentation to a scientific audience. Before you do, ask yourself:

1) What do I hope to achieve by giving a presentation?

2) What can I realistically achieve?

I typically proceed my own "how to do a scientific presentation" presentation by tossing these questions out to the audience. I usually get blank looks, as if no one ever thought about such questions. Too many scientists simply "grab their slides," without establishing goals for their presentation.

Eventually someone in the audience will say, "I want to explain my science." Fair enough, but this gives rise to other questions. To whom do you want to explain your science? Scientists in your specific subdiscipline? Scientists in related disciplines? Scientists in different disciplines who may have methods and technologies relevant to your work? A more general scientific audience? Have you altered your slides and your spoken narrative to target the audience you care about?

A second related question involves the depth of your explanations. Realistically, nobody is going to remember your slides 24 hours after the talk. Even experts in your sub-discipline will have trouble as you rush through dozens of detailed slides in a futile effort to communicate a comprehensive and detailed review of all your work.

Slide presentations are not the place to "prove" results or give overly detailed reviews. A slide presentation is an opportunity to inspire your audience, motivate new collaborations, get other scientists to follow up with questions and perhaps get them to read your journal articles. Presentations are a great place to motivate thoughts about how your work relates to other ongoing research. These are realistic expectations for what you can achieve. Detailed "proof" is best left to journal articles and efforts to replicate results.

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