General Guidelines for Oral Presentations

All seniors are expected to give an oral presentation of their results to the faculty at the end of their last semester of senior research. An oral report on research progress is one of the most important methods of communication for physicists. Learning to express complicated scientific ideas in an organized and understandable talk is a skill that will come in handy in whatever field you end up in. You should take advantage of the weekly talks given in the department to get an idea of how other scientists present their work. One of the best ways to learn how to give a scientific talk is to learn from people who are good at it.

The most important thing to do is relax. You will be giving your talks in front of a friendly audience from the physics department, so try not to be nervous. It has been said that the biggest fear people have is speaking in public. There is no reason to be afraid if you have a well-rehearsed and organized talk, that explains your research at the level of a fellow physics major. Some stylistic and procedural guidelines are given below:

For a 1-semester research project, you will give a 15-minute presentation, with 5 additional minutes for questions. For a full-year research project, a talk of at least 20 minutes in length is required, with 10 minutes for questions after you are finished.

The following are guidelines given by the American Physical Society for first-time talk givers.

  • Time your talk by rehearsing it. This will help you organize your information for speaking, as well as let you know if it is too long or too short.
  • Make sure that you project your slides ahead of time and look at them from the back of a room. If you can’t read them, neither can anyone else.
  • Give the audience at least 30 seconds to view a simple slide. If it is very complicated, use a longer period of time.
  • If you are referring to a projection while you are speaking, step to one side of the screen, so that you are not blocking anyone’s view.
  • Provide a summary slide that lists the salient points and puts them in the context of the subfield.
  • Face the audience to whom you are speaking. Don’t face the slide that you are speaking about.
  • Relax. You’re doing fine.

The rest of this guideline is based on advice by Peter Feibelman in A Ph.D. is Not Enough (Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1993).

When you are speaking in front of an audience, you are the showman. Physics may not be considered entertainment by many, but your listeners are investing their time to hear what you have to say. They expect to hear a good story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And you really should approach the construction of your talk as a means of telling a story. You have invested a tremendous amount of time in trying to understand a complicated area of physics. The listeners do not want to be taken down the same tortuous path that you followed, they want to see the simple explanations, and be reminded of things that they know. Don’t make your audience squirm because you are explaining something poorly, have horrible misspellings, or have unreadable transparencies. Make your audience happy to hear your talk!

Feibelman’s fundamental principle is never to overestimate your audience. No matter how many degrees they have, how many scientific papers they have published, or how many courses they have taught, those frightening-looking people in the audience want a complete performance. We don’t mind hearing things we already understand. In fact, it will make your audience feel good to understand something. We have never seen a colleague walk out of a talk and say “That talk was horrible. I understood everything that was in it.”

The opening lines of a talk set the tone for the rest of it. The main points you want to get across is that you have some advanced understanding of a physics topic and that you know what context it fits into (relative to the whole field of physics).

Do not simply launch into a discussion of your thesis results. After a short introduction to your general field, give an overview of the methods you used, and, perhaps, a hint at what your conclusions are. Since your talk is short, a 3-4 slide introduction is probably sufficient.

Be aware of how you appear to your audience. Speak clearly, and loudly enough to be heard in the back of the room. Be enthusiastic about your project, and confident in your presentation.

Time is of the essence in giving a talk. You want to be certain to convey your main message before your talk is over. Rehearsal is the key! It will tell you how many slides can be put into your talk and will give you confidence about what you want to say. A good ballpark figure is 10-14 slides for a 20-minute talk.

Required elements. Your first slide should be a title slide, which contains the title of your talk, your name, your advisor’s and collaborator’s names, and the date. The second slide is an outline slide. One way to get a message across is to do what is done in the army. First, you tell them what you are going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them what you told them. An outline slide gives an overview of your talk and lets your audience know what you will cover. The body of the talks is next. Your talk will end with a conclusion slide. What did you accomplish with your research? What are the open directions for future work?

A note on style. Much of the information conveyed during your talk will be from the figures. Experimentalists should include clear schematic diagrams of their apparatus, which explain how different parts of the apparatus work.

Do not put many equations in your talk! Your audience will not be able to understand anything but the most simple equations. There is no point in showing a complicated mess of equations. It may be that your research did require a complicated mess of equations, but they belong in an appendix to your thesis, not here.

USE LARGE FONTS. There are two reasons for this. One it will make your slides easily readable by anyone in the audience. Second, it will limit you as to how much you can include in any one slide.

Rehearse, Rehearse, and Rehearse your talk again.

Acknowledgments The advice given in this handout is based on material from the American Physical Society and from A Ph.D. is not enough by Peter Feibelman. It has been assembled by J. Freericks and A. Liu, and modified by J. S. Urbach.

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