Group Meetings - Guidelines for Oral Presentation

    In our research group, we have weekly group meetings; unfortunately, during the academic year, these usually fall outside of the "usual" 8-5 time slot, due to the conflicting schedules of eight students (and the Research Director!). Most typically, they are held at 5:00pm on either Monday or Wednesday - this is convenient for the chemistry majors, since these times immediately follow the Departmental seminar slots.  (One of the many great things about summer research is picking a meeting time we all like!)

    The content of the meetings varies between two main themes: students discuss either theirresearch project or a paper from a very recent chemistry journal. Specific pointers for each type of talk will follow, but there are some general guidelines concerning the presentation of scientific work; these apply to all such talks.

    Students who have been in the group (or in any THB classes, for that matter) will tell you what a great believer I am in giving students every opportunity to speak and write about chemical subjects. One of my favorite tried & true phrases is this:

    You may be the best, smartest, most creative chemist the world has ever known, BUT, if you can't WRITE or TALK about your work, your greatness will be your own little secret!

       It is absolutely imperative that you develop both speaking and writing skills as a scientist, which is why you get feedback on your semester reports before the final copy is due, and why you (will) do so much speaking in front of the group. This Handbook already has a page dealing with your written reports; we'll now deal with oral presentations.

    I should point out, parenthetically, that very few group meeting presentations in the past couple of years have been what I would consider to be well done. Graduate, medical, pharmacy, and other schools always ask about oral skills, and it is primarily from group meeting talks that I derive my information to answer this question. So, if only for purely pragmatic, shockingly self-serving reasons, you should strive to do a really excellent job in your group talks. It is NOT DIFFICULT to do a SUPER JOB on a 25-35 minute talk which you only have to do once per semester.
 

    So, on to the talks. An Italian university has a great, somewhat humorous site concerning scientific presentations; you should definitely check it out. Also, the ACS publishes a Handbook for Speakers, with sections on both formal (podium) and poster presentations. This guide is comprehensive, with tips on not only how to deliver your talk, but also the preparation of visual aids and other ancillary items. These two guides have all the information you need to present a great talk. For the chemistry majors in the group, you hear at least one, and usually two, seminars per week (btw, we welcome biology types to all of our seminars); you should start listening to these critically, and see if you can identify some very good things you want to remember, as well as some terrible features that you'll want to avoid like the plague.

 

Here are the characteristics of a great 20min talk on a literature article:

  • Well-organized - one idea flows seamlessly to the next, as if the person is having a conversation, telling you a story that s/he thinks is pretty slick.
  • Excellent Intro - you learn what problem existed prior to the work being described, and how the project was designed to fill that void in chemical knowledge.
  • Single-sheet Handout - which contains all of the ideas in outline and/or table form, which keeps the speaker from engaging in that most annoying practice, silent board drawing.
  • Hits the High Points - no distracting discussions of irrelevant things, just the core concepts or results.
  • Knows Her/His Stuff!!! - does not do that even more annoying thing: looking through the paper they're discussing, as if it's the first time they saw it.  [Actually, this will stop of its own accord, because starting now, speakers in group meetings will only be able to refer to the handout they supply to the group.
  • Concise Conclusion - re-states the original problem, and summarizes, in a couple of sentences, how the work described int he paper adderssed - and hopefully solved - the problem.

    The characteristics of a great 20min talk on your own research are pretty much the same, except that the level of understanding should be much deeper, and you may not refer to any notes whatsoever - except for the handout you prepared, but this is only to point something out to someone, not to refresh your memory.  If you can't talk for 15-20 minutes about the research project you're working on in the lab (especially during the summer!), then we have problems much deeper than adequate preparation of a short talk to your own research group.

    There are several common elements in talks that are sub-par, both in our past group presentations and in the Departmental seminar course; I present them here for your edification and avoidance, in approximate order of frequency.

  • Poor (or nonexistent) introduction - almost NO speakers set the stage properly, so that the audience knows why the research was undertaken! Without this, the talks seem directionless, and have ZERO suspense factor or sense of rooting for the researcher(s).  If you're talking about your own research, there's zero excuse for not being able to do this extemporaneously, since, if you don't know why your research project is important or what gap in scientific information it's designed to fill, then you are functioning just as a pair of hands that does exactly what they're told without thinking - bad for you, bad for me, bad for the group.
  • Silent Blackboard Drawing - there are few things more boring, or giving the impression that the speaker is trying to use up time, than watching someone draw on the board in total, absolute, agonizing, you'd-hear-a-pin-drop silence. It is much easier than you think to carry on a dialog while you draw; the key is (guess what) preparation!
  • Lackadaisical attitude - if a speaker gives the clear impression that s/he doesn't give a damn about the subject, you can bet that the audience won't, either. If your attitude conveys the message that you don't care about your own work, and that you spent *maybe* a half-hour on the talk's preparation, it has several effects, none of which serve you at all well:

    a) It will seem obvious that you're not invested in your work, and I start thinking about the students I turned down to let you into the group, wondering if one of them might be just a bit more serious....

    b) You'll look like you're trying to project an air of having this organic chemistry stuff down so cold that you can slide right in and whip off a short talk with essentially no preparation, showing how smart and slick you are.  In reality, you just look silly. This description is very detailed and exact because I've seen too much of it, and finally decided that it's got to stop.

    c)  You'll look very disorganized, AND unwilling to put in the time to do a GOOD job, since, hell, it's ONLY a talk to your research group! Remember, these talks usually form an important part of my letter to wherever you're going next, and I've got a long memory.
    d) It will impact the "professionalism" part of your grade, and it won't be a positive one.


***Effective immediately, whenever someone presents a talk to the group that is clearly below our standards, they'll be asked to do it again, the following week, on either the exact same topic or a different one, depending on a number of factors, including the phase of the moon and my current pain levels.