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Communicating Science Using Art – A Guide for Oral Presentations

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The art of choosing the right things to say 

Key takeaways

  • Choose a subject that you are motivated to investigate, then adapt it to fit the requirements for the presentation. 
  • Start early and make a plan for when to complete each major milestone of your work. 
  • Tailor your presentation for your audience. If the audience is diverse, aim for lowest common denominator. 
  • Build a skeleton: a structure for your presentation with major sections. Structure your talk in a way to “tell a story”, one section flowing into the next. 
  • Giving facts is not interesting. Go deeper, and explain how we know those facts.


Choosing a subject 

You want to make a presentation, but have difficulties choosing a subject? This section is for you.

The golden rule when choosing a subject is: “there are no wrong subjects.” Any subject (that follows the instructions you were given) can be molded to fit the requirements for your presentation. If you make the subject your own, that you love the material you are presenting, and that you believe it deserves to be shared with an audience, then you can make a great presentation. If you do not believe that your subject is interesting, it will be difficult to make it interesting for others.

Takeaway: choose a subject that you like. 


Of course, some subjects are more difficult to adapt than others. Subjects that are too complex, or too simple, or too broad, require special care to be properly adapted. Specifically: 

  • The subject is too ambitious: These high-profile subjects capture the imagination and spark great amounts of interest, but that require a high level mathematical or technical knowledge to dive deeper into them. Think of these as high risk, high reward subjects. If you choose an ambitious subject, be prepared to spend additional time researching and building your own understanding of the material. This is because you should never present material that you do not understand well. If it is not clear for you, it will not be clear for the audience. 
  • The subject is too basic: This is a subject that does not stray too far from the material covered in class, or that does not challenge you enough, or that does not offer sufficient new knowledge for the audience. This is the equivalent of choosing a low coefficient of difficulty performance in a sports competition. This does not mean that choosing an “easy” subject is a bad idea. You can still deliver a strong presentation by delving deeper into the subject, by pushing it toward new, unexpected directions, and by aiming for a greater level of polish.
  • The subject is too broad: This is a subject too big to fit within the time limit of your presentation. Because it is too broad, you may be forced to rush through the presentation, losing the audience, or to present it in a superficial manner, disappointing your supervisor. After you recognize that your subject is too broad, you must narrow it down. Choose one aspect of the subject that can be self-sufficient and focus on it. By reducing the scope of your presentation, you can add depth to it without going over the time limit or compromising on its clarity.  

Planning ahead 

Once you have selected your topic, it is time to draft a work plan. Here, you are making a budget. Time is your currency. You have to decide how much to spend on this project, how much to allocate to each aspect of your work, and on a deadline for each step of your project.

Here are some basic guidelines. This is for a typical 3-month project that is assigned at the start of the semester to be completed at the end of the semester. Rescale as appropriate for you: 


Step What it involves When to start When to finish
Planning Building the structure of your presentation (see building a skeleton section).
Reserving time periods on your calendar dedicated to the project.
Building a rough timeline with milestones (when to finish research, when to finish 1st draft of the slides, when to start rehearsing, etc.)
As soon as you select the topic.  
Researching Assembling a bibliography.
Collecting information and gaining knowledge about the subject. Possible sources from most reliable to least reliable:
- Peer reviewed papers and university level textbooks.
- University, government, and other high credibility websites.
- Wikipedia, science related blogs, etc.
- Discussion forums (avoid these)
As soon as you select the topic. Most of the research done
halfway through the semester.
Additional research may be required during the writing phase
Writing Building your Slides.
Use short bullet point paragraphs and images to carry the information efficiently and clearly.
Keep in mind: flow of presentation (storytelling), engaging the audience.
Personal choice. When you feel the itch to start making slides. 1st draft at least 2 weeks before delivery.
Final version a couple of days before delivery.
Rehearsing and timing yourself.
Cutting content from presentation to respect time limit and to improve flow.
Improving slides.
When 1st draft is written. 1 day before delivery
Reflecting See recovery phase section. Learning lessons from the experience. After presentation, same day. 1 day after presentation.
Learn what you can from the experience, then let go and move on.


Preparing for the Audience 

You have heard this one before. You must keep the audience in mind when making a public presentation and aim the level of the presentation for that audience. If your presentation is too high level, the audience will quickly lose interest as they become unable to follow. If your presentation is too low level, you will bore the audience and they will quickly lose interest.

Targeting the audience is about keeping their interest for your presentation all the way to the end. Here are some pointers to accomplish this:

  • Identify the audience. Make sure you have a clear picture of who the audience will be. If this is part of a course, then they are likely your peers in the classroom. They probably know as much as you knew before you started your research. If this is part of a public event, then you should investigate. What kind of crowd usually attends the event? In case of doubt, write to the event organizers or ask your supervisor. 
  • Aim for the lowest common denominator. If your audience is diverse, for example a mix of science students and arts students, then target the audience with the weakest background for your subject.
  • Throw bones to the more advanced members of the audience. There is challenge here: you are targeting the lower end of the audience, but you must still find a way to cater to everyone and to keep the presentation interesting for the more advanced crowd. Dealing with a diverse crowd and making the presentation relevant for everyone is a challenge teachers must face in the classroom all the time. Do not hesitate to ask a teacher for advice.
  • Build empathy for the audience. Put yourself in their shoes. How do you want them to feel when they are listening to your talk? Can they be overwhelmed by all the information you are throwing at them? Can they keep up with your pace? As you prepare your presentation, always keep the audience in mind, to ensure they have a positive, enjoyable experience.  

Building a skeleton 

The first step in any serious project is to create a plan. This is the skeleton of your presentation. It helps direct your efforts and energy more efficiently. If you tend to feel overwhelmed at the start of a project, when there seems to be so many unknowns, then building a plan helps alleviate the anxiety by giving you a clear direction to follow.

Some general guidelines:

  • Start by clearly studying the instruction and rules that were stated by your supervisor or by the event supervisor. This helps you frame the scope of your work, ensure that you conform to the requirements and expectations for the presentation. It also helps eliminate ideas that do not fit in that frame.
  • Write down all your ideas, in any order. Do not hold back, write down anything that comes to mind. This is the brainstorming phase, there is no such thing as too many ideas (for now). 
  • If your presentation requires some research or if you are not very familiar with your subject, then start gathering information, first acquire superficial and broad knowledge (ex. Wikipedia, online videos) then search for more credible and more specialized sources (peer reviewed papers, University and government web sites, published books). As you acquire new knowledge, you can enrich your brainstorming with new ideas and refine old ideas.
  • When enough ideas are written down, start building the summary of your presentation. 
    • Identify the most important ideas, those that make up the core of your presentation. You are now breaking down your presentation into sections; each section containing a major idea.
    • Build a narrative: a logical chain of thoughts that connects your core ideas together. Here you organize your key ideas in order of presentation. You want to tell a story to the audience, one idea leading to the next. At this stage, you also eliminate some ideas that you wrote down during brainstorming. You can eliminate ideas that do not fit well in your story, that are too simple or too complex for the scope of your presentation, that you don’t find very interesting, that are weak, that are difficult to research, or that do not adhere well with the requirements of the presentation 
    • Once the key ideas are in place, add the supporting ideas: introduction to give context, explain the stakes, and provide pre-requisite knowledge to your audience. Also think about transition sections, to glue the main ideas together and make the narrative more coherent. 
  • Once you have completed your plan, return to researching the subject, and start building content. Important: be flexible. As your understanding of the subject grows, you may realize that some of your ideas must be revised or replaced with new ideas. Be prepared to modify your skeleton as you progress. It is possible that your final presentation be very different from the original plan  

Going deeper 

One of the most common flaws in student presentations is that they do not go deep enough. They state facts, but they do not explain how those facts are known. It is not very exciting for an audience to listen to someone bombarding them with a list of facts. They can search online and find those facts easily on their own.

You must go deeper to make the presentation interesting for the audience. An analogy with classic detective stories: “who” committed the crime is not very important. The focus in those stories is “how” the crime was committed.

To go deeper is to be curious. In your research, when you are presented with a fact, ask yourself: how do we know this? Investigate. Then, share the results of the investigation with your audience. Turn your presentation into a detective story

Takeaway: Just presenting facts is not interesting. Explain how we know those facts. 

An anecdote: during a series of student presentations in astrophysics, two students had chosen the same subject, Oumuamua, an interstellar object that flew by our solar system in 2017. Both students have discussed the shape of the object: that it was either a disk or a cigar shape. But only one student went deeper and explained how the shape of the object was determined. It made the question of the shape of the Oumuamua meaningful for the audience. That student eventually won the contest for best presentation.

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