How to give a great seminar

Tips for preparing a great seminar

I would like to say up front there is no presumption here that after taking my advice you will give a better seminar. In fact I know that a lot of you out there are already aware of these tips and  very capable of giving very effective seminar presentations. As some of you may know, I teach BIOL 430 and in this course the students have to present a seminar on a current article in developmental biology. For many students it is there first time they have to present a seminar.   You might ask yourself: Why do I have to give a seminar? I tell my BIOL 430 students that learning how to give an effective seminar is a skill that is required in many careers not just science. If you plan to stay in science and academia you will definitely have to give seminars and teach. Almost any industry whether it is consulting or biotech or working at the metro zoo, you will have at some point in your career have to present your work as a seminar—whether it be at conferences or staff meetings with your colleagues. Remember science is not just doing the research,  but it is also about disseminating your knowledge that stems from your research. You might argue that is what scientific journals are for, the point is well taken, but  a very effective way to spread your knowledge is through oral presentation-the seminar.

The analogy is like listening to your favourite CD. It's great to listen to CDs, but it's so much better to see and hear it live at a concert!

As the title says “Tip on preparing and presenting a student seminar”  I want to say from the start that there is no one correct way of giving a seminar.  There are lots of different styles that suit various personalities, for some people it works-others it doesn’t.  You will eventually   figure out what works best for you and develop your own style.  Don’t try and be someone else.  The tips I have included are tried and proven tips and just mainly common sense.   I assume most of you will use PowerPoint or other data projection  as your media source. But keep in mind the good old chalk board talks stood the test of time and it really takes a skilled person to give an effective "chalk talk".


The art of  public speaking:  Some people believe that this is a skill that you are born with-either you have it or you don’t.  Trust me this is a skill that you can learn, but for some people it comes more naturally.  Most people can get up in front of an audience and read straight from a paper, but that is not a seminar presentation—you really have to speak to your audience with conviction and passion. The majority of people find that  public speaking is a very nerve racking task.  Don’t worry this completely natural and it is one of those things you can get over by practicing and you learn by doing it. In fact, you can use your nervousness to fuel your enthusiasm-your nervous shake can be turned into an animated gestures while you speak.

There are three points I want to make about public speaking. The first is voice projection. If your audience can’t hear you they will either get frustrated or fall asleep. You want to speak loud and clear but you don’t want to shout. This can be very distressing to the audience and the speaker. You need to engage your audience. This means making eye contact with the crowd.  Don’t stare down at your toes and speak to the floor. Finally, be enthusiastic and animated. Fridays at 8:30am are a killer time slot  for Queen’s students. Thursday night is usually the big party night so there is a good chance that there will be a lot of tired people in the audience. If you are animated and speak with enthusiasm in your voice you will  have a better chance of keeping  your audience awake. If you don’t seem interested in the work how do you expect to have your audience appreciate your work? They are surely going to loose interest.

Talks have a logical flow:  I have listed 5 categories here. First, the introduction, this is a  very important aspect of your talk. This is when the audience gets their first impression of you. Here you give some background, history, and the big picture. This is followed by your specific question or hypothesis.  This is where you tell the audience what your talk will be about. Then go into the details-the strategy or methods  and results.  Finally tie up the talk with a summary and conclusions. This is also the place to put up fanciful models stemming from the research. It allows the audience to see how the current work fits into the big picture and it may stimulate them to ask questions or comment on the work. You  guys should have some individuality or uniqueness in how you present these sections, so I won't say too much about this and leave it up to you. Everyone eventually finds a style that works for them.  The more seminars and lectures you go to the easier it will be for you in find a presentation style you like.

As you can see the layout of the seminar is essentially the format of a scientific paper. But they do differ. You just can’t stand up here and read a paper. 

The opening slide (or opening line): Keep it simple. Choose a level of scientific information that you want to convey. The biology department is very diverse and you should assume that "the audience is uninformed but infinitely intelligent". (This also  applies to grant writing but that is a whole new story-see tips on grant writing) So if you explain something new-explain it well and they will understand it. Then follow with specifics of the your project/paper and how it fits into the big picture. You don’t have to tell us everything you know about the subject.  That is why there is a question period at the end. I think many students are afraid that what they present may be too elementary. Trust me, many people like to hear how their work is presented.  Even if they know exactly what you are talking about. Students tend to feel like professors know everything (we do know a lot, but we don't know everything) and you might think that you are insulting their intelligence. It is actually very flattering to hear somebody describe my work or work that I am very familiar with in a coherent and intelligent manner.

The introduction is important because  if you blow the intro there is a very good chance that people are not going to follow the rest of the talk. Begin with a clear statement of just what your topic is and what you intend to do with it. I like to see what the big picture is. It's very annoying and distracting to keep listening to a speaker without knowing just what he or she is intending to talk about. Also, don't just jump into the research, you  need a little ice breaker, maybe some history or background would be helpful. In any event, it is very important to make sure the audience is not lost from the start.

Have an opening line that is simple. I usually start off. "My lab is interested in animal development".  

Here is an example of my opening slide from the last talk I gave.  "My lab is interested in animal development. This first slide depicts the central question in developmental biology. And that is: how is it that these two cells-depicted here as egg and sperm fuse during fertilization to form a 1 cell embryo—undergoes cell divisions to form this remarkable multicellular organism". Almost everyone can understand the concept of this slide.   In the next slides I go on to describe my work and how it relates to this big picture.

It is much better than me saying at the opening:  “My lab is interested in Eph Receptor Tyrosine Kinase signal transduction during C. elegans neuronal and epidermal morphogenesis....”


Font: This is fairly self explanatory.  Remember  to use a large enough  font so your audience can read it.  A 12 point font may seem fine to you on your computer screen when you are making your presentation but you can barely see it on the projection screen.  In general: Use no smaller than 24 pt. for text, 32 pt. for a list of  points and at least 40-48 pt font for Titles. Also keep in mind the type of fonts. Helvetica and Ariel are good fonts to use.

Colour: The option to use colour is a very subjective issue. Some people like colour some people just like plain black and white. If you are going to use colour keep it consistent and make sure you use good contrasting colours.  What may look good to you on your computer screen which is a foot away  from your eyes may in fact look terrible on the screen. For example Blue on Black is a terrible combination as is  Yellow on white. This is a common mistake in choosing colours and I see it all the time, in part because it looks fine on your computer monitor. However, when projected onto a large screen it is very difficult to read.  Use light background for overhead presentations but dark backgrounds for slides and on-screen presentations. A word about using Red and Green. Please keep in mind that about 7% of the male population have some form of Red Green colour blindness. So try and avoid these colours if you can. Unfortunately,  many of the fluorescence microscopy pictures use Green and Red fluorescent probes.


Too much information: Learn to cut out the fine details and list the main points you are trying to get across. Unlike a scientific paper you don't have to go into the fine details or methodology. Do not put everything you want to say up on the slide and read it.  Split into multiple sides. Keep in mind there is a dynamic between what you say and what is on the slide.  Do not read verbatim from the slide. Remember that the slide is a visual aid to your talk not a substitute. Put a picture in if that can explain what you want to say. A picture is worth a thousand words. If you are not going to talk about something on a slide then don’t put it on there.

Animations: PowerPoint has built in its program animation features. If a picture is worth 1000 words then a movie must be worth 100,000 words. However needless animations can only lead to distraction. This slide over emphasizes the point (in the actual  PowerPoint file presentation all those icons are animated).  Make sure there is a real pedagogic point to it. If I  was talking about the movement of the C. elegans or what the nematode C. elegans looks like then a movie of C. elegans might help. Otherwise use animations sparingly. I think that when people first discover the animation features in PowerPoint they get too carried away with it-resist and use them when required. This applies to slide transitions too. This slide also demonstrates the use of too much information (distraction).  Say I wanted to point out the monkey with glasses then I drop all the animations and I  would use the following slide:

No animation (distractions)  required!

Rehearsing: If there is one piece of advice that you should take form me, it would be to practice your seminar talk.  Practice practice practice. I can’t stress enough how much this will help you. For those who get really nervous speaking in public then rehearsing will help you with your nervousness. Don’t think that you can wing it and give it off the top of your head.  

Practice in front of your roommates, your dog or cat.  Practice with the actual slides in front of you, either print them out or have them on your computer screen. Use your (laser) pointer when you practice. The pointer serves to keep your audience oriented.  You need to keep their attention. So they need to look at what you are trying to describe. But don't draw circles on the floor with the laser pointer or shoot it at the ceiling and wave it about as you speak--this is very distracting to the audience.

Should you memorize? This is a bone of contention with some people.  I have seen several talks where it is obvious the person is reciting memorized work. This can be disastrous. But I do think it is good to memorize some aspects of your talk.  I ask my own students to write out a script, just so they have the words they want to convey on paper. You can still have some spontaneity when you give the actual seminar. 

Finally after all your practicing get a good night’s rest.  Wake up the next morning well rested. Don't stay up all night.  Before you go on take a deep breath and relax. We all want you to do well,  we are not out to get you!