Seeing someone give a great talk can be motivating (just search TED talks on YouTube). Their passion can be inspirational and encourage you to pursue a career in science. Yet sometimes it can be hard to see yourself in that inspiring role, whether it be because you are a novice, uncomfortable in the spotlight, or don’t feel represented in the surrounding scientific community. Even the best, most dynamic scientists have had or still have one or more of these “imposter syndrome” symptoms.
Having felt (and continuing to feel) underrepresented in my scientific field, I want to emphasize the value of representation at science meetings and conferences. As daunting as it might be, it’s important that your voice is heard on the scientific stage.Manisha Patel
You might think that giving a talk at a scientific meeting or conference is just an opportunity to let your science “speak for itself” and wow your audience with the latest and greatest results in the field. But giving a talk is so much more than that. In 10–15 minutes, you have the opportunity to create and build your professional networks, reach potential new and dynamic collaborators, and perhaps even find your next job. All this may sound more like marketing, networking, and sales than science, but the former is essential to doing the latter.
Because the data alone can’t do all the “talking”, a presentation at a conference is your opportunity to let other scientists know you exist, are working on interesting ideas, and are keen to do more. If abstracts are the curtain call to get people interested in you and your research, the presentation is the main event.
Giving an informative, engaging, entertaining, and accessible presentation is a skill that can be learned, honed, and polished. And with so many other nerve-wracking things to worry about at in-person, virtual, or hybrid meetings, why not learn those skills now?
Reflections on my first “real” talk
I clearly remember the first time I gave a talk at a national meeting. I was in my third year of graduate school and starting to think about finding a postdoc. My dissertation advisor wasn’t especially helpful – he had skipped the postdoc stage and gone straight into a faculty position, didn’t go to meetings, and wasn’t well plugged into networks in the field. There was a distinguished ecologist I hoped to do a postdoc with, and after reading some of her papers, I had a good idea of what meeting she might attend. So, on the advice of a few friends and mentors, I sent in an abstract to the Ecological Society of America, and after it was accepted for a presentation at their annual meeting, found myself on a plane headed to the conference with hopes of meet and impressing my potential postdoc advisor.
My naïve idea was that if I went to the meeting and gave a talk about my awesome data that my potential new advisor would offer me a postdoc on the spot. In reality, I had no idea how to give a talk at a national meeting, much less how to make sure that my potential advisor would be in the audience. Smartphones and Twitter didn’t exist, so I thought that all I really needed to do was make sure I didn’t put the audience to sleep while they absorbed the data. The tension of it all kept me awake for what seemed like five days straight. And in the end, it all worked out. I gave the talk, met my new advisor, and got a postdoc in her lab!
But despite seemingly endless practice sessions and professional-looking (at least to me) slides, the experience of getting up on stage in front of a room full of strangers was really stressful, to say the least. And thinking back on it, there was a lot I could have done better.
Perfect your presentation skills by signing up for our three-session workshop on Communicating Scientific Knowledge. The second session focuses on preparing and giving talks at scientific meetings and conferences.