Getting the Most Out of a Technical Presentation

Technical presentations can be very intimidating as too often speaker presentations are geared for specialists working in the field of research being presented and sometimes simply because the speaker isn't an effective communicator. In this section, we'll discuss some guidelines for getting the most out of the many technical presentations you are likely to attend as you begin your research career.

General Organization of the Technical Talk

Believe it or not there is a structure to most technical presentations.

  • Outline A good speaker will begin with an outline of his/her talk. Consider this to be a roadmap for the information that follows. It will help you know what general topics will be discussed and in what order. A really good speaker will even give the audience some idea of how much time he/she will spend on each topic.
  • Introduction Most talks begin with an introduction. In general, the introduction will provide you with background on the scientific problem that will be discussed, the experimental methods, analytical instrumentation, and methods of analysis that have been used previously, and an introduction to any work that the speaker may have done in this area.
  • Results and Discussion The speaker will then likely move to a presentation of the results that he/she has obtained and a discussion of his/her interpretation of those results.
  • Conclusion A good speaker will close their talk by pulling all of the results together and providing a coherent framework for them.
  • Questions and Answers At the end of most talks, the seminar organizers usually leave 5-10 minutes so that the audience can ask the speaker any questions they may have about the talk. Don't be afraid to raise your hand and ask questions - think of the seminar as being just another class at school. Don't worry if other students aren't asking questions. If you have a question, just raise your hand and ask. If you remain unconvinced by my arguments that your questions will be welcomed, consider remaining after the talk and going up to the front of the room and asking the speaker your question then.

Suggestions for Getting the Most Out of a Technical Talk

  • Prepare in advance to attend the talk. Research the speaker and his/her area on-line and look up one or two of his/her papers. This will help you become familiar with the speaker's background, their field of study, etc. allowing you time to digest the vocabulary of that particular field.
  • Listen actively. Bring a small notebook with you and take notes as you listen. If you have any questions and/or ideas while you are listening to the talk don't be afraid to jot these down in your notebook. Recording them in your notebook will allow you to keep your attention on the speaker and what he/she is saying rather than on worrying about what it is you don't want to forget.
  • Sometimes it isn't your fault that you didn't understand the talk. The speaker may not have been an effective oral communicator. A good speaker will in advance of his/her presentation try to identify who their audience will be - educational background, interests, etc. and then prepare their talk accordingly. That said, many speakers do not do this. Sometimes the issue is simply that the speaker may be a good scientist but a poor speaker. The bottom line is don't assume that it must be your "fault" because you didn't understand the talk. That said, you should never attend a talk with the expectation of simply killing time. Always try to squeeze the most you can out of every experience whether good or bad.

Etiquette

  • Don't talk with your neighbors once the speaker begins to talk. This includes asking your neighbor what the speaker said if you miss something. The speaker will have no idea what it is you are saying. This is rude and distracting to the speaker and those in the audience who are trying to listen to the talk. It won't win you any brownie points with either the speaker or the seminar organizers.
  • Don't bring articles to read or other work to do while the seminar is in progress. This is also inappropriate behavior for a seminar setting. If you aren't going to listen to the talk then do not go to the seminar in the first place.
  • Unless refreshments have been provided, don't bring a meal and eat. This is considered to be rude and it can be distracting to both the speaker and the audience (both the rustling of containers and paper and the smell of the food).