Communications Corner

    • February 11, 2010

How to Prepare a Successful Talk

Given the interest of scientific and health-related research and leadership efforts, why do many talks on these topics fail to engage their listeners? There are many reasons, but a frequent one is lack of preparation. Perhaps more surprisingly, another is counterproductive preparation.

Let’s look at some of the ways preparation can help or hinder your goal of clearly presenting your work.

The Time Trap: Some speakers prepare too much material for the time allowed. This typically forces them to choose among three uncomfortable options: ending the talk before presenting the most recent findings; speeding through the talk and confusing the audience, many of whom may stop trying to follow; or going overtime, which is disrespectful to the audience and may leave the impression of similarly undisciplined research.

Try This: Apply the formula of “two minutes per slide.” For a 10-minute talk, prepare five slides (not counting the title or acknowledgements); for a 20-minute talk, prepare 10 slides; etc. This will likely give you enough time to describe the content, and just as important, will allow the audience time to absorb it. It’s better to clearly present five slides than to fall into the time trap.


Too Much, Too Soon: Many of us are taught to follow the same order in structuring a talk as with a paper: 1) tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, 2) tell them and 3) tell them what you’ve told them. Yet this strategy fails to engage listeners because it reveals the conclusions before the audience is prepared to fully appreciate them. It then leaves the audience in the passive position of hearing the speaker follow the steps he or she has already laid out.

Try This: Structure the talk like a story. Listeners will be more engaged in following your process when you present it chronologically (e.g., without “giving away the ending” up front). They will also better appreciate the significance of the findings. Pose a single research question or project objective near the beginning, review the method(s) used and provide some data highlights. Only then should you reveal the current answer to the question you posed at the start.


A Ping-Pong Match: A related approach, even for speakers who may not state their conclusions at the outset, is to begin by listing two or three research questions or objectives to be covered in the talk. This often forces both speaker and listeners to “play ping-pong” throughout by repeatedly moving between different sets of methods and data. The logic of the research process can quickly become hazy.

Try This: Pose the first question; give data, etc. and answer it; then pose the next question. Not only does this prevent the back-and-forth problem, it also more accurately represents your research process by demonstrating how each question led to the next.

We’ll look at other effective talk-preparation strategies in the next issue of the Leaders’ Link.

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