Learning how to present with Michael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Presentations

Slideshows are serious business, and bad slides can kill. Many books, including the one I will review today, discuss the role that Morton Thiokol’s poorly designed and overly complicated slides about the Challenger O-rings played in why the shuttle was allowed to launch despite its flaws. PowerPoint has become the default presentation style in a wide range of fields — regardless of whether or not that is a good idea, see the 2014 Slate article “PowerPointLess” by Rebecca Schuman.  With all that being said, in order to learn a bit more about how to present, I read The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley, an engineering communications professor at Penn State.

To start, what did Lise Meitner, Barbara McClintock, and Rosalind Franklin have in common? According to Michael Alley, their weak science communication skills meant they were not taken as seriously even though they had great ideas and did great research… Yes, the author discusses how Niels Bohr was a very weak speaker (which only somewhat had to do with English being his third language) but it’s mostly in the context of his Nobel Prize speech or trying to talk to Winston Churchill; in other words, the kinds of opportunities that many great women in science never got… Let’s just say the decontextualized history of science factoids weaken some of the author’s arguments…

This is not to say that science communication is not important but these are some important ideas to remember:

Things presentation skills can help you with:

  • Communicating your ideas with a variety of audiences more effectively
  • Marketing your research and yourself as a researcher more effectively
  • Creating engaging presentations that people pay attention to

Things presentation skills cannot help you with:

  • Overcoming systemic inequality in academia and society at large, though speaking out about your experiences and calling out injustice when you see it can help in a very long term way
  • Not feeling nervous especially if you have an underlying anxiety disorder, though practice can potentially reduce that feeling

For any presentation:  know your topic well, be very prepared, and actually practice giving your talk more than you do anything else (such as making slides). But like any skill, the key is practice practice practice!

For the most part, this book is a great review of the common sense advice that’s easy to forget when you are standing in front of a large audience with everyone looking at you expectantly. The author also offers a lot of great critiques of the default presentations you can churn out with PowerPoint and of PowerPoint itself. PowerPoint has the advantage of being the most common type of slideshow presentation software, though alternatives exist and have been discussed in depth elsewhere on the blog and in university resources. Alley introduces the Assertion-Evidence approach in which you reach people through presenting your research as memes images with text statement overlay. Specifically, you use one sentence summaries and replace bullet points with visualizations. Also you have to keep in account Murphy’s Law, where slide color or a  standard font not being supported can throw off a presentation. Since Murphy’s Law does not disappear when you create a presentation around visuals, especially custom-made images and video, you may need more preparation time for this style of presentation.

Creating visualizations and one sentence summaries as well as practicing your speech to prepare for these things not working is a great strategy for preparing for a research talk. One interesting thing to think about is if Alley admits that less tested methods like TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) and pecha kucha work for effective presentations, how much of the success of this method has to do with people caring and putting time into their presentation than a change in presentation style?

Overall this book was a good review of public speaking advice specifically targeted towards a science and engineering audience and hopefully will get people taking more time and thinking more about their presentations.

Presentation resources on campus:

  • For science specific, the definitely check out our new science communication certificate through the 21st Century Scientists Working Group and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. They offer a variety of workshops and opportunities for students develop their skills as science communicators. There’s also science communication workshops throughout the country over the summer.
  • If you have time join a speech or debate team (Mock Trial or parliamentary style debate in particular)  it’s the best way to learn how to speak extemporaneously, answer hostile questions on the fly, and get coaching and feedback on what you need to work on. If you’re feeling really bold, performing improv comedy can help with these skills as well.
  • If you don’t have time to be part of a debate team or you can’t say “yes and…” to joining an improv comedy troupe take advantage of opportunities to present when you can at various events around campus. For example, this year’s Pecha Kucha Night is going to be June 10th at Krannert Center and applications are due by April 30!  If this is still too much find someone, whether in your unit, the Career Center, etc. who will listen to you talk about your research. Or if you have motivation and don’t mind cringe get one of your friends to record you presenting (if you don’t want to use your phone for this check out the loanable tech at the UGL!)

And for further reading take a look at:


Hope this helps, and good luck with your research presentations!