Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 9)

There are three rules about choosing great investments in real estate (Location, 3x)… Similarly, there are three rules about prepping for giving a great talk….




You must practice public speaking in order to be good at it. A few people (and I mean VERY few), are gifted with public speaking and require less practice than the rest of us… but don’t go on a job interview assuming you are one of them.

Now, when I say practice I don’t mean mumbling to yourself in front of the mirror at the last minute. I mean stand up in an auditorium or conference room and give the talk from start to finish, several times, AND WITHOUT READING FROM NOTES. Everything you want to cover is on your slides- you should not need to read from anywhere, notes or slides.

Practicing out loud and for real will help you develop the transitions and the lead-ins from slide to slide, and timing your practices will give you an idea whether you have to little or too much material for the time allowed. Start your practicing far enough in advance so that slides can be changed and things can be adjusted to fit the allotted time, or to improve content etc. Get yourself an audience in your advisor (or someone that you really trust and whose public speaking ability you admire), or labmates, or offer to give lab meeting/data club/ seminar in the department etc to get- If you do this in a small venue- like for a couple of labmates- invite them to keep a list of things they think could be improved on your slides and also in your presenting style. Go over their points one by one at the end of your presentation. This process of constructive criticism can sometimes be difficult on your ego, time consuming, and you may have a tendency to be defensive- mostly because you are honestly nervous and want to do a great job. I recently listened to a student giving a practice talk- and she was so nervous and upset by my constructive advice that she started crying and couldn’t finish the presentation. This would be the time to take a deep breath, lose that defensiveness, listen to those that are trying to help you, and GO FOR BROKE.

Now, I know some of you will say- that practicing too much may make your presentation sound rehearsed. But- to this I say I have almost never heard a talk where I thought that the presenter practiced too much, but I FREQUENTLY hear talks where its obvious that the presenter didn’t bother to practice or wasn’t practicing effectively. So I think the overwhelming message here is that yes, don’t memorize the script and deliver it without some spontaneity- but you will be more confident and give a more fluid and put-together presentation in front of a ‘foreign’ audience if you practice on your home court.

A short list of additional hints to do and not to do:

1. For additional practice – when you can’t do the auditorium (like during long flights, or in hotel rooms, print out a copy of your presentation with 1 slide per page. Staple these together, and take along- now you are ready to practice anywhere…

2. NO READING FROM NOTES, during presentation or practice.

3. Do not deliver your talk in monotone. This will be difficult because you will be nervous- but speaking in a monotone is a quick way to lose your audience.

4. Look at the audience, don’t be so absorbed in your own slides that you don’t interact with your listeners by making eye contact with them.

5. When you actually deliver the talk – first, thank the search committee for inviting you- this should be obvious.

6. Do not begin the science part of your presentation by saying your name, institution, and reading the title of your talk off the first slide. This is the most boring way to begin a talk.

7. Do begin the science part of your talk by showing your enthusiasm/insight into the area you work on- I like to start with something like ‘I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on XYZ… this is a fascinating area to me because …’ insert your reason of choice…. or even better ‘I have been fortunate to work on XYZ… this is a fascinating area because (insert reason relevant to the field)’ …You don’t have to use my gimmick… think of your own, but don’t waste a moment to get the audience attention!

8. Memorize what you will say for the first 3-4 slides. Learn it cold; recite it before you fall asleep at night. Many of us get nervous/tongue tied in front of an audience- and having a script for just the first couple of slides will get you rolling long enough to find your rhythm and get over the initial jitters.

9. For data slides, remember to explain briefly the details of each experiment, rather than just jumping straight into the results…

10. Use the laser pointer, but use it sparingly- NO SWIRLING THAT THING ALL OVER THE SLIDE..please. Use it to make your point without making your audience dizzy (Unbalanced reaction- thanks for reminding me about this!)!

Other posts and resources:

Physioprof posted on Job Talks previously at the old Drug Monkey site…

Giving an academic job talk was also covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education….


12 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 9)

  1. Actually, it was I who posted on job talks at Drugmonkey.

    Do begin the science part of your talk by showing your enthusiasm/insight into the area you work on- I like to start with something like ‘I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on XYZ… this is a fascinating area to me because …’ insert your reason of choice.

    I disagree strenuously with this. It makes everything too much about you. It is much better to use universal language. Instead of “this is fascinating to me because…”, say “this is an important question because…”

  2. (Sorry, hit submit too soon.)

    You don’t convey your enthusiasm by telling the audience how enthusiastic you are; you convey your enthusiasm by behaving enthusiastically: speaking animatedly, using body language, making eye contact, etc.

  3. PhysioProf-

    My apologies on the misappropriation of credit, I stand corrected…somewhere between your site, the new Drug Monkey site, and who posted what at the old Drug Monkey site… I made a mistake!

    As for how one conveys enthusiasm… my general point is that standing up to give a talk and starting out by announcing your name and the title of your presentation is a poor way to get your audience interested. As to how one conveys enthusiasm- it can and should be done as you suggest of course- all of which I think are necessary to do in a good talk. As for displaying your own enthusiasm about your project- perhaps you would prefer:

    ‘I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on XYZ… this is a fascinating area (of field bla bla bla) because…(insert compelling reason relevant to your field)’

    I agree that you would like the audience to be interested in a subject because the topic is neat/fundable/fundamentally important- and not because YOU are the only one who thinks so. It wasn’t my intention to give any other impression.

  4. Practice is good, but also take every opportunity to talk in public that you can because the next talk you do might well be a job talk. Preparing the talks gets quicker, each talk requires less practice as you become a better public speaker in general, and get feedback on those talks.

    As for how to convey enthusiasm, I’ve never done the first person version, just the ‘this is an important question’. I sometimes drop in things like ‘and this molecule is very beautiful’ or ‘this result was really interesting and got me thinking along this line’. But I’m one of those strange people that can’t talk unenthusiastically in public, especially not about my research.

  5. Propter Doc-

    Excellent point. So many times I see graduate students presenting their data in departmental seminars/ data clubs etc- and not really taking advantage of each opportunity to present as a serious practice/learning experience… that’s just a wasted chance to improve!!

    However, I also don’t see a lot of feedback given to graduate students on their presentations by faculty usually … which is a wasted teaching opportunity.

  6. …and practice WITH the laser pointer! Too many people don’t think this is important, and then what happens? The “bouncy ball” comes out— the speaker drags the laser spot along all of the text, as they read it. Many people do this when they are nervous. I actually physically set the laser pointer down during my first job talk so that I was forced to pick it up, which ensured that I was only using it effectively.

    Great post!

  7. Great Post!! This is exactly what my mentor constantly tells me (I try to listen, but I’m such a procrastinator that I don’t practice as much as I should).

    I also agree with propter doc that you should present at every opportunity given, especially if you have stage fright–it really helps to constantly give presentations (I used to drop classes in undergrad if I found out that there was a presentation involved because it freaked me out so much, but I forced myself in grad school to present constantly and now I’m actually looking forward to giving 2 talks next week). I’m still horrible with a laser pointer though (basically I forget to use it).

    keep the advice coming!

  8. Unbalanced reaction-

    Yes, oh yes! indiscriminate and uncontrolled use of the laser pointer is actually one of my pet peeves… I can’t believe I forgot that in the list… you are quite right!! No swirling that thing all over the slide please!!

    Neurostudent- Yes, listen to your mentor…! Some of the people I know that spend a lot of hours in front of a classroom have developed such a fluid delivery style, its amazing. Good science, carefully crafted presentation tools, and enthusiastic delivery…

  9. Don’t freak out if your practice talk in front of just advisor and labbies sounds stilted – my practice talks like that are terrible, while my real talks in front of an real audience are much better, because I just can’t pretend the fake audience in our little conference room is a real audience. But it’s utterly necessary to do!

    I always write out my first several sentences verbatim (many rewrites to get it right for specific audience), and memorize memorize memorize. I need that to get going, nothing worse than freezing at the beginning. I carry it around in my pocket and run over it in the stall in the bathroom when I go just before the talk!

    Remember you are telling a story!

  10. Memorizing exactly what to say for the 1st few slides is what I do as well. It helps me get over the “wow, look at all of these people (or wow, nobody is here) feeling that I get when giving a talk.

    I also practice the talk a good amount. over and over again. Some of the grad students in the lab think it is funny, and claim they are natural public speakers. Then I see them give talks and hear them stumble through transitions. ha!

    and as far as enthusiasm. You don’t have to do jumping jacks and explain your life story and how your work fits in, but if you aren’t excited about what you are doing, how the heck will anybody else become interested. Speaking in a monotone voice is a sure fire way to put people to sleep.

    Laser pointer practice is key. I err on the side of using it too little. This is something I work on.

    great post, really like this series. I will continue to read and comment. Anything on chalk-talks coming up? I have a 2nd visit coming up, and I want to make sure and do a kick-ass job.

  11. Neurowoman and Tom-

    Thanks for the comments- all great suggestions. I’m glad someone likes reading these- sometimes I feel as though I get a little too much into the nitty gritty mechanics of the whole thing… but if you all find this helpful I will carry on.


    I was starting the chalk talk entry last night- hopefully that will be forthcoming shortly…

  12. I disagree with PhysioProf that you should not explicitly state your enthusiasm during your talk. Perhaps it should be obvious to others that you are ‘enthusiastic’ about your work, or that you think your results are ‘interesting’, etc… but it is often not obvious.

    As an audience member, I often sit in talks where I can’t really catch the whole gist of the research, because I am not familiar with the area or because it’s a little too technical. I know that when I hear buzz phrases like “This data is exciting!”, I believe them (because I don’t necessarily have the background to judge for myself). Perhaps naively, I leave the presentation thinking the speaker has done some good stuff.

    I figure that if I respond this way to the use of positive adjectives, others must also. That being said, I differentiate between highly specialized talks (where the audience does not have to be told what is exciting) and general seminars with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s