10 Minute Talks

My most senior graduate student participated in a research competition late last week, and as part of this competition she was invited to give a ten minute presentation of her work. This was EXCITING for us both, and was a little scary for me-… you see, DrMrA is the undisputed champion mentor for public speaking- his students always win the research competition.  He didn’t have one apply this year- so it fell to me to uphold the A family graduate-student-10-minute-talk honor.

My student was informed that she was invited to present only 1 week prior to the competition- and she teaches 1 and 1/2 days per week … she has 3 kids…. and add to that that she is working feverishly to do several not-totally-straight-forward experiments for a manuscript we have in revision- all somewhat time sensitive.  Now throw on preparing for the 10 minute talk. This schedule is not for the faint of heart- but, as I always tell my students- it’s a lesson in just gritting your teeth and getting it done.  The big events in life just don’t happen in a vacuum- there is always a child throwing up, a husband out of town, AND a manuscript to revise…

So how did we prep for the talk?  My student started preparing her slides on the weekend prior to the presentation. I got the slides on Monday- and we did a little back and forth to adjust the content of the slides. Giving 10 minute talks is, I think, a different animal than giving a 45 or 50 minute presentation. You really CAN NOT afford extraneous information in a ten minute talk, that you might indulge in in a longer presentation. Let me say that again- if you are going out to give a 10 minute talk- you must pare out anything and everything that don’t speak to your main point. This means that your introductory remarks have to be cut down to the point that you lead your listener where you want them to go without distracting them with even a couple of unrelated images or sentences.

If you are giving a 10 minute talk, think carefully about this when you prepare your slides. There’s a problem with too many slides, but there is also a problem with extraneous or too much information on a single slide.  I recall myself writing on my student’s draft slides- ‘why are you bringing this up here- is this REALLY critical information at this point in your talk??‘ Do not, I repeat, do not- just cut the figures from a paper and paste them into  powerpoint. I’ve made that point here before, but from some of the presentations I’ve seen lately- a few people could use a reminder.  Figures in a paper, are formatted for the paper- those 5 panel figures- nope, no way, no how- not in a 10 minute talk- unless you are planning to spend 5 minutes on that single slide. When you are making your slides you have to figure out which panels are essential to your point, and which you can do without covering and still make your point well. And do us old people a favor by making your font large and in bold please!

A second point about your slides. Even though you only have 10 minutes, and you know that you only get a very limited number of slides- resist the temptation to cut out your ‘tell-them-what-you-are-going-to-tell-them’ and your ‘conclusions/model’ slides, in favor of more data. Don’t do it, don’t go there no way, no how. These slides are an essential part of a great presentation, even in the 10 minute talk.

Once you have a great set of slides- you must chose the words that you will say carefully. You already know (if you follow this blog) that you will NOT be reading off of slides or notes- so I’m not going to go on about that ad nauseam. What I do want to mention is that you don’t need to make yourself sound smarter or your data sound cooler by dressing it up in the most complex possible verbiage.  We’re not listening to see who can use the most complicated vocabulary, this is not the GRE- we are listening to hear you coherently describe your important question, approach, result and conclusion in an easily understandable way.  Keep jargon to a minimum (and I mean an absolute minimum) and keep it simple!

Finally- practice out loud. 10 minutes is a short, short window. Put your words and slides together and practice for someone with experience. You must reduce the amount of bumbling around in your words and the amount of time spent hesitating to choose your words- in a 10 minute talk you just don’t have time for these little foibles. I listen to my trainees practice talks- slide-by-slide, and it is usually a bloodbath on the first round… and this takes way more than 10 minutes. I admit it, I’m picky and particular, and I want each and every public presentation of data to be the best that it can be. Get over your ego and let somebody give you a really detailed critique, help you with your transitions, and help you cut out unnecessary statements and material.

Anyway- there you have it, my quick guide to the 10 minute talk. I’m sure Comrade Physioprof will have some valuable insight on this topic as well, and I’m looking forward to hearing it.

Oh, and FYI…. she won first place in the research competition…


17 thoughts on “10 Minute Talks

  1. Ten-minute talks are a fucktillion times more difficult to do well than a 45-60 minute talk. I once attended a 10 minute talk where the dumbfuck post-doc tried to present an entire seven-figure paper’s worth of data. It was a fucking horror show. You are absolutely correct that it is much better to go easy on the data and make absofuckinglutely sure that you have presented sufficient background and context for the audience. In a ten-minute talk, you can only expect the audience to absorb *one* fucking idea. So choose that idea carefully, and make sure that everything you say and show is directly relevant to that idea.

  2. As a grad student, there were a bunch of us going to a national meeting and several of us had been selected to give 10min oral presentations. On the day we practiced for our advisors and peers, one of the students blabbed for 30mins, 20min of which was spent on the intro/background. When the time came for comments, nobody said anything, so I told him that he needed to slash his content and he insisted that it was all necessary and that it wouldn’t be a problem … and his advisor sat and nodded in agreement. He ended up giving an atrocious talk where he spoke so quickly and flicked through so many slides that nobody had a clue what he was talking about. I won best paper at the meeting that year, incidentally – ha!

  3. Ditto PP. I think back to a postdoc with a 10min horror show using 2 figures and Supp figs from a GlamMagz paper – eye gouging was an option although the laser pointer from hell would have worked.

    10 minutes:
    1 min: Here’s the dealio/problem/question and why people should care slide (KA-BAM!)

    2-5 minutes: The meat/results (the WOW factor should be here… the audience should have A-HA moments connecting the crumbs you throw them). No more than 3 slides.

    last 3 minutes: Why this stuff matters, big picture stuff (wrap the topic up with a big bow and present it to them – KER-PLOW!). 2 slides.

    If you practice with different groups beforehand, you can get a feel for what questions your talk elicits. The point of 10 minutes isn’t to present all the mysteries of the planet… you want *good questions* and light bulbs to go on. Leave ’em wanting more!

  4. Great Post and great advice! I recently prepared a 10 minute talk, and we have yearly 15 minute talks for all students for the institute. That 1 minute per slide rule is a decent one to follow, but I tend to prefer 7ish slides in a 10 minute talk, and one major conclusion for sure.

  5. How did you know I had to give a 10 minute talk in a couple of week’s time?* Your timing is impeccable. 🙂

    * Yes, even old farts like me occasionally give 10 minute platform talks.

  6. Pingback: 10 minutes of getting screwed « Snarky McGeekerson’s Guide to Everything

  7. You are right on the money, drdrA. The more talks, grants, papers I work on, the more I realize that simpler is better, so cut, cut, cut. I am working on a 5 min talk for next month….the fun just never stops.

    Congrats to you and your student!

  8. Excellent wrap up! I wish that everyone in my journal club (where we have to give 10 minute talks) would read this and take it heart.

    jc: HELLZ YEAH.

  9. I heartily agree that you cannot use the same figures from the paper in the 10 minute talk. I tried to save time doing that for a presentation in my first year as a grad student, but then I had to answer 10 minutes worth of questions from people trying to figure out what the figures meant. Whoops…

    It surprised me to finally learn in my second year that a good short talk is really mostly background and context on the problem, then your idea to solve problem, and lastly – boom – your idea worked (or didn’t).

  10. Such good timing drdrA! I am giving a 10-minute talk on Monday at a conference (my first presentation at a major meeting, whee!). I’m reassured to see that my slides and plan for the talk fit what you’re saying, and what jc said above, so phew on that end. But I need to practice–thanks for kicking my butt, I need to just bite the bullet and sit in a room for a little while smoothing out my narration.

  11. My first year of graduate training featured preparation for a highly critical 10 min research presentation. It is a good idea to train these early and often.

  12. Good advice.

    I have another pearl from my doctoral advisor. No more than 1 slide per minute absolute maximum.

    I also gave a ten minute talk on how not to give a ten minute talk at a conference a couple of years ago. There was just so much good content I had to abandon in favour of (ironically) giving a cogent talk.

  13. JC- nice wrap- up. I loved it!

    Jenn- I think having students practice 10 to 15 minute talks regularly during grad school is an excellent idea. Really excellent.

    Odyssey and Arlenna- Freakishly good timing… who knew- … it must be the 10 minute talk season! And Odyssey- I’m guessing we are similar vintage… so who you callin’ an old fart?!

    BugDoc- I’m a big one for simple. Golly though, a 5 minute talk- that’s a whole new level of simple!

    antipodean- I also adhere loosely to the 1 slide per minute rule… actually sometimes I make it fewer slides than minutes. I would say 10 slides is the absolute, absolute max for a 10 minute talk.

  14. Like bugdoc, I once had to give a 5-min, no slides talk on a 5-yr research plan; 5 min of questions. yikes. great post.

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