Making a presentation from your research proposal

18 March 2018

Making a presentation from your research proposal

In theory, it couldn’t be easier to take your written research proposal and turn it into a presentation. Many people find presenting ideas easier than writing about them as writing is inherently difficult. On the other hand, standing up in front of a room of strangers, or worse those you know, is also a bewildering task. Essentially, you have a story to tell, but does not mean you are story telling. It means that your presentation will require you to talk continuously for your alloted period of time, and that the sentences must follow on from each other in a logical narative; i.e. a story.  

So where do you start?

Here are some simple rules to help guide you to build your presentation:

  1. One slide per minute: However many minutes you have to present, that’s your total number of slides. Don’t be tempted to slip in more.
  2. Keep the format clear: There are lots of templates available to use, but you’d do best to keep your presentation very clean and simple.
  3. Be careful with animations: You can build your slide with animations (by adding images, words or graphics). But do not flash, bounce, rotate or roll. No animated little clipart characters. No goofy cartoons – they’ll be too small for the audience to read. No sounds (unless you are talking about sounds). Your audience has seen it all before, and that’s not what they’ve come for. They have come to hear about your research proposal.
  4. Don’t be a comedian: Everyone appreciates that occasional light-hearted comment, but it is not stand-up. If you feel that you must make a joke, make only one and be ready to push on when no-one reacts. Sarcasm simply won’t be understood by the majority of your audience, so don’t bother: unless you’re a witless Brit who can’t string three or more sentences together without.

Keep to your written proposal formula

  1. You need a title slide (with your name, that of your advisor & institution)
  2. Several slides of introduction
    1. that put your study into the big picture
    2. explain variables in the context of existing literature
    3. explain the relevance of your study organisms
    4. give the context of your own study
  3. Your aims & hypotheses
  4. Methods & Materials
    1. Images of apparatus or diagrams of how apparatus are supposed to work. If you can’t find anything, draw it simply yourself.
    2. Your methods can be abbreviated. For example, you can tell the audience that you will measure your organism, but you don’t need to provide a slide of the callipers or balance (unless these are the major measurements you need).
    3. Analyses are important. Make sure that you understand how they work, otherwise you won’t be able to present them to others. Importantly, explain where each of the variables that you introduced, and explained how to measure, fit into the analyses. There shouldn’t be anything new or unexpected that pops up here.
  5. Expected results
    1. I like to see what the results might look like, even if you have to draw graphs with your own lines on it. Use arrows to show predictions under different assumptions.
  6. Budget
  7. Timeline

Slide layout

  1. Your aim is to have your audience listen to you, and only look at the slides when you indicate their relevance. 
  2. You’d be better off having a presentation without words, then your audience will listen instead of trying to read. As long as they are reading, they aren't listening. Really try to limit the words you have on any single slide (<30). Don’t have full sentences, but write just enough to remind you of what to say and so that your audience can follow when you are moving from point to point.
  3. Use bullet pointed lists if you have several points to make (Font 28 pt)
  4. If you only have words on a slide, then add a picture that will help illustrate your point. This is especially useful to illustrate your organism. At the same time, don’t have anything on a slide that has no meaning or relevance. Make sure that any illustration is large enough for your audience to see and understand what it is that you are trying to show.
  5. Everything on your slide must be mentioned in your presentation, so remove anything that becomes irrelevant to your story when you practice.
  6. Tables: you are unlikely to have large complex tables in a presentation, but presenting raw data or small words in a table is a way to lose your audience. Make your point in another way.
  7. Use citations (these can go in smaller font 20 pt). I like to cut out the title & authors of the paper from the pdf and show it on the slide.
  8. If you can, have some banner that states where you are in your presentation (e.g. Methods, or 5 of 13). It helps members of the audience who might have been daydreaming.

Practice, practice, practice

  1. It can’t be said enough that you must practice your presentation. Do it in front of a mirror in your bathroom. In front of your friends. It's the best way of making sure you'll do a good job.
  2. If you can't remember what you need to say, write flash cards with prompts. Include the text on your slide and expand. When you learn what’s on the cards, relate it to what’s on the slide so that you can look at the slides and get enough hints on what to say. Don’t bring flashcards with you to your talk. Instead be confident enough that you know them front to back and back to front.
  3. Practice with a pointer and slide advancer (or whatever you will use in the presentation). You should be pointing out to your audience what you have on your slides; use the pointer to do this.
  4. Avoid taking anything with you that you might fiddle with.

  Lab  Writing

OTS back at Cape Point

04 March 2018

Great to join OTS at Cape of Good Hope

Another opportunity to monitor the Cape platanna (Xenopus gilli) at the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park. This time with a great crew from Organisation for Tropical Studies (OTS). I was last with OTS in October (see here), and before that in February and see blog entry herehere and here!

This time we had a delayed start as part of CoGH burned down on Thursday (1st May), but the area across link road and Olifantsbos didn't include our frogging patch (more's the pity). 

The focus was on the drought, with GEPS dam as low as I've ever seen it, but still with hundreds of frogs inside.

  Frogs  Xenopus

Talk for CCMB, Hyderabad

21 February 2018

Talking at the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad

I gave a talk at the CCMB main campus in Hyderabad about our approach to invasive amphibians in southern Africa.

The talk was well received, although attendees were as interested in the functioning of the CIB network, in addition to the work that we've done on invasive amphibians in southern Africa. 

Thanks to Milind Mutnale for taking this pic!


Andaman trip

10 February 2018

An amazing trip to the Andaman Islands

Had an amazing time visiting Nitya Mohanty at his field site in India’s Andaman Islands. It was fantastic to see the places where Indian bullfrogs (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus) have invaded.


I stayed at the marvellous Andaman & Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET) in Wandoor, South Andaman (click here for a map). This amazing NGO has a research base for terrestrial, aquatic and marine scientific investigations. Superlatives fail me to describe what the team has achieved.

What impressed me most at ANET was meeting all of the amazing Indian postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. They shared their fascination and enthusiasm for their work on turtles, salt-water crocodiles, sharks and indigenous knowledge, and it was truly inspiring. I felt that I’d met a new cohort of Indian researchers in whom I have great optimism and faith for the future of Indian science.


Nitya has used ANET as a base for his research since his MSc. But his research has involved visits to many sites on the principle islands, as well as visits to many of the smaller outlying sites.


During my visit, we went North to Middle Andaman to visit the area that Nitya’s field assistant, Saw Isaac, comes from. We had a great stay on Middle Andaman and are very grateful to Isaac for all the time he spent with us there.


Lots more stories to tell about the Andamans, and I hope they’ll feature in future blog entries as they are published.

  Frogs  Lab

Why critical reading is critical for your writing

07 February 2018

Why critical reading is critical for your writing

It is hard to emphasise exactly how important your reading will be, when it comes to your writing. If you are sitting with a blank page in front of you and feel that you have nothing to draw on, then think again. All of the reading that you have done to get to this point has already helped you more than you think. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere (formula writing blog) your chapter or manuscript is likely to resemble the formula that many others already follow, and standing on the shoulders of those giants (citation blog) will help you again. But it’s possible that your reading isn’t helpful if you aren’t being sufficiently critical.

When you read, it’s worth making all sorts of comments about what you’re reading. Of course you should be trying to follow the story that the authors are trying to tell, but you should also be using it as an opportunity to learn tips and tricks of writing. Once you are actively writing, and I’d suggest that this should have been right from the very beginning of your studies, you should be actively thinking about how the authors are writing. Are they writing well? Are parts written poorly? Then the critical part is to cogitate, albeit briefly: what works, what doesn’t and why.

When I started reading papers, I made photocopies (1 sided was as sophisticated as it got) from volumes of books and made notes in pencil on back and front of those pages as I read. I understand that most of you will be working on pdfs which offer possibilities to add notes in text boxes that go alongside. I question whether the cognitive advantages that you get from writing by hand will be achieved by typing, and if I ever find out I’ll link to this blog. But I did learn many years back in my psychology classes at Liverpool University that making handwritten notes on what you read will help build them into your memory. Thus, if you make notes on style, you are likely to remember them in the same way that you remember the paper and its contents. An alternative to typing everything is to make notes in a notebook. That way you get the advantage of building your memory with your own writing, and you can easily find everything in the same place when you forget where you read the fascinating insight.

 It’s important to emphasise that you should not copy and paste parts of someone’s paper that you like. It’s easy to do, but any copying could be your undoing if you later forget and paste your ‘notes’ into your manuscript. It’s so easy to plagiarise like this that the only way to really avoid it is by being very strict with yourself. Making notes by hand will force you to look away from the written text while you write, and you’ll be unlikely to inadvertently copy anything. The advantages of writing notes by hand then make it greatly advantageous to restricting yourself to your computer (tablet or cell!).

 So how should you read critically in order to help with your writing? I’d suggest that this is as simple as highlighting or making a quick note each time you see something that you like, or dislike. I used to underline text in pencil, and then make an illegible comment in the margin. What was singled out? For example, instead of using a taxonomic list (I don’t like lists) and long citation string to describe lots of different studies that had previously made the same point, a co-author (in a recent review study) organised them all into the same categories we were presenting in a review. The result was that the reader was reminded of our categories at the same time as seeing how well others had already covered these same topics. Another example is the way in which one of my students imaginatively linked the subjects between their paragraphs (I do like links). Lastly, it may be a theme that the author manages to develop over several paragraphs or pages, but if you’ve spotted what it is that you like, write it down and commit it to memory. The very fact that you start to see things in other people’s writing that you like and admire means that you’ve managed to start reading critically. Keep this up, and it will help your writing no end as you open up your mind to critical reading.

 You don’t have to restrict yourself in what you can learn while reading other people’s papers. Think about the stages in writing a paragraph (blog entry here). Look at the paragraphs you are reading and see if you can spot the subject and summary sentences. Maybe they are absent from the entire paper, or maybe they are present in every paragraph. Does it help enhance the readability of the paper? What about the times when authors break the rules? Can you see in your reading that the majority of authors follow rules? Do they follow the formula? What is the power in shaking it all up? If it works, try and analyse why it works. Then you will be reading critically.

What if I’m having problems recognising anything good or bad in what I read?

It’s going to be hard for me to teach you how to read and think at the same time. A little like walking and chewing gum, it comes with experience. And if you do fall over, stop chewing for a while and wait until you’ve got into your stride before having another go. Thinking is all part of the reading process, and while I agree that it might be hard to think on multiple levels while you read, it is possible. For example, consider what other worthy things you’ve thought about while reading this blog. If you’ve not stopped to check your phone, or think about eating or drinking something, well done. It might be worth creating an atmosphere with less other stimulants while you read. If you only have your reading material and notebook, you’ll be able to concentrate all of your thinking on them instead of getting distracted.

 There is also a possibility that you are struggling to get insight with your reading because English isn’t your first language. The subtleties of some of the usage of English may be passing you by. Because of the large number of words, it is possible to write something in English in many different ways. The overall aim is to convey the largest amount of information possible in the smallest number of words, while enhancing the context, meaning and readability. It’s not easy, but the only way you’ll ever get good is by starting, and reading and writing as much as possible.

 If you are still struggling, a really good way forward is to start a journal club with your colleagues. It is probable that you aren’t the only one who is having difficulties. There may already be a journal club in your institution which may (or may not) be a good place to go. What you do need is a safe space in which you aren’t afraid to say when you don’t understand. Think of it as a book club for scientific papers. After all, it may be that no-one understands and the paper is badly written. Alternatively, it can be that someone is able to help you quickly and easily. They can then give you extra insights into how and why they think the author is crafting their paper. This will then help you with your reading as well as your writing.

  Lab  Writing