Guidelines for OCIP Student Seminars

Revised 2013 April

The student seminar provides a valuable opportunity to develop skill in the presentation of your scientific work to an audience.  Many students when first attending a conference will notice how this skill is sometimes sorely lacking in presentations.  When important, exciting work is presented in a boring, confusing or otherwise inept manner, the audience is turned off and the scientific message is lost.

Three or four graduate student seminar afternoons are scheduled each year, as OCIP events.  During your time as a graduate student, you will be a participant in these and probably also in other seminars required for your coursework or by your research group.  These seminars can be a great help in developing the ability and confidence to present scientific talks.

Components of a Good Seminar


Abstracts are not required for the OCIP student seminars, but are required at most scientific conferences.  An abstract should be a concise summary of the contents of the paper to be presented.  It should put the talk into perspective by giving some motivation and also state the major results, quantitatively whenever possible.  The abstract should fit onto a single page and should contain the title, authors' names, and institutions.  For some conferences, a very limited number of references may be included in an abstract.


The chair of the session will introduce you and give the title of your presentation.  So there is no need to repeat this.  Just say “thank you” and proceed with your talk.  Somewhere in the talk you should acknowledge those who helped you and/or funded the work;  this can be done right near the start, or you could choose instead to make it  the final slide.

Introduction and outline

A minute or two of lead-in explaining the nature of the problem that you are interested in and its importance should be used to introduce the audience to your project.  Since you are probably not the first person to do work in your field, reference to other scientists whose work you are trying to verify, refute, expand upon etc. is in order and will set the stage for your own contribution.

It can be very useful at the end of the introduction to offer the audience a "road map", i.e. a description of what is to be accomplished in the seminar.  Show the main headings of your talk, but try to do a little more than just tell your audience that your talk consists of an Introduction, Theory,...  An efficient practice is to reproduce the title of your presentation at the top of this slide in case the audience missed it when you were introduced.

Some people put the road map slide right after their title slide.  This works too but the challenge is that you will not yet have got the audience’s scientific attention.

The list of topics, minus the presentation title at the top, can be reused during the talk to demarcate sections, with the current topic highlighted to remind the audience of the path you are leading them on.


Remember that the Ottawa Carleton Institute for Physics is a mixed group of scientists who specialize in a variety of physics disciplines.  Give enough of a framework to allow the uninitiated to follow your talk.  Avoid jargon.  A brief definition of terms with which part of your audience might not be familiar is often very helpful.  At some point in your talk you're bound to leave some people behind but you should aim to minimize this occurrence.  Present the relevant information without "snowing" the audience with tons of data or pages of analytic derivations.  The majority of an audience will not follow details, even at a specialist conference, so your job is to situate your work in the field and explain why it is worth doing and what the major implications are.  The only detail the audience needs is some indication that you knew how to handle the details, but they don’t want the details.   If at the end of your talk they have learned what you have concluded and why this is useful, then you have succeeded.

One other consideration.  Look at the order of OCIP presentations that day.  If you feel that your presentation might overlap with someone else's, consider discussing this with the other speaker, in order to avoid too much repetition or showing identical slides or figures, especially concerning introductory material.  Use this as an opportunity to give a more complete picture of this topic.

Conclusions and future work

Draw some conclusions from your work.  Summarize these and a list of still unanswered questions which you might have created on one or two crisp slides.  Indicate the direction of future work – possibly by you, possibly by someone else – to address those questions.  This could be another slide.


At the end of the talk, simply say “thank you” and allow the audience to clap.  The control of the session is then back to the chair who will moderate the question period.  Do not end your talk by asking “Any questions?” because it is not your prerogative to do so, and the audience is unsure what to do:  should they applaud or ask a question right away?  Indeed, if you have run overtime, the session chair might rule that there is insufficient time for questions and the session must move on to the next speaker.  In a similar vein, your last slide should not be one that just has written “Questions?”.  Better choices are (i) a slide of acknowledgements (for funding and/or those who helped you), or (ii) a slide listing publications related to your work or links to more information, for the curious (but respect the comments on font size and do not pack too much onto this one slide), or (iii) simply stop with the last slide which likely listed the future work, or (iv) sometimes it works to use a cartoon or brief quotation but these have to be snappy and not time wasters.

Question period

After your talk there will be a question period.  The questions from professors and students will usually relate to particulars of your talk, or they could be of a more general nature.  Answer them to the best of your knowledge stating when you are venturing an opinion.  There will often be questions to which you do not have the answer or to which there is no answer.  When these come up you are not necessarily expected to have an answer and will do best by being honest and careful in your reply.  Some of the questions will be surprisingly simple.  Treat them at face value as the listener might not be familiar with your area of endeavour.

Post-seminar feedback

The OCIP graduate student seminar series is meant to function as a valuable tool for you to build your seminar skills.  It is an opportunity to present and listen to a broad range of physics topics in a relaxed atmosphere.  While there is no formal evaluation for grades associated with participation, since 2012 we give informal and confidential feedback to the speakers afterwards.  Critique sheets are given to all people in the room interested in giving feedback.  After the talks these are given to the student's thesis supervisor, or to the session chair who will pass them to the supervisor.  In turn the supervisor will distill the common themes from the sheets and let the student know in confidence after the session.

This feedback is for your personal use only and will not be counted in any way.  It is meant simply to give you constructive comments.  Like most things, presenting scientific work is an art best learned by practice.



For the last several years OCIP student seminars have been scheduled on a 20 minute cycle.  Allowing for speaker changeover, being introduced by the session chair, and questions at the end, you should prepare about 15 minutes’ worth of material.  Practice your talk with fellow students including slide changes, use of the board etc if needed, and get the timing right.  Communicating months of research effectively under these constraints requires preparation. 

Style of Presentation

Your objective should be to present a smoothly flowing seminar without going to the extreme of sounding like a "used car salesman".  Learn your talk so that you don't have to read it.  A helpful technique is to use a card with a list of figures or slides, a brief outline, or the figures themselves to guide you through the talk.  Alternatively, e.g. if using Powerpoint, use the `presentation mode’ which shows you your notes on the speaker’s console, the upcoming slide and the elapsed time, all of which can be very useful.  Associate a set of ideas with each illustration and they will come to mind as it is projected on the screen.  Cohesive organization of your content is most important for the way in which your talk comes across.  There is an appeal to putting in humorous asides;  while they can sometimes help the audience warm up to your presentation, our advice is to use these sparingly with great care, lest they become distractions from what the audience really wants which is a clear and logical presentation of physics.  

One’s first tendency is to describe the work in the order in which it was done.  Often that is not what the audience needs.  The intricacies of building an optical setup for five months, or the blind alleys you ran into while doing calculations, should be summarized only briefly, if at all.  Take a step back from the work, ask what the starting hypothesis was, your scientific approach, and your results, and structure the talk along those lines, leaving out all the little loops along the way.

In your practice sessions get a friend to describe any distracting mannerisms in your style so that you can consciously attempt to avoid them. Some classic examples are the jingling of keys in pockets and random gesticulations with pointers as well as "ums", "uhs", “ok’s”, etc.  Ensure you can pronounce all the names and terms you use.  If you have a phone in your pocket, make sure it’s off.

The slides are an important part of your presentation, so use them effectively.  Point to the plots/figures that are under discussion.  If you are making an important point that is listed on a slide, use the pointer to draw attention to it.

Speak clearly.  Time is of the essence, but don’t rush it.  Don’t feel chained to the podium, standing stationary and fixated on the computer display there.  Make eye contact with the audience, move around, and give some of your visual attention to the projected talk on the big screen.

For OCIP, you should attempt to give a talk in the style that you would use at a conference rather than for a group seminar while keeping in mind the previous comments about the mixed scientific audience.  It can help to assume that your audience is a collection of intelligent, but semi-ignorant people, who are anxious to learn about your work.

Using Computer-based presentation (Powerpoint, Adobe, ...)

Today, computer-based presentation is the norm.  Here is some basic advice:

- The most common error is to cram too much information per slide. This should avoided for two reasons. The first and obvious one is that there is a minimum size of type below which the text cannot be read.  A minimum font size of 22 or 24 is reasonable for the main text;  use a larger size for titles.  The second reason is that unless you stop and give the audience time to read the text, they will not have the opportunity to do so because their attention will be focused on what you are saying.

- keep the number of different text colours to a minimum

- avoid colour combinations that are hard to read.  In particular, avoid yellow, pale blue, and green lines on a white background and avoid use of red against a dark background.  All these project poorly compared to what you see on your laptop or desktop display.

- in diagrams, make sure the lines are thick enough to be visible

- almost always, the contrast between colours projected on the screen is less than on a computer monitor - so do not be lulled into thinking that if you can just see something on your monitor the audience will do as well - they won’t!

- although electronics presentation allows all kinds of fancy visual and sound effects, most listeners find these an annoyance and prefer them to be minimized

- some presenters like the content of the slide to appear one item at a time, each prompted by a mouse click or key press.  It is suggested not to overdo this however:  the audience can find it annoying, and it slows down your ability to page forward/backward through the talk e.g. during question period.

- when showing graphs, expand the graph area to the maximum possible on the slide for readability.  Remember, the audience has to be able to read the axis labels, numbers, and units!  If you have important graphs to show, generally it’s best to only show one at a time.  Crowding multiple graphs onto the same slide often makes them illegible.  While some speakers like to structure a talk using preset format templates, others feel that using the top 20% of each and every slide for a title is not good use of space.  Make your own decision of balancing space usage and talk organization.

- similarly, if you are showing an image, and really want the audience to see a feature, make the image as large as possible and make the background shading of the slide subdued in intensity and neutral in colour.  A tiny greyscale image on an otherwise bright white background has its contrast destroyed by the scattered white light from the screen.

- acknowledge the source of all illustrations that you did not draw yourself, and of images that you did not acquire or generate.  If you scan a figure from a book or journal, or copy something from the internet, write down your source on the slide.  Formally, one should be requesting permission from the copyright holder to use such material!  For OCIP talks, citing the source on the slide is sufficient.  When you write your work up as a manuscript for a journal or for your thesis, inclusion of work by others must follow copyright rules and you will need to expend the time and effort to get permission.

- If you can, practice your talk using a computer with the same operating system and same version of Powerpoint, Adobe etc as will be used for the actual presentation.  For Powerpoint, a common glitch is for the presentation computer to be missing a font that you used, so that it substitutes something else, usually with unintelligible results.  When this problem arises, it is usually for special characters such as symbols.  If it happens to you, relax, these things happen all the time - just carry on.  The sure way to avoid this is to imbed all equations as graphics. If you use latex, the program tex2im turns a latex equation into a .png file which can be inserted directly into a Powerpoint presentation.

- similarly, if you want to show video clips, make sure they actually run on the computer used at the talk.

Final Words

This seminar guide has evolved over the years starting from one by Martin Yaffe at the University of Toronto.  We hope that it’s helpful.  If there are comments or constructive suggestions please send to the OCIP Director and they will be welcomed and incorporated in future updates.