Delivering a Dynamic Job and Chalk Talk

Delivering a Dynamic Job and Chalk Talk
Susan McKarns, Ph.D.
University of Missouri

Susan McKarns, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Center of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at the University of Missouri. She received her B.S. from The Ohio State University, M.S. from the University of Tennessee at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and Ph.D. from the Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University in the laboratory of Norbert E. Kaminski. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Ronald Schwartz at The National Institutes of Health. In 2007, she was appointed tenure-track assistant professor in the Hugh E. Stephenson Jr., MD. Dept. of Surgery and the Dept. of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Medicine at the University of Missouri. She mentors undergraduate, graduate, and medical students and postdoctoral scholars in her Laboratory of TGF-β Biology, Epigenetics and Cytokine Regulation (LTEC).




During your interview visit, you will be asked to give a “job talk”—a formal presentation on your current research and demonstration of your skills; a “chalk talk”—an informal presentation to discuss your future goals and the fundability of your work; and/or a “teaching talk”—either a simulated or guest lecture. In any case, this talk is crucial, as it provides the best opportunity for a candidate to showcase his/her intellect, skills, congeniality, and teaching promise.

Goal: Your goal is to engage your audience. Typically, you will have about 90 seconds to capture a person’s attention and convince them that they really want to spend their time listening to you. You want your audience to remember what you said and why you said it. You want everyone leaving the room talking about your talk. Remember—you want them to hire you!

Format: The style of the interview talk will differ between academic, industry, government, and teaching institutes. It is your responsibility to know to which type of institute you are applying and exactly what type of talk the institute requests from you. Regardless of the format, apply the old adage “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said.” Always introduce yourself, cordially thank the organizers, and be enthusiastic, focused, punctual, engaging, courteous, and sincere.

Basic Rules for Every Job Talk

Know your audience
This is essential and the only way to know exactly how much introduction you need to provide. Equally important, you will also need to determine whether the composition of your talk should be general and broad or specific and detailed. It is highly unlikely that there is going to be anyone in the audience who cares more about your research than yourself—don’t try to tell them everything but, rather, focus on the highlights.

Before you begin preparing your talk, find out who will be attending. It is absolutely critical that you address your entire audience—EVERYONE MATTERS! A tremendous amount of enthusiasm can be generated from a really good job talk, and everyone in the room can become your advocate, so utilize this opportunity to reach beyond the scope of the search committee to portray your talents.

Audiences differ. The audience at a research institute will be other scientists—they will be representative of all levels and will come from within as well as outside of the department. The audience at a teaching institute is more generalized and will be comprised of faculty, administrators, and students. Make an extra effort to connect with the students; it is likely that they have been encouraged to provide feedback. The audience for an industry position will include scientists, business administrators, and representatives from human resource, financial, and marketing divisions. Typically, a research institute hires for scientific excellence, a teaching institute for your teaching capacity, and industry for your technical skills. Set the tone, focus, and organization of your talk accordingly. Always deliver your talk to the “outsiders,” not to the few experts in the audience. Always acknowledge everyone.

Understand the rules
Be certain that you understand what type of talk is requested. Again, you may be asked to give a “science talk,” a “teaching talk,” or a “chalk talk.” The science talk is usually given on the first day of a two-day visit and is usually 45-50 minutes in length. A chalk talk usually comes on the second day of the first visit or during a second visit and can last from 45 to 90 minutes. A teaching talk, depending on whether you are asked to simulate or provide a guest lecture, may be 60 to 75 minutes.

Know what the audiovisual requirements are. For example, don’t assume the institute will have the latest version of Microsoft Office or the software required to run any movies that you may have included in your talk. Also, the institute may ask you to e-mail a copy of your presentation in advance; be prepared to do this. DO NOT make any assumptions regarding program compatibility and equipment function—take overheads as an alternative backup resource!

Know how much time you have. This will vary between institutes. If they don’t tell you, then ask. It is better to deliver a talk that is too short than one that is too long—but aim for the time allotted. It is essential to leave time for questions—ten minutes is a good rule of thumb. If you prepare your talk early and practice, you will likely anticipate some of the questions that may come from the audience. Practice your answers! Include extra slides at the end of your talk to aid in focusing your responses.

Going over time can be a kiss of death. If you are running short on time, don’t speed up—cut slides. Incorporate guideposts into your talk that will help you determine whether you are staying on your time schedule. You should generally not use more than 30-35 slides for a 50-minute talk.

Know what the size of the room will be. Prepare your slides accordingly. There is no excuse for poor slides that cannot be read easily by everyone in the audience. Practice speaking at the volume that will be needed. Find out if a microphone will be available. Determine whether you will need to dim lights to view images.

Know what is being evaluated
Often times the individual trumps the science. In addition to your scientific excellence, you will be evaluated. Will you fit into the department/division? Are you an effective teacher? Do you possess the leadership and management style that works well with the organization? Do you share a common vision? Your ability to demonstrate enthusiasm, display a willingness to collaborate, share credit, identify people who actually did the work, relate your work in context of what others have done before you, and be open to new ideas as you address questions are all key elements to any talk that will help your audience to evaluate you as well as your science.

Tell a story
“Tell a story; don’t read a paper.” You don’t need to tell your story in the chronological order in which it actually happened. Clearly present a big picture. Tell your audience why the big picture is important. Identify your unique contribution to the big picture. What did you accomplish? What is the significance of your work? Where is it going? Remember that your audience does not care about the details the way that you do. LESS IS MORE. A common mistake in many job talks is to include too much material and too many details. Focus to highlight only your key point so that you tell an effective story. If someone wants details, they will ask questions. REPEAT FOR REMEMBERANCE. It may be a good idea to use transition slides to emphasize the key points as you move to each new topic. Don’t memorize your talk. Use body language, eye contact, and gestures to help turn your talk into a story that engages and excites your audience. It is your responsibility to let them know that you want the job.

Have high quality slides
Good slides will not rescue bad data, but bad slides will do great harm! LESS IS MORE. Simplify your slides as much as possible. Show only the most relevant data. Don’t put any more data on an individual slide than a person can digest in 30 seconds. If your slides are too complicated or too difficult to read easily, your audience will “tune out”—you will lose their attention.

Limit the number of colors that you use. Don’t use extraneous words. Minimize animation. Eliminate sound. San-serif fonts are easiest to read from a distance. Each slide should have a title and the title should be 40 points and bold. The title should summarize a key finding and state the take home message. This will enable your audience to get back on-track if needed. If your slides are difficult to see, your audience will stop listening and start reading—this is NOT what you want. The font size for all major points should be 24 to 30 points. ALL CAPS can be difficult to read. BOLD text is easier to read than italics or underlined. Lines on graphs should be at least 3 points. The resolution of your computer screen will probably be greater than that of an LCD projector. Avoid red-green color schemes—someone in the audience may be color blind. If you are going to show movies, consider taking your own computer—don’t forget the adaptors.

HOPE FOR THE BEST; PREPARE FOR THE WORST. Make sure that you have a plan in place should things go wrong. What if the computer won’t start? Can you begin speaking without your first slides? Also, consider in advance what you will do if your presentation is taking longer than you anticipated. You should decide a priori what slides or what material you can skip or gloss over. It may be a good idea to format one section of your talk that you can either delete completely or significantly de-emphasize. DO NOT simply just speed up—your audience will zone out.

Be engaging and personable
There is no doubt that the audience is interested in your science, the technical skills that you have to offer, and/or your ability to capture the attention of a classroom, but they are also interested in you. Your dress, body language, facial expressions, and movements will make a strong first impression. Do not overlook these factors as you practice your talk. Prepare introductory remarks that will enable you to easily and immediately connect with your audience.

Do not memorize your entire talk, but it is a good idea to memorize the first two sentences, the final slide, and any particularly difficult transitions. Make eye contact with your audience. Use a microphone if available. Move away from the podium if possible. Never turn your back to the audience. Be enthusiastic—don’t let nervousness overshadow your enthusiasm. Difficulty using a pointer or slide advancer will be viewed as nervousness and lack of self-confidence. Get to the presentation room early. Familiarize yourself with the room layout and the instrumentation. Take the responsibility to make sure that everything works to your satisfaction. If you are more comfortable using your own equipment, then do so.

It is possible that someone in the audience will fall asleep. Simply assume that they just had a long night or are feeling ill. Be sympathetic, retain your focus, and move on.

Nail your questions
Answering questions can be difficult, but you should genuinely welcome them. Be sincere, gracious, open, and complete with your responses. If you don’t understand a question, don’t be embarrassed to ask to have it repeated or for clarification. You may need to adjust to accommodate background noise or unfamiliar accents. You can make a strong impression if you are able to pause, clearly decipher the question, provide a complete and genuine response, and then immediately get back on track with the remainder of your presentation. Never ignore a question. Remember that you are a guest. The use of humor can be dangerous—and this can quickly turn against you. Don’t use humor unless you have consistently received positive feedback from practice with your colleagues. Anticipate what your questions will be and practice your answers. Be able to cite references in your answers.

Start early
Nothing will compensate for preparedness. Start preparing for your talk early and practice often. Begin with an outline, write everything down, and then convert this to Power Point slides. Get constructive, critical feedback and lots of it. Discuss your job talk strategies with mentors and colleagues inside as well as outside your field. Attend job seminars or other job interviews within your own department.

Concluding Remarks

Institutes want more than just great scientists. They want to surround themselves with great colleagues. They want to fill their departments with good citizens and focused leaders and their classrooms with outstanding teachers. To accomplish success, prepare your talk to capture all of these elements and practice until you have mastered each of them.

Checklist of Items to Bring

  • Disk/memory stick copy of your talk
  • E-mail copy of your talk
  • Printout of your talk
  • Laptop
  • Computer adaptor
  • Laser Pointer
  • Batteries
  • Bottle of water
  • Eye drops
  • Cough drops
  • Tissue
  • Extra contact lenses
  • Lens cleaner

NOTE: to add your comments or questions, please email us.


I really enjoyed reading Dr. McKarns’ post on Delivering a Dynamic Job and Chalk Talk. Having started interviewing for academic positions, I really appreciate her practical advice. Many of the things she mentions are small details, but they all add up. And if handled properly can make a big difference. Thank you for posting this.
Ilan A. Kerman
University of Michigan

This article by Dr. McKarns highlights the importance of being well prepared for a job talk. When asked to speak in a job talk, chalk talk, teaching talk, or other type of oral presentation, a good first step is to ask the organizer to provide you some details about the audience makeup and any specific information that he/she expects you to address. This is important information to know up front, so that you can focus on the most relevant material in preparing your talk. Also, when preparing slides (for instance, using PowerPoint), I would suggest spending some time determining which slides that you might be able to skip or spend less time discussing, if the talk is running too long. As Dr. McKarns expressed, skipping material is easier for the audience to handle than attempting to rush through it. An easy way to prepare for the possibility of skipping/glossing over material is to organize the slides with short, bulleted phrases and pictures/figures (allowing you to present orally the majority of the information associated with the slide). This strategy gives you a great deal of flexibility, and hence will allow you to skip information or details without the audience being any the wiser.
Angela Grippo
Northern Illinois University

I would emphasize that you should find out what an institute means by chalk talk. Some may expect an informal PowerPoint presentation on your future research project with lots of interruptions. Others may truly want a "chalk talk" without a PowerPoint talk. Ask what is expected.
Colleen Cosgrove Hegg
Michigan State University

Dr. McKarns' article is succinct and covers some basic but ever-useful information that people often forget or disregard. Her detailed description of why it's important to: a) know your audience; b) stay within the time limit; and c) not put too much information on your slides or in your talk should serve as a useful reminder of things that effectively increase the perception by the audience of the speaker and the presentation. One additional tip I found highly useful (and need to apply to my own presentations) was: "If you are running short on time, don’t speed up—cut slides". Staying within your allotted time and being aware of where you are in the time window is critical - especially in circumstances where you may be interrupted by questions, lengthening your presentation.

A couple of suggestions I would make:

  1. On the items of things to bring, I would suggest bringing a remote slide-advancing mechanism, as well. There have been times when I have presented and the podium is positioned such that it is difficult to see your own slides.
  2. Susan makes the point about memorizing particularly difficult transitions in your presentation. I would like to highlight how important it is to HAVE transitions prepared, so that you flow neatly from one data set or concept to another rather than having pauses at the end of each slide or thought.

Kristin Gosselink
University of Texas at El Paso

This discussion is excellent in that it gives practical advice that both beginners and seasoned professionals should use (it's quite amazing how many scientists at all levels either never learned these essentials or have chosen to forget them). A few comments specific to interviewing at a government lab:

  1. In my experience, government labs generally hire for scientific excellence and for the ability to collaborate with others. Government labs are often organized in teams that work together to solve a particular problem. It's very important that you understand that your ability to work as a team member toward a defined mission will be evaluated during the interview process. This isn't to say that there aren't ways to do the research that you want to do at a government lab; any government scientist worth his or her salt knows how to do their own basic science while operating within the guidelines of the lab's mission. If you prefer to do science totally independently, however, government science may not be the best fit for you.
  2. In terms of knowing your audience, prepare for the specific mission of the government lab to which you're applying; each government lab will have a specific mission. For example, our mission is to develop better means of treating combat casualties. If you are trained in inflammatory processes, you might want to mention how your work on inflammation could translate into better care after injury; this catches the commander's attention as it's relevant to his/her mission! Also, military government labs will often have a mix of military and civilian scientists and administrators in the audience, as well as those trained in research (PhD scientists) and clinical practice (MD's). Do your homework.
  3. I cannot emphasize enough the comment "know what the audiovisual requirements are." At this point, no Department of Defense lab can use USB keys due to security issues (this does not seem to be the case for civilian labs). Be sure to ask beforehand what the best mechanism for bringing your presentation to the lab is. It may be that e-mailing the presentation in advance will be your best bet, but even if you do e-mail it, be sure and bring the presentation on your own laptop as well as a CD.
  4. Ask about the size of the presentation room and any specific issues.
    Typically, government labs will not have classrooms with tiered seating and other features conducive to speaking, but rather large conference rooms. Make sure you can speak to the back of the room without a microphone.

Kathy Ryan
US Army Institute of Surgical Research


You give great guidelines for preparing a scientific talk, but what about a “chalk talk”? How should we go about preparing for this, especially if this is an interview for our first faculty position?
Sarah Lindsey
Wake Forest University


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