Making Your Case

How to avoid the biggest presentations mistakes.

By | June 1, 2006

Whether you're introducing colleagues to initiatives, giving a plenary session at a scientific conference, or trying to convince investors to fund your research, your presentation skills can mean the difference between success and failure. You already know your material - that's why you're giving a presentation in the first place. But a presentation is more than just data. "The biggest impact you have on your audience is actually the delivery," says Lisa Marshall, managing director of the science-based communications training company, an Edge, based in Haddon Heights, NJ.

A good presentation makes you an effective business leader and a scientist better able to communicate your work to peers. A ho-hum presentation means people check out, literally or mentally, emphasizes Susan Morris, president of the Langhorne, Pa.-based Morris Consulting Group, a communications training firm for pharmaceutical clients. Both Morris and Marshall work with clients on the content, organization, and delivery of their presentations, including helping to key in on the impact desired from the talk, creating effective visuals (see graphic), as well as honing a client's personal delivery.

Even established researchers change jobs occasionally, so treat every scientific presentation like a job seminar, recommends Jeff Radel, a neuroscientist at the University of Kansas Medical Center who teaches a graduate course on scientific presentations. (His tutorials on preparing effective presentations are available at "Every time you give a talk," says Radel, "you ought to be thinking that someone in the audience is thinking, 'Maybe I could hire that person, they're awfully good at what they do.'"


? Put your research into context. This means making subtle yet important changes for every different audience. Adding definitions and less jargon for lay audiences is obvious, as is focusing on the business impact behind technologies when presenting to investors or business leaders. But even fellow scientists need to receive different presentations. For researchers outside your core discipline, as well as scientists in different departments, change your delivery to reflect not only the level of understanding but also why people are listening. Focus on the impact you want the information to have - introducing new science, appealing for collaboration, highlighting a new approach to solving a problem, etc.

? Speak naturally. Your presentation includes not just your visuals but also, of course, yourself. Whether your audience is 10 colleagues or 400 strangers, avoid "The Presenter" mode. Deliver the talk as if you were conversing with a colleague: Make direct eye contact, share your natural enthusiasm, and use hand gestures. Also, be present: Don't rely on your visual material. You do the communicating, and use the visuals to supplement what you are saying.

? Practice. Develop your talk in advance and practice to make yourself comfortable with the order of your slides and the transitions between them. If you find yourself preparing a presentation on the flight to your meeting, you're starting too late.

<figcaption> Credit: SOURCE, SLIDES AND EXPLANATION: LISA MARSHALL</figcaption>

1. In the BEFORE slide, each subunit is labeled with the protein name, but in a presentation, these names can be unimportant and distracting. Also, repetition of colors in both complexes might lead the viewer to conclude the same or similar protein is found in each complex, which is incorrect. In the AFTER slide, the title communicates the main idea of the slide. The message that each protein complex contains multiple distinct subunits is illustrated using the color families and removing detail labels. Text is added to emphasize the point. The main point in the title is repeated as the third bullet for emphasis. Information not supporting the main point is removed.

<figcaption> Credit: SOURCE, SLIDES AND EXPLANATION: LISA MARSHALL</figcaption>

2. The title of the BEFORE slide communicates the main message, but uses a specialized term - conservation - that a mixed-background audience might not understand. Also, it is not clear why the proteins have been grouped into sections. The formatting should make things easier for the viewer to read: the title needs to be bigger and the bolding of body text should be removed. In the AFTER slide, the sections are identified as representing two protein complexes (PRC1 PRC2), and use the same coloring as the previous slide for clarity and consistency. Text is added to explain how they are similar in both sequence and complex composition.

<figcaption> Credit: SOURCE, SLIDES AND EXPLANATION: LISA MARSHALL</figcaption>

3. The title of the BEFORE slide does not communicate the main point: that gene silencing is important and necessary in mammals. Also, not all panels (e.g., B, C, F and G) need to be addressed in the talk; the slides should be catered to the talk and not the reference paper. The figure provides far more detail than the speaker will present (note such figure "artifacts" as colored arrowheads, yellow stars, and panel labels). Finally, the reference on the slide should be an "in-text" reference, with the detailed end reference at the end of the presentation. The AFTER slide highlights areas of comparison so that the speaker is emphasizing and also guiding the listeners' eyes to the correct location on the graphics.

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