This weeks’ patronizing corner comes to you courtesy of a friend of mine, whose presentation I was tortured with the day I am writing this. You know who you are, don’t pretend you don’t.
We’re going to go through the ins and outs of a good scientific presentation. What to do and what not to do. I want you to bear in mind I am not an expert presenter. Excitable yes, expert no. But I do know what doesn’t work and I think that’s important. We’re going to go through the rough outline you might take in your presentation and talk through what you need to consider for each part, then we’re going to lay down some rules, then I’m going to let you loose to inspire the world.
Title: Let’s start right at the top with something which, in theory, shouldn’t be too difficult but which, in practice, many people ruin. Definitely don’t make it super long and involved because it’s a pain to read for your audience and it’s even more of a pain for you to have to introduce. But similarly don’t just call it ‘Solving Dementia’ or something equally unhelpful. Some people have strong opinions on puns or the use of phrases like ‘double edged sword’ or ‘Janus faced’ but I’m not fussed at this point. Something pithy and informative is all you need. Don’t read it out, the audience have eyes. Tell them what you’re going to talk to them about, give them a rough overview of your presentation.
Introduction: We’ve got the title, which is an overview of the whole project. Next is your chance to introduce the problem, why it’s important and how you, and only you, can solve it. First things first. Assume nothing about your audience. Unless you are a stroke clinician going into an audience of stroke clinicians who all work on the same type of imaging that you do then you need to explain everything. And I mean everything. You cannot over patronize at this point. If you are going into a general neuroscience conference do not assume everyone in the room knows what dementia is, or the burden of it. Highlight the big picture problem. And do it in an imaginative way, or a way that makes it sound dramatic. Then people appreciate the scope of the issue, and you’ll capture their attention quickly.
Now you’ve told them that someone is diagnosed with dementia every 7 seconds, or something equally bold, you need to tell them what the problem is. And mostly the problem will be that we don’t have a cure. Or we don’t have a good diagnostic tool. Or we don’t have a good prognostic tool. Or the ones we have are a bit outdated and don’t work all that well. Again, err on the side of patronizing here.
Once they’ve grasped the magnitude of the issue and the specific problems surrounding it you can crack on and tell them what you are going to do. Think of this as a more user-friendly version of your paper introduction. The upside-down triangle approach. Big picture stuff first but working your way down to how your work fits into the big picture.
And for all of this, use technical language sparingly. If you don’t need to use jargon, don’t. I’m not saying take it all the way down to a lay approach but there are ways of saying things that are easier to understand and make both the problem, and your research, more approachable. Remember your audience is full of potential collaborators, people who might be able to help you. If you make your problem easy to understand then they might think of a novel way to approach it. Here’s an example of what not to do in an introductory sentence courtesy of today’s torturer:
“Currently there is a variable association between ischemic infarct volumes to outcome”
Individually the words make sense, and as a sentence it also makes sense. But try this one on for size:
“The problem we have at the moment is that sometimes large strokes can result in very little disability, whereas small strokes can result in major disabilities, the size of the stroke is not necessarily a key determinant of how well patients recover”
Can you see how the second one may use more words but suddenly the importance of the problem is much clearer?
And for all of this you want to use text as sparingly as possible on your actual slides. So whilst I would say the words above I might just have the following text:
Infarct volume ≠ functional outcome
The rule a previous post-doc laid down in the lab was no more than five lines on the page and no more than five words per line. And do not read them. Again, your audience have eyes. I’ve taken this to the extreme with some of my presentations and I literally just have a picture of a stroke brain and I talk around it. This works quite well if you’re really engaged with your audience. I do a ton of hand waving which I think keeps people wondering whether I’m crazy. Which brings us on to our next important point.
For all of the patronizing speech and minimal text, you still have to be excited. You cannot expect your audience to get on board with how cool your work is if you’re not selling it as cool. You need to sound upbeat with some variation in your tone of voice and even the occasional bit of hand-waving. This is where non-technical language helps. I was once approached after a conference talk by a senior professor who asked me whether I had seriously said ‘all those cytokines were sloshing around’ and I said yes, I had, and she’d remembered it, so it was clearly a good thing, right?
Methods: So we’ve introduced our problem, everyone is super excited to hear how we’re going to fix dementia, and now we have to show them the progress we’ve made. And here’s my controversial statement. Nobody really cares how you did what you did. More specifically, nobody wants a detailed breakdown of ‘we took these 150 patients and we gave them a mini mental state exam and we scanned their brains with this sequence for this many minutes and we used these very specific parameters to analyze stuff’. It’s a snoozefest and we don’t need the details. The way around this is to leap straight from your intro into your results and sprinkle the methods in as you go. ‘What we found was X, we used this technique to show it’. The only exception to this rule is if you were developing a fun new technique. Then we really do want to hear about it.
Results: The good stuff. Now, bear in mind all the professors in the audience have been checking their emails through your intro because they know dementia is bad. So once they look up they’re going to want to know what they’re looking at. Heading up top should say what is on the page and be clear and specific. ‘Extracellular vesicle numbers increase in acute ischemic stroke patients’ is useful, ‘EV numbers in stroke’ is not.
On the page introduce your graphs one by one if you have them, making good use of animation and your laser pointer so people know where they’re looking whilst you talk them through the data. And fill up the screen with the graphs. There is nothing worse than being old and tired and slightly hungover at the back of a lecture theatre and having to squint at the tiny graph in the middle of the big white page.
Conclusions: Follow the cardinal rule of presenting here. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. You used your title slide to outline what you were going to say. Now tell them what you just said. Again, less text is better and be positive about your data, even if it’s negative.
Acknowledgements: These are nice. Please have them. We like pictures too so that if your colleagues or boss are at the conference, we’ll recognize them. Or if you work in a particularly beautiful building and we work in a 70s NHS building we can be jealous. Also, it is nice to say thank you to the people who have helped you.
I think I’m done lecturing you for the time being so here are the basic rules:
- Assume nothing about your audience
- Use approachable language
- Use text sparingly but informatively
- Avoid reading text verbatim off the screen
- Make your images fill the screen
- Use animations to bring in things one by one so as not to overwhelm
- Use your laser pointer to highlight things
- Be excited about your work. If you aren’t, they won’t be.
And that’s it. Simple, right?
Now go. Be free and present your work well, young one.
Dr Yvonne Couch  is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.