Over the last several days, I have been paying close attention to how chemists at every stage of their career communicate during presentations and poster sessions. A few insights that I have gathered are discussed below. I have to give the caveat that I am a teacher at heart and prefer educational talks. I realize that other people have different presentation styles, and I would appreciate it if anyone wants to leave comments about the benefits of other styles.
What doesn't work:
Reading long lists from slides (especially if you don’t add any information to what is written)
Providing a summary of a vast amount of work with little experimental details or data
Saying “Due to time constraints, this must be simplified” or a similar comment often. I attended one talk in which the presenter took about two minutes from the allotted presentation time by making multiple comments similar to this.
In addition, I would like to comment that although a chronological presentation of your experimental journey is sometimes useful, it is not guaranteed to be the best way to make your point.
I have been fortunate to observe a number of techniques which do work! These can be grouped into two areas: context and engagement. I believe providing context should start even before your research introduction. This applies more to a poster presentation than a talk, but introducing yourself and giving a one-sentence summary of the type of work you do will help to orient unfamiliar audience members before you launch into the science. During the presentation, provide some background for the work, keeping in mind that acronyms, molecules, processes, and techniques that are very familiar to you might not be familiar to your audience. Be careful, however, to only include the pieces of context that are important for the talk. It might be true that there are another three processes that lead to this one, but if they are not relevant to the data you present, it will only serve to distract your audience.
The last category I would like to discuss is engagement. Thus far I have seen some great examples of this. Those presenters who engaged their audience the most displayed a good balance between looking and talking at the audience and looking at the screen. When presenting data, it isn’t realistic to say ‘never look at the screen,’ but that does not give one license to never look at the audience! I have seen a few people balance this incredibly well. I have also noticed that I am more engaged as an audience member when the presenter moves (a little!), gestures when appropriate, and varies their voice inflection as they tell their research story.
As I have reflected on this engagement piece, it occurs to me that there are many who might not agree with me. My advice here is given as though the primary responsibility for engaging the audience lies with the researcher. Some might contend that a presenter is not an entertainer and that it is up to the audience to keep up with the presentation. I would appreciate hearing others’ thoughts on this balance in the comments below.