The Do’s and Don’ts of Research Presentations

Morie A. Gertz, MD
Chair, Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Minnesota

There’s a basic formula for presentations of any kind: “Tell them what you are going to tell them; then tell them; and then tell them what you told them.”

Of course, if you have ever sat through a 10-minute presentation with 50 slides covering every bit of data in the known world – or, if you’ve looked out from the podium and been able to count the number of dozing audience members – you know there are more nuances than that.

Here are 10 tips for giving a successful presentation that I share with younger hematologists and fellows new to the process – and the more senior researchers who might need a refresher course – learned from years of sitting in the audience of less-than-successful talks, as well as making my own mistakes as the brave soul up on the podium.

#1 Don’t fall in love with your data.
Many individuals feel that they have to address every single piece of evidence in existence to educate the audience on the topic being discussed. That’s a great danger because, often, the presentation turns into a recitation of minutiae.

#2 Know your audience.
Every audience is different – if you try to give the same talk to medical students and practicing physicians and your colleagues, you’re making a grave mistake. Tailor your talk to your audience, their comprehension, and their training level.

In a similar vein, an academic presentation is not the time to test out some new jokes. Jokes tend to point out cultural ironies, so it’s highly likely that your humor won’t translate to a multicultural or international audience – and you also run the risk of alienating or insulting someone. If you want to inject humor into your presentation, stick to self-deprecatory jokes poking fun at yourself. Basically, though, you are given this time to deliver content, so deliver your content as best you can. Humor may make your presentation a little bit more memorable, but it’s not something I recommend unless you understand the audience very well.

#3 Don’t over-complicate things.
Follow the “KISS” principle: Keep It Simple, Scientist. Experts tend to become so familiar with their data that they may overestimate what their audience really understands. When that’s the case, talks can get very complex very quickly. Also, there is often a very broad range of knowledge among the audience members, so as a presenter, you are tasked with making a complex topic comprehensible to a wide variety of learners. That’s not to say that you should dumb down your presentation, but try to find the balance between over-simplifying and making higher-level information understandable.

#4 Narrow your focus to key data.
Most presentations tend to be too dense with respect to the data being presented: a speaker will work through the Kaplan-Meier survival curves, response rates, stringent response rates, and progression-free survival of 30 clinical trials. It all runs together. Similar to point #1, you need to focus on the key points that are representative of other published data.

#5 Don’t forget to provide a learning objective.
All talks should – and those that qualify for CME credit are required to – have learning objectives. Of course, if you do provide a learning objective, it should go without saying that you need to follow through with it. Many times, presenters will say, “Here’s the purpose of my talk,” but then they seem to forget about it as they progress through their talk. In other words, I view the learning objectives as the strategic plan for the presentation; it’s another way of saying, “Here is what we are trying to achieve with this talk.”

For instance, if you begin your talk by stating the objective of, “The learner will understand the newest therapies in myeloma,” then don’t spend half of your talk discussing the biology of the disease unless it relates directly to the function of the therapy. So, when you’re reviewing your presentation, look at your learning objectives and ask yourself, “Have I met those objectives?”

#6 Follow the rule of “one minute per slide.”
I regularly see people who are scheduled for a 30-minute talk but show up with 70 slides. No matter how fast you talk, or how eloquent your data are, it is impossible to go through 70 slides in 30 minutes. The presenter typically ends up rushing through or omitting the data or running over the allotted time. This is a big mistake. It’s important to discipline yourself – for your own sake, that of the audience, and that of the presenter following you whose time you might be cutting short.

#7 Don’t forget to focus on the patient.
It is very difficult, particularly with a clinical audience, to talk about data outside of the context of patients. To help the audience better understand the results of the research, I will always lead off my talks by discussing a patient who exemplifies a specific diagnostic or therapeutic dilemma. This provides a frame of reference at the launch of the discussion – and gives audience members the opportunity to see how the data could apply to their own practice.

#8 Incorporate questions in your talk.
Questions are a great tool for audience engagement – it helps to break up the monotony of listening to a single person at the podium drone on for 40 minutes. Whether it’s multiple-choice questions or an electronic audience response system, the questions should be oriented to your specific topic and cover relevant data.

After your presentation, the Q&A session is the opportunity for the audience to drive their own learning, so be mindful of the time you are allotted so you leave ample room for questions. During your presentation, you are following your own agenda and telling your audience what you think they need to know. By asking questions, the learners are delving more into what they want to know – which is far more important.

#9 Don’t assume too much about your audience’s background and knowledge.
There’s always the risk of assuming that the audience’s knowledge of the topic being discussed is as sophisticated as your own – especially when you deliver the same talk over and over. This is simply a matter of researchers becoming inured to their own data; they may be breezing through their presentation, but they might have left the audience behind back on slide 4.

The most common manifestation of this problem is using abbreviations that no one in the audience can decipher. Many times, I’ve been watching a presentation and had to lean over to the person next to me to ask, “What does that stand for?” Sometimes, they don’t know either! So, if there are two people sitting there that don’t know, that’s a real problem.

#10 Never apologize for a slide.
How many times have you heard a speaker say, “This is a very busy slide – I’m really sorry about it, but if you just look in the lower right-hand corner…”? Never apologize for a slide. If you have to apologize, that slide should not be shown. Period. No one is forcing you to put three paragraphs on one slide! Aside from the nuts and bolts of making your slideshows effective and visually appealing (use san serif fonts, don’t use the color red, etc.), it seems like common sense, but people do apologize for what they are showing the audience, and it’s insane!

How to Know When You’ve Lost Your Audience

If you follow those tips, I hope you won’t have to worry about your audience tuning you out. But it’s always important to know when you’re losing your audience so you can make the necessary adjustments to win them back.

I used to look out into the audience and count the people who were sleeping, but now I have a much more accurate method: I count how many people are on their smartphones. With the help of the illuminating blue light emanating from their screens, I can see who’s texting, who’s emailing, and who’s browsing the Web looking for anything more interesting than what I’m discussing. If I see more than 10 percent of the audience on their phones, then I know I’ve done a bad job.

And, of course, if you finish your talk and there are no questions from the audience, you know you have failed miserably. When that happens to me, I actually feel sick. I think to myself, “I either lost them or they don’t care anymore.”

So, when I’m faced with an audience where people are lining up at the microphones to ask questions, that’s the ideal situation. Handling those questions is another skill that’s learned basically from trial and error.

As the presenter, the one on stage, you do have a certain amount of control over how the conversation will flow. If someone throws you a curveball that doesn’t relate to the topic at hand, or that demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the content that other members may have grasped, you have the ability to blow it off. Or, if you want to take the more diplomatic route, say, “That’s an important question, but the answer is complex and I think we need to take it offline after my allotted time is done.”

The same is true if you’re asked a question that requires a four-minute answer during your five-minute Q&A session – you can decline to answer, rather than shutting out four other people’s questions. Think about the audience as a whole and what you would like for them to get out of your presentation.

Last, But Not Least…

Have a conclusion. At the end of your presentation, it is important to emphasize what was just discussed – essentially, “tell them what you told them.” The conclusion is your listeners’ take-home message. It’s the “elevator speech” that they can carry with them after they’ve listened to your (and probably 10 more) presentations.

So, here’s mine. Overall, effectively delivering a research presentation boils down to a basic principle: understand what you can and cannot do in the time you’ve been given. There is not a topic in the world, no matter what it is, that you can’t talk about for two-and-a-half hours. But you have 10 minutes, so do it in 10 minutes – no matter what you are presenting. It could be earth-shattering research that’s going to win the Nobel Prize, but you are getting 10 minutes for that abstract presentation, so work with it.