Half your audience looks asleep. That’s not the sight you want to see when you’re presenting, right? Or everybody looking at their phones or typing away on their laptops? Of course not. You’ve worked hard to get this data and couldn’t wait to present it.
You might be thinking “but I am presenting to other scientists and engineers, they understand what I am talking about, they’re at the meeting to learn, they’re perfectly capable of paying attention, these are my peers!” That’s all true.
But they’re also PEOPLE! With a brain.
A brain that tends to get lazy when it’s beaten to a pulp with an avalanche of data. Unless the data is presented in an interesting and engaging way.
And THAT is what we are going to talk about.
Now, some people are born with a huge helping of charisma. You know the type. They start talking and you can’t take your eyes off of them. This article is for the rest of us mortals who can use some help in the charisma department.
So here are my top 7 tips on what you can do to keep your audience awake and engaged next time you present scientific data.
TIP #1: FRAME IT
It is critical to catch people’s attention and interest when you start your presentation.
There are lots of tips and tricks out there on how to do this. Tell a story, a joke if you’re funny, walk around and mingle with your audience, bring a prop, all kinds of ideas. But if you’re in a buttoned-down scientific conference, you may not feel too comfortable going there.
My tip is simple and doable. You need to frame your presentation and share with your audience WHY they should care.
Instead of repeating your presentation title, “today I am going to present on our work about endothelial cell signaling pathway xyz”, let them know right off the bat why this work is important.
If you managed to figure it all out, what good would it be? What kind of impact would it have? An attention-grabbing start could be: “Figuring out how the xyz endothelial cell signaling pathway works is the key to designing better anti-cancer drugs. That’s what I am going to share with you today.”
Sometimes you’re doing basic research and there is no direct application of the work. That’s ok. This basic research you’re working on is the foundation for something. For example, “The data I am going to share with you today is the foundation we need to build on for addressing big problems, like cancer drug development.”
TIP #2: USE “YOU” LANGUAGE
Think back to all the times your eyes started glazing over when somebody you’re talking with kept saying I. “So I was walking down the street and I saw this person that made me think about… .” Your brain hears “blah-blah-blah”. And you start thinking that they must be pretty self-absorbed talking about themselves all the time.
Same thing with scientific presentations. When you keep saying: “then I ran this experiment and found that…” or “we then decided to try using a different growth factor” or “our lab has developed a novel biomaterial”, same thing happens, it all starts piling up in the blah-blah-blah department.
Change as many sentences as you can to “you” language. You, your, yours. Here are some examples.
- Use rhetorical questions and make your point relatable. “Do you know how much work you waste every time you have a cell culture contamination? That’s exactly what we wanted to avoid by designing this completely closed bioreactor system.”
- Ask your audience to put themselves in your shoes. “Imagine you are a first-year graduate student tasked with coming up with a novel cancer drug target assay from scratch. That’s what I am going to share with you today.”
- Describe your experimental methods in “you” language. “To make the hydrogel, you dissolve poly vinyl alcohol in pure water… .”
TIP #3: SPELL IT OUT
Is the result you’re presenting good or bad? How good or how bad?
Is the result what you expected? Or totally unexpected?
Has this result been shown before? Or is it the first time anybody has shown this?
You GOT to spell it out for your audience. It doesn’t matter if they’re experts in your field and you think that they can figure it out on their own. Sure they could. But their brains don’t WANT to. They’d rather shut off and think about something else.
So make it easy for your audience to follow along.
And make sure you spell it out BEFORE you start diving into the details and then also repeat it again AT THE END of that particular slide.
Extra tip here: if the result is what you expected and it has been shown before, do you really need to include it in your presentation? More data does not make for a better presentation. Go for quality, not quantity.
TIP #4: USE VISUALS
Of course you have a lot of slides with a lot of data on it. It’s a scientific presentation.
Not every slide you present has to be loaded with graphs, charts, images, and text. Give your audience a break. Insert slides that have only one image, or even a few words to make a point really hit home.
Your audience will thank you for a little reprieve from the data avalanche.
TIP #5: PAUSE
Try not to deliver your presentation in one breath. I know I’ve done that.
Pause longer after you’ve made a key point. Feel free to repeat that key point. And remember TIP #3. Spell it out and let your audience know that you’re making a key point.
Pause as you switch to a new section or set of experiments. Use pauses to queue in your audience.
TIP #6: BE CONVERSATIONAL
Give your presentation as you would to a friend who is super interested in your data.
How would you talk to your friend? There might be some casual words thrown in, your tone of voice would be relaxed and friendly, and you would not speak in a monotone, drab voice.
You might even, gasp, smile!
Or even chuckle a little as you describe something unexpected or a fun result you got from one of your experiments or collaborations.
TIP #7: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
If you’re only going to remember one tip, then this is THE ONE.
You’re not giving this presentation for you. You already know what’s in it! You’re giving it for the people in front of you.
So what do you want them to know? What about your presentation is going to help them? Focus on that.
If you’re focused on sounding smart, getting the job, impressing the audience, and other self-centered goals, it’s going to show, and people won’t care.
If you’re focused on what others can learn from your work and how it could help them, that’s also going to show, and people will pay attention and stay engaged.