When the happiest moment of your PhD turns into the scariest one.
In 2017, I remember feeling my heart pounding when I read the lineup of speakers for the Third International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference. They were all coming! All the big shots of the neoantigen discovery field in one room, my dream come true! I mean, I had read and re-read their papers so many times I could quote them. Every day, their ideas challenged me, confronted me, inspired me. And so, in a split second, I knew I had to go. But to go, I had to submit an abstract, which meant taking the risk of being selected for an oral presentation. At first, I didn’t think much of it. Me, getting an oral presentation? I don’t think so!
Fast-forward to a few months later and THE e-mail: “Dear Ms. Céline M. Laumont, It is a pleasure to inform you that, in addition to the poster presentation, your abstract has also been chosen by the abstract review committee to be presented as a short talk.”
And that’s when the panic kicked in. The monologue in my head went something like this: “Yeaaaaaaah, I’M IN!!!!! Wait, WHAT?? Poster and a short talk?? … How am I supposed to present my data to ~2,000 participants???? How?? I’m not qualified for that. I don’t know how to do that! I’m good behind a computer or at my bench, not standing in front of people with my face projected on some gigantic screen because the room is so big they can’t see me at the back! WHAT HAVE I DONE?!”
It is now 2020, which means I did survive this traumatic (yet enjoyable) experience, and I learned a lot from it. So here is my ultimate recipe for building a bulletproof oral presentation for a scientific conference!
Step 1: To share or not to share, that is the question.
Giving an oral presentation is not about sharing your grade school chronicles, it is more about building a story complex enough to be entertaining, yet simple enough to be easily followed by your audience. But, how do you get there from the pile of results you accumulated over the years? Well, don’t share them all. Cut, cut, cut! And when you’re done cutting, cut a little bit more!
To get this chopping – sometimes ego-bruising – process going, I start by writing down the key question and objectives of my project. Below each objective, I then list the main conclusions we have reached so far, including supporting experiments and analyses. Having this exhaustive list helps me select the results I would like to share with my audience given their expected level of expertise and the time I have been allocated to talk. Once I have defined the core of the presentation, I go through it to identify the concepts I should go over in the introduction so that everyone, including a non-expert, is on the same page. Finally, I take some time to reflect on this presentation plan to raise meaningful conclusions and implications as well as to propose some concrete future directions. For the audience, this closing section is essential to put the project in a broader conceptual context so, please, avoid vague sentences (e.g., “This will help us find a better cure for cancer”) at all costs.
At this stage, about 60% of the work is done, as you should have a clear vision of your presentation backbone. Before moving on to the next step, I would advise you to forget about it for a few days, and come back to it with a fresh mind. During this last run-through, assess the coherence and conciseness of your presentation plan and adjust if needed. Be critical, not complacent, as a flawed plan always translates into a shaky presentation.
Step 2: After planning, time for action!
In this section, we will see how to transform the plan developed in Step 1 into an actual PowerPoint slideshow. Easier said than done, I know! But I have some practical tips that may help you go through this transition smoothly.
One idea per slide. It may be obvious, yet we tend to overcrowd our slides. So, keep it simple! And while you’re at it, give it a clear and short title reflecting the core idea or conclusion conveyed by it. Besides helping the audience follow you, it will also remind you why you inserted that slide in the first place.
Illustrate, don’t annotate. Your slides are not your notes. Really, I mean it! So do not use them as such! Rather than long sentences and cryptic acronyms that you’re the only one to understand, use carefully chosen images to illustrate your idea. These should be as simple as possible, while you will take the time to explain them to your audience. For instance, if you use a box-plot to argue that there is a significant difference between condition A and B, do not forget to mention what the y-axis represents! Otherwise, what’s the point of having an image if you don’t use it. Of course, some slides might require a bit of text beside the title, and that is fine. Just use it when necessary, not because you are scared of forgetting what you want to say (see Step 3).
Direct the focus of your audience. Even when following the ‘one idea per slide’ rule, you may end up having several graphics on one slide. This is totally fine. However, rather than showing them all at once, use animations or contrasting effects to direct the focus of your audience on what you are currently discussing. If you don’t, they might not follow your presentation because they are trying to understand something you will comment on later.
Step 3: There is show in slideshow, so get your ass on stage!
Now that we went over how to structure and build a presentation, we are left with one last step to discuss: the actual act of presenting. Let’s face it, I have met very few people who enjoy talking unprepared in front of an audience. But, how to prep exactly?
Write down what you want to say. You can use bullet points or write fully detailed text, it does not matter. What matters, though, is that you make sure that the transitions between slides are perfectly logical. If they aren’t, adjust! In parallel, try to clarify what you want to say and how you want to phrase it. When you are presenting, you don’t want to get lost in crazy complex sentences full of hesitations. Because if you are lost, your audience is either lost with you or sleeping in your face! Get your story together and try to make it clear, concise, and coherent.
Practice, practice, and practice. Using the text you wrote, you can now start practicing your presentation. Here, there are different schools: from learning your text by heart to navigating freely between key points. I’ve tried both and ended up mixing them up! I learn my first 2-3 slides by heart so that I can rely on my autopilot while the stress is at its maximum. Once I’ve eased into it, I then go from one key point to another without a precise text. Regardless of the method you pick, try to time yourself several times to get a sense of how long it takes to go through it. Don’t panic if you’re a bit too long (we usually speak faster when stressed) but make some cuts if this exceeds 3 minutes!
And now, it’s showtime. Take a deep breath and (try to) enjoy it!
To be continued… with a blog post covering “How to behave on stage?”
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