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Presenting Skills

The abstract
All presentations, whether poster or oral, require you to submit an abstract. Find out when the deadline for submission is, and what format (paper, disk or online) you should submit the abstract in. Have a look at previously published abstracts from the meeting to gauge the style; there are usually notes on format available (e.g. on the meeting website) that you should read.

Common problems to avoid are:

  • Read the instructions. Failing to follow the instructions is a good way of getting your abstract rejected.
  • Stick to the word limit. Another favourite. The body of the abstract may have a separate word limit from the title and authors names.
  • Don't try and present too much data - although you must include some. Abstracts are short, and seem to be getting shorter!
  • Pick one simple message to get across - no more. If the data in your abstract doesn't help get the message across, leave it out.

Poster presentations

Making the poster:

  • Plan your poster several weeks in advance. This gives enough time for it to be printed.
  • Make sure what is on the poster matches the abstract; the best approach is to start with the text of your abstract and expand; put in some more introduction, more detailed methods. Keep the conclusion the same as in your abstract.
  • Make the writing big - it should be visible from at least 1.5m
  • Find out whether it is portrait or landscape format and what the size of the poster is.
  • Ask your local University media dept or NHS medical media dept how to get the poster printed. They will usually have preset formats and styles for producing posters; you can often just concentrate on the text and tables. Pictures are fine, but they are not a substitute for interesting data!/LI>

Before going to the meeting:

  • Take drawing pins and Velcro - they may be provided, but it is best to be on the safe side
  • Put the poster in a plastic tube and carry it as hand luggage. It doesn't really matter if your suitcase is lost, but it does matter if your poster is lost.
  • Think about the questions that you will be asked by interested parties and prepare some answers. Get a colleague to look over the poster critically

At the meeting:

  • Find out when the poster should be in place by, when you may take it down, and when the judging (if any) occurs)
  • Stand by your poster whenever you can; the more people you can talk to about your work, the more rewarding you will find the experience.

Oral presentations

General points:

  • Presenting is about communicating a set of ideas from your brain to the brains of others. If you don't manage to do this, your presentation has failed.
  • To communicate effectively you need to know your audience. Is this an audience mainly of clinicians who will be looking for the clinically relevant points? Or is it a more specialist audience who need to know more about, say, your methods?
  • Always tailor your presentation to the needs and interests of each audience. A 20 minute talk to your workmates cannot be effectively delivered to the BGS conference in 10 minutes. Make every presentation fit the purpose.

Making your slide presentation - click here for what to do and what NOT to do in powerpoint presentations. This is for guidance only but is well worth knowing!:

  • Always remember that the purpose of your slide presentation is to augment your talk, not to distract from it. You and what you say should be the focus of attention for the audience.
  • Blue background, yellow writing. This is easiest to see, and works in low or high light levels.
  • No animation. It is distracting and rarely adds anything to a presentation
  • No videos unless you really know what you are doing. They almost always go wrong, which interrupts your presentation.
  • Maximum 6 pieces of information per slide. Large tables should always be avoided - no-one has the time to read them even if the numbers are visible. If you have to apologise for a 'busy' slide, it shouldn't be in there. Simplify it!
  • Lay out your talk in the same way as your abstract
  • Do not spend a long time thanking everyone in the lab, all of your mentors etc. It is not Oscar night. Put it on one slide and thank the funding body.
  • Short talks (up to 10 mins) can use a maximum of 2 slides per minute, though 1 is better. Longer talks (10-30 mins) should use a maximum of 1.5 slides per minute. Talks from 30-45 mins should use 1 slide per minute. Talks above 45 minutes should not be allowed; no-one in the audience can concentrate on a talk for longer than about 40 mins.
  • The ideal speed for speaking is about 100 words per minute. A simple rule is - 1 slide per minute, with 100 spoken words per slide.

Presenting your talk
The key to success is preparation. Good preparation effectively curtails nerves, helps to get the message across clearly, and makes you look good. Excellent speakers invest at least one hour of practice per minut of their talk. Certainly you should have practised the talk at least 10 times before. And practising means standing up with your notes and delivering the talk as you want it to be delivered on the day. Glancing through your slides is not enough. It is nerve-wracking and sometimes painful, but practising to colleagues, particularly senior ones, is extremely valuable. Even worse, you can record yourself on tape - most people are shocked by how many 'umms' and 'ahhs' they emit during a talk. However, hearing yourself on tape really helps to you correct things in advance.

Timing is crucial. Most people go on for far too long, a few are very nervous and rush through. A minute too short is better than 30 seconds too long - you will keep the chairperson happy, the audience will love you!

You should also prepare for questions. Many can be anticipated. Force people to ask you hard questions - once you've answered them in practice, it's a lot easier to answer them at the meeting.

Dress soberly and smartly. Your talk, not your clothes should be the topic of conversation.
Stand up to present. Do not sit down - this looks like hiding. You shouldn't have anything to hide.
Speak up - but don't stand too close (within 6 inches) to the microphone.
When you have finished, shut up. Don't waffle on after you have delivered your main message.

Some people prefer to read from a pre-prepared text, others prefer to use reminder cards with key points, still others prefer to ad-lib using slides as a prompt. You will need to experiment to see which technique works best for you, but if you are inexperienced at public speaking, I would strongly recommend that you use one of the first two methods. The shorter the talk, the more important every word becomes, and the more carefully you should plan what you will say. A tip - good speakers often memorise the first 90 seconds of their talk. This is not hard to do and is great for relieving nerves and creating the impression of competence and authority.

Do not read what is on the slide verbatim. The audience are quite capable of doing this for themselves, it wastes valuable time and it is very boring.

On the day

  • Make sure that you know where and when you are due to present. Get there in plenty of time - preferably the day before.
  • Make sure that your talk is loaded onto the computer well before you are due to present, and make sure that you know how the equipment works - especially how to go back a slide! Check the presentation to make sure that the colours or presentation size are the same as they were on your computer at work.
  • If you don't understand the question that someone asks, say so. Many questions at scientific meetings are irrelevant or incomprehensible (some are statements, rather than questions)
  • If you don't know the answer to the question, say so. Do not try and waffle - no-one is impressed and it wastes everyone's time. The whole purpose of scientific meetings is to exchange information. People ask questions to clarify ideas in their mind and to get more information. It is not a school test. No-one has ever done a perfect study. Your study is bound to have weaknesses and problems, so don't be afraid to acknowledge them.
  • Succint, clear answers are much more impressive than umm-laden mini-talks. Keep your answers brief and relevant.
  • Remember - you are the expert. 95% of the audience knows less about the topic than you, so although you feel nervous, you still know more than the people that you are talking to.

Further information:

Clear, easy-to-digest online tutorials on poster design and presenting:
http://www.kumc.edu/SAH/OTEd/jradel/effective.html

More information on posters, with a good set of links:
http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/asl/guides/bio/posters.htm

Advice from the BGS newsletter:
http://www.bgsnet.org.uk/Sept02%20NL/22posters.htm

Miles Witham
Alasdair MacLullich

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