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The bottom line: one slide to show you ran a lot of numbers and one slide demonstrating an interesting, realistic, and more qualitative financial insight.

An initial pitch to a potential venture funder is typically 10 minutes and includes a financial projection. Since the finances are only one part of such a pitch, there is very little time to discuss any detail. A second problem is that the numbers are often unrealistic. Many pitches are for early stage developments and there is really little basis for making any sort of financial projections.

So what can you realistically and honestly do? First you can demonstrate that you've taken this seriously by showing one slide with a lot of financial data, but tell the audience that they shouldn't try to read the data, you are only showing it to "prove" you've ran the numbers for many cases. Don't try to explain financial trends with some sore of "spread sheet like" slide. Just use it to assert you due diligence, nothing more, and move off it quickly.

You can then show a second slide that proves you are being realistic and tamps down the obvious exaggerations that often go into these pitches. By exaggeration I mean the typical assumption that a new product will achieve massive market penetration. Most new products typically help a subset of patients in a subcategory of a particular disease (e.g. moderately high blood sugar as opposed to all diabetics). You might show a simple slide that shows how the financial numbers vary depending on which subsets it can penetrate. You might show a slide that discusses how the numbers vary depending on the price of the product, etc.. The key thing is to have one slide that shows you have insight into how the finances behave and you are being realistic.

Remember, you can't "prove" anything about finances in such a short presentation, so you have two goals: show you've taken finance seriously and demonstrate some insight that shows you are realistic and smart.

Yesterday I attended a cancer research symposium at a major medical school. There were about 100 scientists in attendance; probably 85-90 young scientists (post docs, graduate students, etc.) and about 10-15 senior faculty. 85-90% of the questions and interactions came from those 10-15 senior faculty. Certainly some of this was shyness, but the opacity of the talks also contributed. Only scientists who had followed these fields for a long time could follow the talks. The speakers made no effort to tailor the talk to the bulk of the audience.

Not only is this a comment on presentation quality, it is also a comment on the lack of planning and foresight typical of many biomedical research symposia. Did the conference planners expect that most of the attendees would be young scientists? Is that what they wanted to happen? If so, did they inform the speakers? If so, did the speakers tailor their talks to the expected audience? Probably none of this occurred.

Now getting young scientists to speak up when more senior scientists are in the room is a tough problem, but if young scientists are the audience, leaders need to work on this problem. Otherwise why have a conference if it doesn't meet the needs of the audience? Beside, if you can "break the ice" early, virtually everyone will feel more comfortable and engaged. How about demanding senior faculty attend the poster sessions and pose questions to the young scientists? How about having a series of 5 minute "blitz briefings"by the young scientists, getting as many on the stage as possible.? How about breakout sessions where young scientists are pre-assigned major roles?

There may be many better ideas, but the key point when planning a conference is to figure out who it is for and then structure the conference to best inform that audience. This may take some additional work and some creativity, but without making that investment, we are wasting a lost of time for a lot of people.

A central purpose of a presentation is to get comments from the audience. This benefits the speaker in two ways: 1) it may help in your research, and 2) it may help you in future presentations.

A great outcome is when audience members can make comments that get you thinking, bring in facts from new disciplines, etc. Audience participation can enhance your future research. Additionally, audience comments will give you insight about what they are following, what they've learned from the presentation, and where they are confused. This is valuable input for the next time you give the presentation. Every presentation should get better each time you give it.

The problem is that most audiences have gotten accustomed to sitting by silently and deferring questions until the very end of the talk (by which time most questions are forgotten or are no longer relevant). As a speaker you need to shake them out of this stupor early in the talk. Pose questions, ask them about their familiarity with the subject at the beginning of the talk, find out about the distribution of expertise in the audience, etc. Another thing you can do is conspire with a friend or two and have them pose a question or two during your talk. Once someone breaks the ice, a lively discussion is possible. David Stern of the Howard Hughes Institute has even suggested mixing in a few blank slides just to shake up the audience and tell them this is a time for interaction. I've never done it, but it is worth a try!