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!

Let’s take a look at a hopeless text slide and repair it. We’ll do it in two phases. First we’ll turn it into a comprehensible text slide and then we’ll convert that slide into a powerful visual.

This slide has 70 words, well above the “40 word rule” recommended on this site. Initially it’s fine to put everything down in long form, but then the text should be edited down so it can be quickly read by the audience, while they simultaneously listen to the speaker.

So let's start with what the author intended…

The title indicates the slide is about the growth and centralization of the Cancer Clinical Trials (CCTO) staff. The first bullet says that in 2009 only 22 staff members reported through the CCTO, but that 50 staff were members of 13 independent departmental teams also conducting cancer clinical trials. The second bullet says that decisions were taken to grow the overall staff and to centralize all staff under the CCTO. The third bullet says that staff in the 13 departmental teams were converted to CCTO employees through attrition, rather than simply transferring them into the CCTO. But the 4th bullet says that staff remaining with their departments would be dual supervised by both CCTO and departmental managers. By 2015 attrition had reduced the number of departmental teams to three with a total of 11 staff. The CCTO meanwhile grew to 166 staff members.

Now let’s turn this into a text slide that can be easily read, and when combined with the speaker’s voice, comprehended.

This slide shows some changes we can make without losing content. There is no need to keep repeating “clinical trials staff,” or “staff.” The title takes care of that. Take off the adjectives, “small,” “total,” etc. Note "new policies" is two words shorter than what it replaced. Economize whenever possible. The slide should contain the core information, which can be embellished by the speaker’s voice.

So let's look at the repaired text slide:

We’ve cut the number of words from 70 to 37, still a bit clunky, but now it's possible for the audience to simultaneously read the slide and listen to the speaker (as he/she points to each bullet and explains what was intended).

Text slides are poor visuals, so when possible, we should always try to visualize text slides. Here is the above text slide in a more visual format.

A couple of things to point out. First, color is used to distinguish between CCTO staff and departmental staff. Color is not a decoration but a way to distinguish different kinds of information. The dual supervised staff are colored in a combination of red and blue. Circle areas are sized to reflect the number of staff, providing the audience with an instant recognition of the distribution. The issue of change by “attrition” is not contained on the visual, but that can be addressed by the speaker’s words. Not every last detail needs to go on the slide.