Effective Presentations for Chemists and Other Scientists

Boost your career with the skills to develop and deliver a polished presentation.

By

I still remember the first time I presented a paper for publication in the Analytical Chemistry journal of the Florida Section of the American Chemical Society. This was many years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of South Florida. I initially prepared a technically enriching speech which would have taken me at least a half day to present, but after what seemed like weeks, I was able to reduce pages and pages of research text down to a five minute presentation. At the time, I had such a terrible fear of public speaking that I read my presentation from index cards in a monotone voice. I was very thankful that I didn’t have to be concerned with my shaky knees or gesturing because no one could see me. The room was totally dark to view the slides — not PowerPoint slides but the Kodak slides of years past.

Though visual aids have changed tremendously since the late ‘60s when I gave my first presentation, the presentation style, in my opinion, has not significantly changed — especially for chemists and other scientists. As a chemist and as a business/computer consultant for many years, I have given and have seen many technical presentations at conferences, at work, and elsewhere. The presentations were generally quite informative, technically enriching, and the presenters were very knowledgeable on the subject matter. However, many of them (and I include my own), were rather unexciting and ineffective. I have also seen many exciting, motivational, and inspirational presentations for the general public and also for the technical audience. You don’t need to be a professional speaker to spice up your presentation but by both knowing and understanding some of the same principles professional speakers use, you can enhance your presentations.

WRITING YOUR SPEECH

If you are doing a presentation, most likely you’ve written a report or submitted an article for publication. Perhaps you have used the text for your speech and created PowerPoint slides to help outline the structure. However, I would suggest you write your speech from scratch with emphasis on simplicity and conciseness.

In my commonsense assessment, speech writing is much different than writing reports or articles for a journal. The brain processes spoken words differently from written words. When we read, we can see whole phrases at a time. As a result, we can instantly understand phrases and sometimes whole sentences (except for those long, drawn-out sentences we sometimes write). We also can go back and reread the text if we must.

However, we process the spoken message instantaneously, one phonetic sound at a time. We mentally accumulate these phonetic sounds in our memory until these sounds make sense. Once we mentally interpret these phonetic sounds into whole sentences, we can move on to the next spoken sentence. For example, if I said, “We mentally accumulate” and stop, you have no idea what I’m attempting to say until I complete the sentence; whereas, in reading this article, you can easily understand the meaning because the whole content is right here on this page. Although the spoken process is immediate, it is a slower process than reading so keep this in mind when writing and delivering your speech.

SIMPLIFYING YOUR MESSAGE

Use short, simple sentences. Your written report will likely contain comprehensive and long, drawn-out sentences describing the details and results of your project which is fine for a report, but rather long and tedious for a speech. It’s important to break down the technical detail into a few short and concise sentences.

For example, in my report, I wrote, “It is useful for our purposes to distinguish between two types of substitution procedures: 1) a true substitution procedure, in which the amount of the metal-DTPA complex added is equal to or greater than the amount of the sought-for metal ion; and 2) a pseudo-substitution procedure, in which only a small amount of the metal-DTPA complex is added to activate the indicator mechanism.” Whew! What a handful of words to say all at once.

For a presentation, I would re-word the sentence to read: “For our purposes it is useful to distinguish between two types of substitution procedures. [pause] One type is a true substitution procedure. In this procedure, the amount of metal-DTPA added is equal to or greater than the amount of the sought-for metal ion. [pause] The second type is called a pseudo-substitution procedure. Only a small amount of the metal-DTPA complex is added to activate the indicator mechanism in this procedure.” Thus, I broke down one long sentence into five shorter sentences.

REDUCING UNNECESSARY VERBIAGE

In the example above, I simplified the sentence structure, but I didn’t rework it to make it more concise. In my workshops I give examples of speeches that I helped rewrite such as, “Let me tell you about Mary Smith. Mary Smith lives…” I changed it to “Ask Mary Smith. She lives…” Not only did I reduce it from ten to five words, it became more active in tone. In essence, be short, concise, and to the point when writing a speech for a presentation.

REFRAINING FROM USING JARGON

As chemists, we use chemical terms, acronyms, and other jargon everyday. These terms are second nature to us, but may not be to others. As the program chair for our Rotary club, I invited the public relations person from the regional water replenishment district to give a talk. During his presentation, he used words and phrases such as micro filtration, groundwater basins, saturated zones, heterogeneous aquifers, and injected recycled water after recharge. I understood the terms and perhaps one or two others, but I’m certain many other members had difficulty understanding the terms and, thus, his talk.

To be effective in your presentation, refrain from using your industry’s jargon, even if you are presenting in front of colleagues. However, if you do, explain the terms in a simple and understandable way.

FOCUSING ON BENEFITS, NOT DATA

In my experience, most scientists focus on technical data. This is natural because this is what you do for a living. You research, you synthesize, you investigate, and you analyze. You then formulate a conclusion based on the data of an investigation. As a result, the presentations are based on the collected evidence. But what are the benefits of your research? Let’s say you have been researching a cure for cancer for years and recently discovered a specific structure in DNA that would prevent all cancers. Of course, all the data and results leading up to the cure are necessary to submit to the science community, but what is more important to the listeners when presenting, the data or the benefits of the research?

For example, what is more valuable for the audience to hear? Data such as “…by doing this and that, we were able to reduce the growth rate of the cancer cells from 90,000 cells per hour down to only 10 cells per day; thereby virtually eliminating the growth of cancer,” or benefits such as “Based on our research; we can save 250,000 lives within the next three months if this DNA alteration is approved.” In essence, benefits emotionalize features (data); thus benefits grab the audience’s attention more than facts and figures.

Overall, if you speak in short, concise sentences, refrain from industry related terminology, and discuss the benefits of your findings; you will give a more effective presentation.

WRITING YOUR CONCLUSION FIRST

Many presenters write their speeches in a logical order; first, they construct the opening, followed by the body (where they add the details and supporting data), and then finish with the conclusion. However, by the time they start writing the conclusion they tend to adapt the conclusion to the supporting data rather than ensuring that the data fits the conclusion. What is your call to action? What concepts do you want to leave the audience with? What is the specific purpose of your talk?

With these questions in mind, develop your conclusion first. For example, if you’re seeking a grant for your colon cancer research, you might end your presentation with “Are you prepared to invest in saving the lives of 250,000 colon cancer patients over the next five years?” By focusing on your closing message, you can then add and arrange the specific details of your talk to support your conclusion, and then create a powerful opening statement based on your conclusion.

STARTING WITH AN ATTENTION-GETTER

How long do we have to grab the audience’s attention? Some have said as little as seven seconds. Others say ten to 15 seconds. Surely, we have no more than 30 seconds to capture our audience’s attention.

Yet, how many times have we seen someone begin with a statement such as “Thank you, Mr. Chairperson, for allowing me to speak this evening. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m honored to be here tonight to discuss this most pressing issue of….” This would take about ten seconds to say. Ten seconds to get to the point. Ten seconds before the audience begins to know, “Why am I here? By then, you may have lost your audience.

Instead, grab the audience’s attention immediately, then, if there’s a need, compliment or thank the organizers and the audience. For example, you may say, “More than one million people die each year of colon cancer. Our research team has developed a procedure to reduce the number of colon cancer deaths by more than 70% over the next five years. Thank you Mr. Chairperson, fellow colleagues, and welcomed guests. We are on the verge of reducing colon cases by introducing…”

MAKING A POINT AND TELLING A STORY

What’s remembered weeks, months, or even years after your presentation? It isn’t the data or the details you presented. It’s the stories. You may wonder how you can incorporate stories in your technical presentation. It can be done and it is powerful when you do it.

Several years ago, I was in network marketing. The company hired two biochemists. Both developed great products, both were very knowledgeable and both gave good presentations. One of them was, in my opinion, the typical presenter. He was very informative giving us a series of data, but quite dry in his delivery. To this day, I don’t recall any information he discussed. On the other hand, the other biochemist told stories and illustrated his points. Fifteen years later, I still remember the picture he verbally drew as he described how the lungs are affected by smoking.

REDUCING AHS, UMS, AND OTHER FILLER WORDS

Though filler words such as “ah,” “um,” and “you know” can be a distraction to the audience, rarely are we consciously aware of making these utterances. But you can become aware and learn to speak and pause without having them infiltrate.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this point. I saw the 1986 air crash of the AeroMexico DC-9 flight 498 in Cerritos, CA. A single engine Piper Archer crashed into the tail of the DC-9. The airplane lost total control, turned over, and plunged into the Cerritos neighborhood like a bomb. It crashed within two miles of our home and within yards from friends and relatives. My wife was out of state and didn’t experience the disaster. About a month after the crash, my wife and I took a 30-minute walk around a nearby park. After we returned from the walk, I asked her how many planes she heard. She said none. I was so sensitized to the air crash that I had heard 31 aircraft fly over.

Similarly, you can become sensitized to your filler words. First, make a conscious effort to listen to others on TV or talk radio, at work, at seminars, at home — everywhere. Mentally count the number of filler words. As you become aware of others saying them, you will become conscious of your own filler words. Eventually, you will reduce, minimize, and even eliminate your filler words. In fact, you may become so sensitized to filler words that they will become a major distraction when others speak.

ANSWERING QUESTIONS

Have you been to a presentation where the speaker ended with a powerful conclusion, you were excited and ready to take action, and then the presenter asked something like “Do you have any questions?” After a few questions and answers, your excitement from the powerful conclusion waned and you left without taking any action.

Typically, presenters will conclude their presentations and then ask for questions. However, asking questions at the end will generally reduce the impact of a strong conclusion. Then, when should we accept questions?

Some presenters may encourage questions anytime during their presentation; however, they really need to be on top of their presentation to assure that they don’t lose track and complete their presentation on time. This can be a challenge for many — even for the most experienced presenters.

I generally ask for questions after each main topic. Typically, I will have an opening, a body, and a transitional conclusion for each main topic. At the end of each transitional topic, I will call for questions. For example, I may say, “Before continuing, do you have any questions?” After accepting no more than three to four questions, I’ll proceed to the next topic. To let the audience know that you need to conclude the question and answer section, you can say something like, “I will take one more question” or “I’ll be available after this presentation to answer any individual questions.” If appropriate, I may transition to the next topic by incorporating the last question. At the end of my last topic, but before my final conclusion, I will ask for a final set of questions.

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS

There’s so much more to know on how to give effective presentations, including how to use gestures, vocal variety, PowerPoint, and the lectern along with how to layout the room, prepare a checklist, etc. To learn more, attend workshops, read books, and learn by doing. And I believe, the very best place to learn by doing is the laboratory of communications, Toastmasters (www.toastmasters.org). Even if you are an accomplished presenter, everyone can practice and improve their skills.

Published In

Management's Role in Laboratory Automation Magazine Issue Cover
Management's Role in Laboratory Automation

Published: January 1, 2008

Cover Story