Presenting is a powerful tool in the industry as it’s a means of communication which can enable to get feedback, ask for resources or pitch product ideas. A well composed slide deck can be used as a presentation, to support a discussion during a meeting or to share information by being sent around.
With a PhD behind our back we have plenty of presenting experience, ranging from talks in front of a handful of colleagues on a research meeting to presentations in front of hundreds of people on a congress. In fact, during PhD presenting our data is probably one of the things we do most when we’re out of the lab. So yes, after our PhD track most of us feel comfortable about our presenting skills and maybe also secretly proud of them.
But does presenting always go that well?
Do you know this feeling when at the end of your long and elaborate talk you finally reach the ‘questions’ slide and after the obligatory round of applause silence hangs over the room? You look around and see people nodding enthusiastically or sit with a look of deep thought.
Well, no questions must be a good sign since you did spend the last hour explaining all of the ins and outs of your project. Obviously, you’ve answered all of the possible questions that could come, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. Questions are a form of interaction between you and your audience. People will feel the urge to interact when they’re engaged in the topic and in general when there are no questions means that you haven’t established sufficient connection with your audience.
As scientists we are passionate about our research and we put a lot of effort into preparing our presentations, so not getting the message across definitely isn’t the case of not trying hard enough. Ignoring the signs and continuing to present as if you’re still in the academia, will not get you far. So what to do instead? In the rest of this post I’ll take you through the 7 things that can go wrong with getting your message across in the industry.
1. Not knowing your audience
This may sound obvious, but do we really think about who our audience is? This is usually not an issue in the academia as most of the time your audience are scientists, however this is not always the case in the industry. So before starting to prepare any presentation you need to take a step back and ask yourself who your audience will be. Looking into their background will enable you to adjust the scientific depth of your presentation. At the same time you’ll be able to emphasize on the aspects that are of interest to your audience making your story more engaging.
Summarize the key characteristics of your audience and form that into one individual person. Then build upon your presentation by targeting to convey the message to that particular person. Picturing a one on one discussion will enable you to format the message in the most optimal way for it to reach your audience.
This approach of personifying the target audience is also called creating and avatar and is used a lot in the world of blogging and marketing.
2. Not addressing their needs
In the world of academia and research it is possible to do research simply to do research with the main outcome being publishing. Outside of academia, other factors drive your research decisions which are in most cases tied to the business needs.
Showing that the research you’re presenting directly contributes to solving a problem related to business will guarantee you attention. Are you presenting to the management of your company or pitching a product to potential investors and customers? This audience will not be interested in elaborate depths of your research which are not relevant to them. Instead, they want a confirmation that you are addressing their needs.
Take time to identify what problem/issue/challenge your research is helping to address. For example if your research involved investigating factors that hinder product manufacture, when presenting to the management of your company, it will be important to stress how your project has helped to solve these issues. If you are pitching a product to a potential customer, focus on the pain that this product will be solving. Will you increase efficiency of a process or enable to save resources (financial or time)? Defining the pain to the customer is just as important as sharing the solution.
3. No clear take home message(s)
Have you noticed how it can be difficult to recall the contents of a meeting, a conversation or another form of information exchange as the time goes by? With today’s information overload at work and at home, it’s challenging to keep hold of everything in your head even if it is important. It’s no different in the case of presentations and therefore talks with no set focus and defined take home messages will very soon become a blur. In the worst case this will be right after the presentation.
You need to give people digestible pieces in the format of take home messages. Something they can easily remember and what will make them feel that they have the complete understanding of the topic. To make sure that your message really sticks, define the key points and emphasize them throughout the presentation.
4. No clear goal
Presenting is a mean of communication to convey a specific message. In some cases this can be simply to share information and educate. However, in the majority of cases you’ll be presenting with a specific goal in mind. For example, you can be presenting about your project to share the status of your project or to tell about bottlenecks you’re facing and ask for support. In these two cases the emphases in your presentation should be placed differently. Same goes if you are presenting your product in a peer review format to ask for feedback or if you are presenting your product to a potential customer with the aim of selling.
Before starting to prepare your presentation, formulate the end goal you want to achieve. This should be written down so that you can refer to it later in the process and should be one sentence long. Distilling a complex subject into one sentence will be challenging at first, but you can start brainstorming by putting more on paper and then work further to trim it down to a sentence.
5. Unpresentable data
In academia complexity is often a plus point. This is why we can get away with presenting excel sheets containing lots of data or unreadable schemes. In the end of the day, we as scientists all like to be solving a puzzle even on a powerpoint slide and we’ll never admit that something is too complex for us. However, this will not fly outside of academia. If the data you’re presenting needs deciphering, you’ll lose the attention of your audience.
Ideally, your data should be self-explanatory, so that if you would share the figure or the graph with your audience, they would be able to make sense of it without you. This is different than ‘publishable’ in the form of article figures as these figures often have a chunk of text in the legend accompanying them. It can definitely help to ask someone who is completely unfamiliar with your field for feedback.
6. Your message is too complex
Our weakness as scientists when presenting our projects is our passion for our research. When preparing a presentation we tend to include every detail so that we don’t miss out any of the essential data. Of course there is some PhD conditioning playing a role here as well, as we get used to be drilled about all complex minutiae of our project. However, this is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation. What works for scientists in your field will not work for scientists outside of your field and will definitely not work for non-scientists.
Be critical about the content of your presentation and remove the information that is not necessary to relay the message. If you do need to include (complex) scientific content be sure to break it into digestible pieces and conceptualize as much as possible. Giving your audience the feeling of grasping a complex subject will motivate them to pay attention, whereas overwhelming them with hardcore science will cause them to drift off.
7. Information overload
When putting together material to present, it’s often challenging to select the information as everything seems essential. This is why we ambitiously try to do the impossible and cram an 80-slide presentation into a 20 minute time slot. However, when presenting, more is not always more and in fact it’s often quite the opposite. Too much information will result in diluting your message, making you rush through the presentation and not leave any room for discussion.
First of all, do your best to stick to the allocated time. If you are given a time slot of 20 minutes, target for a 15 minute presentation. Make sure that you leave room for questions as these can be as valuable for exchanging information as the presentation itself. If you don’t feel comfortable with leaving some of the data out, put it into the back up slides.
To wrap up
Being able to convey a complex message in a simple manner to non-scientific audience is a difficult skill and something that we don’t learn during our PhD. Presenting in the industry serves many different purposes and you’ll be facing a wide range of audience. This is something that we are not used to in the academia. When given a chance to share your message, don’t take the attention of your audience for granted, and aim to give as much value as you can. With this mindset you will have a much higher chance of getting your message across.