Scientific Presentations – It’s All About the Data… or Is It?
When I offered to a friend, who is still active in academic research and at the time was searching a new position, to help him with the presentations he’d invariably have to hold, he declined. He pointed out there was none immediately impending, and then he added what all too many people in academia take as their mantra:
“Besides, in a scientific presentation, shouldn’t it all be about the data?”
An idea that unfortunately is very pervasive within academia and among scientifically trained personnel.
But if a scientist presents his or her findings, and shows their data, haven’t they fulfilled their job?
Let us imagine a little scenario to answer that question: Imagine you have been there, done that, finished your presentation – and yet, there is no applause forthcoming, because the room you are standing in is completely empty! Clearly, “It’s all about the data” misses a critical factor – the audience!
A presentation, after all, is not an end in itself, but a means – a means to interact with the audience. The end, therefore, and what holding the presentation is “about”, has to be defined in relation to the audience: what should the audience take home?
What should the presentation enable, encourage, inspire or even compel them to do?
I’ve already pointed out in a previous article that the notion that, much like a scientific publication, a presentation should enable the audience to reproduce your findings is misguided. What, then, are realistic primary and secondary goals for a scientific or technical presentation?
For a classical academic context, these can be:
- Disseminating knowledge on new findings – e.g. “XYZ blocks the growth of ovarian cancer in a cell culture model”. This will often be represented by the title of your presentation.
- Inspiring interest in a specific approach or establishing a specific method.
And not the least
- Positioning yourself as a researcher.
For a scientific presentation in a corporate context, goals might be:
- Provide knowledge necessary to better understand certain aspects of a certain problem (e.g. the biochemistry of a disease) to an audience with limited familiarity.
- Provide knowledge necessary to better understand the advantages of a product.
- Position your company and its products at the cutting edge of science/technology.
- Inspiring audience members to engage in research of their own using your products (e.g. to find new applications).
And not the least
- Encourage the audience to buy your product without overtly “selling”.
For all of these goals, the question what, if anything, the audience will take home in the end is the one that’s critical. The data you are going to present are important to achieve them, but it is also important only inasmuch as it helps to achieve them.
What does that mean?
The data you provide need to be discernible – the content you provide needs to be accessible
It sounds simple at first, but one visit to an academic conference will reveal plenty of slides including so much information that the individual bits and pieces are too small for rows 2+ to make heads or tails of them. Data presented in this way distracts the audience, binding its attention as it tries to make out what’s up there on the slide.
It can also work to undermine trust and confidence in your message. On the one hand, you provide data so that the audience can “trust the data” and doesn’t need to take your word for it. On the other hand, the fact that the data is indiscernible leaves the audience having to, after all, trust your word that it means what you say it means.
It needs to be understandable and actually support your message
As Stephen Kosslyn pointed out in his book “Clear and to The Point” using actual biomedical data, data can be presented in a variety of ways – in a table or in various visualisations. Graphs can be plotted in a variety of ways. Some will be more conducive to supporting your message than others. If it was “all about the data”, it would matter little how you present it – but in fact, that “how” can help or hinder your success considerably.
Data that is not seen or understood cannot make your case for you, but even success until now is for naught, if your presentation is not also remembered. If the audience has forgotten everything by the time they reach home, or even by the time they leave the room, then your goal remains unfulfilled. The knowledge you presented will not have been transferred in a sustainable fashion and the situation will, by and large, be as if you hadn’t delivered the presentation in the first place.
To this end, you not only need to ensure that your content is presented in a memorable fashion (I already talked about this point when writing about storytelling in scientific presentation). You also need to ensure that the volume of content you present is “rememberable” and doesn’t simply overload the cognitive capabilities of the audience. As I pointed out before:
It is self-defeating to try and be comprehensive in a scientific presentation. It’s preferable if the audience remembers 3 of 3 points than 0 points out of 10 you made!
Use your professional expertise to gauge what information the audience will need as a minimum to consider your message as well-founded and adjust the information to your allotted time frame. You may want to prepare any other data you have for the Q&A session, but you should keep the presentation itself as tightly focused as possible.
It is not “just about the data”. It is about being clear and to the point, about transferring knowledge and in doing so, creating lasting change.
Your job in delivering a scientific presentation is not to recite data, but to teach your audience something. If your data is not aligned towards that goal, you will not achieve the purpose of your delivering that presentation in the first place.
19th October 2019 at 9:41 pm
Oliver, this is such an important topic. So many opportunities to use data to help create change are lost because presenters think the audience is responsible for understanding the data. If that were true, why present at all? Just hand over the data set!
23rd October 2019 at 12:19 am
Thank you, Tim. As my bio says, I’ve worked in the healthcare sector. On the one hand, of course, it’s clear that developing new solutions that patients and doctors are waiting for takes time. But it’s infuriating to think that patients out there might not receive help even though a therapy concept that might work or even a prototype medical instrument that would help them exists, but is prevented from being developed further and brought into application by the inability to create change through communicating its value and the evidence for it effectively. And unfortunately, I see this problem at all levels – basic research, marketing or even patient communication by physicians.