Breaking down your oral presentation into specific content-related and
delivery-related domains can help you remember what
to rehearse and what to include.
Physicians are familiar with the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Dealing with conference abstract notifications follows a similar path: disbelief upon receiving the automated email, excitement about being selected for an oral presentation, anxiety about the road ahead, and finally, of course, success.
The anxiety phase is understandable because a successful oral presentation requires both high-quality content and high-quality delivery. The former can be stressful because you need to summarize your research accurately yet concisely. The latter can be stressful particularly for trainees presenting their research to an audience of more experienced clinician-investigators.
Luckily, as the great Louis Pasteur, PhD, once said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”1 Breaking down your oral presentation into specific content-related and delivery-related domains can help you remember what to rehearse and what to include—not just before and during your presentation, but also after. (Table)
Before: When preparing your slide deck, your research is the star. Don’t waste the audience’s time on anything else. After your title slide, your second slide should include your conflicts of interest even if you don’t have any; it’s good practice for the future and will help prevent you from becoming an unfortunate statistic.2 Slides 3 and 4 should briefly introduce the rationale for your study. It can be tempting to pour more information into this section because you know the subject area so well, but keep in mind that your audience does too.
Consider putting your Twitter handle on your first slide, if not the footer for every slide (register for a Twitter account if you haven’t already). Much of the dialogue at scientific meetings now takes place via Twitter, and you should be there to see and own your narrative.
During: This is what the crowd has come to see, even if it’s 7:30 am on a weekday after festivities the night before. Remember to devote at least 1 slide each to your objectives, design, results, and discussion. In your discussion, be sure to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of your study. No study is perfect, and your audience will surely ask about those important points during the Q&A session.
In the rush to deliver results, many presenters make the mistake of glossing over study methods. Don’t. Your audience will want to know whether your results are generalizable to the patients they treat or the research they conduct. Better to include some detail in your slides, even if you don’t read every word out loud, because you will definitely be asked about it during the Q&A.
After: This part tends to go smoothly. Include a slide with future directions and conclusions, and then a slide listing your acknowledgments. You should thank your mentor first but be sure to thank your collaborators behind the scenes: labs you worked with, biostatisticians you conferred with, or training grants or career development awards that helped fund your study. After this slide, you can consider appending some supplemental slides with graphics (eg, actual blot results or extra Kaplan-Meier curves) if you think they may come up in the Q&A. No need to make them fancy or to add too much text—these slides only need to see the light of day if someone asks about them.
Global: Don’t forget about the usual tips for any PowerPoint presentation—brief bullets, readable font sizes, understandable graphics, etc.3 Be the change you wish to see in the world and avoid the dreaded, “I know you can’t read this slide, but…” disclaimer.
Before: Rehearse your slides out loud and ideally in front of others. A good rule of thumb is to spend 30 to 60 seconds per slide. If you need more time, you probably have too much content on that slide.
During: Time to show off! You are the expert in the room. Try to minimize slide animations, which can be distracting and can thwart an audience member trying to take a picture of you and your full slide. Never rely on a laser pointer. It might not work when you’re up on stage, and you will invariably have to choose between the screen on your left versus your right. If something is truly worth highlighting, do so with bolded/underlined text or with arrows.
After: During the Q&A, look for friendlier questions from the moderators and then the occasional questions that are actually comments. Try rehearsing your use of stock answers such as, “We hadn’t thought of that, but I can look into it and get back to you.” Or, “We don’t think that X will negatively affect our data, but it’s a very important consideration for the field to be aware of.” Resist the urge to argue with someone who questions your results. Your abstract has already won the day by being accepted, and that audience member may well be the reviewer for the manuscript coming down the line.
Global: Finally, a couple helpful tips for presenting your slides:
• Prioritize looking at the audience instead of reading off your slides.4
• Try to avoid unfamiliar abbreviations or idioms. Your audience may pronounce terms differently or may not know what the metaphorical “elephant in a room” is.5
And there you have it: a structured guide to giving your first oral presentation at an academic conference. It’s a lot of work but also a lot to be proud of once the dust settles. Good luck!
1. Palmore TN, Henderson DK. Fortune favors a prepared health care system. Ann Intern Med. 2012;156(1):54-55. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-156-1-201201030-00011
2. Boothby A, Wang R, Cetnar J, Prasad V. Effect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s conflict of interest policy on information overload. JAMA Oncol. 2016;2(12):1653-1654. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.2706
3. Alexandrov AV, Hennerici MG. How to prepare and deliver a scientific presentation. Cerebrovasc Dis. 2013;35(3):202-208. doi:10.1159/000346077
4. Blome C, Sondermann H, Augustin M. Accepted standards on how to give a medical research presentation: a systematic review of expert opinion papers. GMS J Med Educ. 2017;34(1):Doc11. doi:10.3205/zma001088
5. Giagounidis A. Editor’s corner: don’t forget to KISS your audience! ASH Clinical News. Published February 1, 2020. Accessed April 9, 2020. bit.ly/3d1X3J5