Academic presentations: how to get them right!

Can you recall the last time you listened to a presentation or lecture for two and a half hours, and still wished it could last longer? Honestly… I cannot either. After Albert Einstein’s two-and-a-half-hour presentation during his tour in Japan, the audience did something uncommon, especially in Japanese culture…. they complained. For Einstein, this was received as a complement rather than a complaint – the people in the audience asked for the longer version of his presentation! This is a rare occurrence. In addition to the intellectual brilliance of Einstein, he was humble and soft spoken in his delivery, and this is thought to have enhanced the impact of this particular presentation.

Unfortunately, many brilliant academics fail to adequately communicate their message during presentations, due to failure to address a number of considerations. Using various sources of information and guidance from my supervisors, I have gained skills that have enabled me to present my work effectively, and as a result, I have won numerous awards in research presentation competitions across the country. In this blog, I share some considerations that one should take into account in the pursuit of delivering effective academic presentations.

Myself after presenting at a local conference in 2018.

Professionalism, especially during the current era of virtual presentations

Similar to the concept of ‘love at first sight’ in romantic relationships, the initial perception the audience has of you as a presenter affects the level of attention they will pay throughout your presentation. Perhaps, the first and most important thing to consider prior to a first encounter with your audience is ensuring maximum levels of professionalism. Simple things like arriving on time and dressing up properly can go a long way in achieving this.

In the era of COVID, where we have shifted to virtual presentations, technical glitches are bound to happen, and this can negatively affect the professional outlook of your presentation. Some of these technical glitches can be avoided. Firstly, being ‘punctual’ for your online presentations helps you to identify and rectify any potential glitches and try to rectify them before the audience joins the platform.

Secondly, connectivity issues can really spoil your presentation and indeed your entire day. Unpredictable as these issues are, one way to avoid them is to have at least one alternative internet source, should your original one fail. I have found that my computer is much slower in terms of performance and connectivity when it is updating. So, to avoid connectivity issues, I usually check for updates the previous day and pause updates on the day that I am presenting. Finally, it is quite daunting to lose connectivity in the middle of your presentation due to load shedding, which we are currently facing in South Africa. Therefore, to avoid such, you should check the load shedding schedule for your area, and plan to be in a region with power during the time of your presentation.

Knowing and capturing your audience

In addition to professional etiquette, one other factor to keep your listeners engaged in your presentations is ensuring that you tailor your message for the specific audience you are presenting to. Professionals within your field of specialty can quickly get bored when you explain technical terms that are common within the field, and they are more likely to be interested in hearing your specific findings and what new and exciting information you bring to the field.  On the other hand, when presenting to a broad and unfamiliar audience, using technical terms without further explanation can confuse the audience as they would consider it all jargon. Such an audience would be more interested in how your findings affect their lives personally, and would likely not be very concerned about the bit of new information you are bringing to the field.

In addition to tailoring the presentation for a specific audience, it is also important to capture listeners from the beginning of your presentation. The first few seconds of a presentation are critical, as they determine the level of interest and attention that an audience would pay to your presentation. Here, it would be good to start off with a shocking fact, or statistic that your audience immediately relates to and want to hear more about. Once you have captured your audience, you then need to keep them interested until the end of the presentation. The enthusiasm and energy you put into explaining your work plays a huge role here, people tend to pay attention to an enthusiastic, energetic speaker, and the opposite is true.

Clear and concise slides

Finally, one thing that can make or break your presentations is the clarity of your slides. A common mistake that people make is to try to add a lot of information on slides so that they can convey the volume of work which they did in their respective studies. This usually clutters the slide and forces the audience to read slides rather than listen to what you have to say. My general rule is: if I can represent the information in a picture, rather have a picture on the slide rather than having text (see example below). In addition to avoiding cluttering the slides with too much information, it is important that each slide is centered around a single key point, as this allows for better emphasis.

I could go on for the entire day providing tips and tricks on how to effectively communicate via online presentations, as they are many other points to consider. Fortunately, there are various sources out there that one can use to obtain more information on how to present effectively. One particular book that has enhanced my presentation skills is “The Craft of Scientific Presentations” by Michael Alley, and I highly recommend for individuals aiming to effectively communicate their work through scientific presentations.

An extract from one of my presentations, where a concept is explained through an annotated picture, rather than text.

Hey young scientist, why don’t you make the vaccine?

I was on a phone call the other day and my aunt jokingly asked me the question – “why don’t you and your colleagues there in pharmacology find the cure to this COVID-19 pandemic?” Well, I giggled a little, but her question was justified to an extent. The field of pharmacology is involved in the process of developing new drugs.  Pharmacology is a branch of medicine that focuses on studying the uses, effects, and mechanisms of action of drugs. The field focuses on observing the relationship between complex biological systems and chemical compounds that affect them. Often confused with pharmacy, a field that focuses on the preparation and dispensing of medication, pharmacology focusses on studying abnormalities that occur in various diseases and investigating drugs that can potentially overcome such aberrations.

The development of drugs is a costly and time-consuming process. It takes approximately 12-15 years of research and can cost as much as R40 billion Rand for a single drug to reach the point where it is available on the market (shown in the figure below). In pharmacology, there are three broad branches of research involved in the research and development of drugs: basic research, clinical research and regulatory pharmacology.

 Figure 1: Overview of the drug development process.

In basic research, a large number of chemical compounds are tested in the lab to elucidate their potential efficacy in targeting some aspects associated with the disease in question. Such experiments involve testing compounds on cells isolated from humans and grown under sterile conditions (cell culture). In cell culture, it is very important that the experiments are done in a way that provides reliable clues of results to be obtained when human or animal experiments done. My PhD is focused on developing advanced cell culture models that allow for better predictions of such results. Below is a 3-minute video explaining how we exactly intend to do that.

When satisfactory results are obtained from cell cultures, the efficacy of drugs is then investigated on animal models (rats, mice, pigs, horses, fish, and many others). All experiments are conducted in accordance with strict ethical guidelines, and when efficacy and lack of toxicity is inferred from these experiments, clinical studies are then conducted.

Clinical research involves the investigation of the efficacy and safety of drugs in human beings. In these investigations, people voluntarily enrol in clinical trials, which consist of various phases. Although many drugs show remarkable potential in basic research, many drugs are eliminated in clinical trials due to harmful effects and/or lack of efficacy. This difference in the results obtained in basic research and clinical studies can be attributed to the obvious difference between animals and human beings.

When clinical data has been completed, it is compiled and sent to regulatory bodies for thorough review and approval before a drug is available on the market. Various regulatory authorities are responsible for ensuring that all guidelines were followed when developing drugs. Such regulations are carried out by regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration in America and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority here in South Africa. After it has been proven that all regulatory requirements are met, the drug is finally approved to be available in the market, and you can finally see it in your local pharmacy or hospital.

You may be wondering…. if it takes so long to develop a single drug, how did we manage to have the COVID-19 vaccine in such a short space of time. Well, in respect to basic pharmacological research, similar viruses to the one that caused the pandemic have been studied for a long time, hence it was relatively easy to figure out a vaccine approach to the new coronavirus. Secondly, in some diseases, it takes a long time to recruit participants into a clinical trial. With COVID-19 clinical studies, it was quick to recruit patients, due to the existence of a pandemic, which mean a large number of people were readily available to participate in the studies. Additionally, funds were made available by governments and various to assist in conducting these trials. Lastly, regulatory approval application for COVID-19 based studies had to be prioritized, and this shortened the usually long times as well. Thankfully, we finally have many vaccines against this devastating pandemic.

So, going back to my aunt’s question, it is a big challenge for myself as a PhD student to create a vaccine that can be readily taken by people, given the rigorous process and costs that go into drug development. However, as different researchers across the world, we individually make our contributions to the field of drug development, and these concerted contributions eventually culminate in real-life health solutions.