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Presenting research against the clock

Andrew Watson

Grabbing the attention of an audience and conveying a compelling message in a short amount of time can be challenging, but it's something you will need to learn to do throughout your career.

It is what you will be asked to do at the upcoming 3MT Competition on March 15 and at London Health Research Day (LHRD) on March 29, as well as during your own discipline’s specific conferences. It is not an easy thing to do, but I hope the following tips will help.

Establish your message
You have to ask yourself what the most important message is that you want to deliver. Determining the significance of your research and whether you can phrase it in one major, impactful opening statement can help you draw your audience in and set the stage for very successful communication.

Focus on how you communicate
It’s important to keep in mind that we communicate with our body language — especially our eyes and facial expressions. Be sincere, but display a good energy level, make eye contact and smile. These are all key to setting the stage and compelling people to listen to you.

Generate a concise presentation
Once you’ve captured your audience’s attention, it is important to figure out what content to cover. When I listen to a presentation there are several things I want to know, including the main objectives or purposes forthe  study, what the findings were, and why the research is important. However, each of these questions can occupy hours of discussion, but in a three-minute presentation you cannot allow yourself to get buried in minutia. Figure out what you want to focus on and dedicate one minute to each important component.

Practise, but don’t memorize
I cannot overstate the need to be prepared, so practicing your presentation is a must. However, it is important that you do not memorize the whole talk, as memorized talks are not engaging — they sound like a tape recording that drones on and one. Practise enough that you can remember the components you want to cover, and prepare well enough to know exactly what the key points are for each component.

Practise in front of different audiences
It is important that even non-experts in your field can understand your presentation, so you should refrain from using jargon and abbreviations. You should define complex terms when you must use them to ensure your audience can follow you. Practising in front of your family and friends can help determine whether or not your presentation is easy to follow.

Control your pacing
I know you don’t have much time, but what you say has to sink in with your audience. You should not move faster than what they can digest or you will lose them quickly. 

Expect some interruptions
You should expect some interruptions throughout your presentation, especially at LHRD. Don’t let these get you off track — use them if they occur to clarify your statements, and get back on track to make the most of the time you have.

Make the most of the question and answer period
The question and answer period is when the fun really begins, because this is where you can learn something from your audience. This is also when you can reinforce they key message points of your presentation and ensure that your message has been properly received. As a bonus, these questions could also ignite a new direction for your work to take.

Believe it or not, these presentations can be a lot of fun. There are few things I enjoy more than visiting with our students at their poster and platform presentations. I not only learn about what you are doing, but I also get to become part of the process and see if I can be helpful to you as well.

In the end, we all benefit from these presentations and experience a really enjoyable time. This is, in part, what knowledge translation is all about and these experiences will help make you a strong communicator. It is a skill that can be used effectively in almost all careers that you may end up selecting for yourself.

I hope this information was helpful, and look forward to your upcoming presentations in March.

Andrew J. Watson, PhD
Associate Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies