Behind the magic of giving academic lectures

According to a Wikipedia definition, a presentation is the act of giving something to someone in a formal way. This should not just be a narration of information or data; ideally, a presentation should contain a story, which means that a plot, characters and a narrative point of view need to be included. All of the established types of presentation, i.e., oral abstract presentations, abstract discussions and education symposia, can be created to match this requirement.

Oral abstract

Oral abstracts follow a formal pattern. The mandatory framework consists of background, method, results, and conclusion. Still, a story can be made out of it by highlighting the idea underlying the study, the way it was investigated, the findings, and the impact these will make on clinical practice. It is commendable to define one key point for each of these areas and to highlight it accordingly. The rest of the talk is of limited importance.

Abstract discussion

Compared to abstract presentations, abstract discussions leave the presenter more space for creativity. This is not a presentation of data; rather, data should be used to present the story. A catchy title and teaser is likely to attract the attention of the audience. Ideally, the plot should be as controversial as possible, but yet balanced, to make it interesting. As data can always be interpreted in different ways, the controversial area within a given trial setting needs to be identified. The narrative can lead from opposing views to a common view, showing how diverse opinions converge into one. Final words expressing the presenter’s opinion are mandatory.
The rule of three, which relates to confining the number of items listed on a single power-point slide to three, facilitates memorizing the facts. Whereas it is hard to put an entertaining note to oral abstract presentations, it is not a bad idea to make abstract discussions entertaining.

Education symposium

When preparing a talk for an education symposium, it is necessary to look at the meeting agenda to ensure that the presentation fits into the overall context, and to avoid overlaps with other talks. There are three types of story styles to choose from:

  • The chronological story (e.g., the development of a certain drug in the treatment of NSCLC)
  • The argumentative story (e.g., use of a certain drug as first-line therapy in a certain patient group)
  • The explanatory story (e.g., the role of a certain test for the detection of genetic aberrations: how to test, what is the accuracy, why is it better than other methods?)

As for writing, the presenter has to create a specific format. Starting from a proposal, one would present the evidence to support the story line, until finally coming to a conclusion. Basically, the same set of data can be interpreted in opposing directions, and the presenter is expected to express his or her point of view. Importantly, it should be kept in mind that only the relevant data need to be summarized, rather than all of the available data. This will make for a more compact and impactful story, and it will prevent delays. The plot should be planned in a way that enables the audience to take home 2 or 3 key messages.

The setup and the audience

It is essential to know the stage and the technical equipment, including panel control, microphone and sound system, as well as the brightness and clarity of the projection screen. The podium should have an appropriate height, and nothing should block the view of the presenter from the floor. Depending on where the presenter stands on the stage, it might be difficult to get into contact with part of the audience. Moreover, the presenter should know the chairperson and have an idea about which questions to expect. It is advisable to arrive early at the lecture hall to familiarize oneself with the surroundings.
With regard to the audience, several aspects are of relevance: Who are they? How many people? What is their background? What is their country of origin? How good is their English? What are they looking for in this presentation? The answers to all of these questions will help to prepare the presentation. If one has already given a presentation in front of a certain audience, a subsequent talk should contain new information.
Trying to interact is important, even when speaking to a huge audience. At large meetings, the presenter is primarily facing the camera, which implies that he or she should actually talk to the camera rather than look down at the computer screen. If necessary, one should ask the technical staff where the camera is, as it can be at the far end of the hall.

The presenter

It is important not to talk in a monotonous way but to modulate the tone and volume of one’s speech. Generally, the presenter should talk slowly. Writing a script can be helpful.
Body language is vital. The presenter should stand tall and straight and avoid swaying from side to side, as this indicates a lack of confidence. Likewise, touching one’s face signifies insecurity. Hands should be used well; they are among the most powerful tools of communication. If the presenter is not certain how to use them, he or she should hide them instead of gesturing too much. It is important to make eye contact with the audience.
Even though power-point slides are helpful, they should not be relied on completely. The presenter should never read from a slide, but rather point out and highlight essential aspects. Here, animations are preferable to using the pointer. Building oneself up to become a competent communicator is a crucial goal that can require much practice.

Take home message - The presentation of oral abstracts

Author: Tony Mok

Content based on an young oncology preceptorship conducted by JSMO on 8th–10th December 2017 in Singapore, with an unrestricted grant from Boehringer Ingelheim