Aiming for the Stars?


The Column

ColumnThe Column-03-12-2018
Volume 14
Issue 3
Pages: 2–6

Incognito demands that we aim high when presenting our work on chromatography.

Photo Credit: Riddick Patrec/

Incognito demands that we aim high when presenting our work on chromatography.

Some of us really suck at writing PowerPoint presentations. Some of us really suck at presenting PowerPoint presentations. A lot of us really suck at presenting our work at conferences.

I’ve been to some pretty bad presentations recently, and whilst I’m not the world’s best presenter, I aspire to be better and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort studying what sets really good presenters apart from the rest of us.

Rather than repeat the trite self-help lists that can be easily found on the Internet, I want to talk specifically about presenting on our work in chromatography. Although some of the more generic advice will be common, there are specifics that I hope will particularly resonate with readers.

What Brought You Here and What Are Your Intended Outcomes?

Why have you been asked to present and what you need to achieve should be the primary questions that drive your approach. Are you trying to inform the audience about a new method for achieving higher throughput or greater sensitivity? Should you be aiming to inspire the audience in backing your proposal for research time to investigate a more efficient way to develop methods? Do you need to persuade the audience that buying a new piece of equipment will significantly improve the efficiency or effectiveness of the department? These all require a different approach to your presentation and you should define your motivation and intended outcomes at the start of the planning process. It is also worth remembering that the degree of preparation, logical structure, showmanship, and enthusiasm all increase in the following order: inform > inspire > persuade!

Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience is usually cited in terms of knowing the technical or intellectual level of the audience and whether or not you need to clearly explain underlying principles or write out abbreviated terms in full. Whilst this remains an important consideration, I’m asking here that you know your audience well enough to give them something meaningful to take away. This is distinct from my first point above-here you are considering your audience’s outcomes, rather than your own.

If presenting to a conference, could you give the audience a method, tip, approach, or technique to try themselves when they get back to their own laboratory? I find this is really effective at conferences because usually the first question asked of a returning conferee is “How useful was it?” or “What did you take away from the meeting?” Make the answer to this question easy for them-give them something to take back and try.

If you are presenting internally, aim to make conclusions that will clearly direct the project teams on the best route forwards. Give your management a clear justification for the purchase of the equipment you have been evaluating. Give your peers some real benefits from trying your newly developed automated method or system. Allow these “audience take-aways” to guide the preparation of your presentation and, whilst you are the star, they need to be the beneficiaries of your enlightenment.


Trust and Credibility

Establishing trust and credibility are foremost in presenter’s minds and it’s often what we worry about most when presenting. Will there be an audience member that knows more than we do? Will they pick holes in our scientific arguments? The answers to those questions may well be yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to leave the podium a quivering wreck as long as you follow a few basic rules.

There is a temptation to spend most of your time justifying things you are least sure about to achieve and maintain credibility. You do not need to do this. Remember the old phrase: “Stick to the middle of the skating pond-the thinnest ice is at the edges”. Don’t flounder in the deepest technical details, instead deliver confidently on the facts and data about which you are confident. Your presentation will achieve more trust when you appear confident in your delivery of the material you know the best and trust the most.

However, this does not excuse you from being as solid on the minutiae as possible. There have been numerous times I have fallen foul of awkward questions on the detail of chromatographic conditions; you must study these carefully and ensure the details are correct. Whilst you might expect the audience to be looking at your chromatograms for the amazingly short run times, beautiful Gaussian peaks, impressive efficiency, or astounding selectivity, what they are actually looking at are the conditions under which you achieved these results-either to challenge you on whether these results are even possible or to copy them so they can try it for themselves back in their laboratory. Be very sure the conditions are correct and that you can justify how peaks with such high efficiency could have come from a 4.6-mm high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) column or a 10-m gas chromatography (GC) column!

Fact checking is only one part of the process in establishing trust and credibility, and in my experience empathy is a powerful tool.

Acknowledge alternative views, theories, and data if they exist, and instead of belittling them, try to explain why your data is “different” rather than “superior”. Show that you understand the problems that your audience face and why your methods may be able to help them out. Don’t be afraid to highlight negative findings or limitations to your data and explain what further work may be needed to fully validate your findings. Build a bridge to your audience so that it is easier for them to connect with you.

Ask yourself the questions that your audience may be asking themselves and try to answer them before you move to your next point. If you have the luxury of having an expert in your laboratory or wider network, get them to highlight some of the likely questions, biases, or alternative opinions your audience may have and work hard on addressing them.

Remember that trust and credibility aren’t established or broken in the first few minutes of your presentation, but they can be degraded or reinforced at any point, so stay on your A game throughout.


Structure and Design

Anyone who has attended a presentation skills training event will know the following phrase “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them”, as a mantra for how to structure good presentations. Whilst this is a useful guide, for scientific presentations I prefer to use my own adapted guide, “Tell them what you want out of it, outline and justify your science, tell them what they can take home from it” to form the structure for the introduction, body, and conclusions of the talk.

When designing your presentation be very aware that your audience will have peak engagement at the start and end of your session. This means paying great attention to your title page and making sure that it properly describes the topic, hints at how useful it might be to the audience, and what problems it overcomes. However, avoid the oft-used trick of using a sexy title to present re-worked versions of slides you’ve given at the same meeting last year and which bear little relation to the promise of the title. This happens a lot at international conferences. Your audience will have two questions: What is this about and what am I going to get from it? Try to answer both of these with your title slide and take time to answer these while the slide is still displayed. It’s a minor point but very powerful to ensure your audience are engaged.

Avoid agenda pages where possible and keep them extremely brief-your audience won’t remember the detail as soon as you flip to the next slide.

In summarizing, use the mantra of web page designers: You, you, you is ten times more effective than me, me, me. Talk about what your work means to the audience, what they might take away, and how it may improve their science, rather than how they should view you as the next Martin or Synge!

“Death by PowerPoint” is a famous phrase and you can read more details on how to build engaging presentations with an Internet search on how to avoid it. You will read about the negative effects of bullet pointed lists, the avoidance of fancy transitions within or between slides, why reading your bullet points or text is the worst thing you can do, and why very “corporate clean” slides with minimalist logos, white backgrounds, and crisp title text fonts are very much the zeitgeist.

However, presentations in chromatographic science have their own specific requirements and just some of my guiding principles are shown below:

  • Keep text on slides containing chromatograms or spectra to an absolute minimum.

  • Ensure the chromatograms or spectra are clearly labelled (including axes) and that all relevant conditions are tidily presented and readable (and checked!).

  • Ensure the chromatograms are sharp and crisp.

  • Each slide with a chromatogram should have a clear and concise take away message (which can be the slide title).

  • Slides containing only detailed acquisition conditions don’t work well. If necessary use highlighting graphics to pinpoint the important details.

  • The same is true for tables of data: highlight important data and avoid dilution of your message by drowning your audience in detail.

  • If you have to use pictures of equipment use labels to highlight the important aspects and try to tidy the bench around the equipment first!

Finally, on the presentation structure, be aware of the occasion. Is the presentation a formal conference session or is it more informal and therefore audience members may interject with questions during your slides? Don’t go over the allotted time and practise if necessary to make sure you can hit your slide rate.

If a few slides work well, a few less slides probably work better. If you have more than one slide per 2 min then you probably have far too much material.

Pay attention to scope and depth. Typically, you can’t cover a wide scope in any depth and for a narrow scope you will need more depth; you need to think carefully about this when designing the flow of your presentation.

When presenting during the graveyard slot just after lunch, remember that you will need to work hard to keep the audience engaged, but also remember that this is a good opportunity for you to try more whacky strategies to keep them awake!



Remember that you are the star and that what you have to say and how you say it are the most important part of the presentation. Bear this in mind when considering the amount of effort that you are putting into writing your slides vs. the time taken to rehearse what you will say during the presentation.

  • Everyone is different and your attitude to the presentation and your style can make or break your session. Just a few points from my notebook include:

  • Don’t hide behind the podium. Come out and face the crowd.

  • Don’t have any notes, not even bullet point lists of your main points; they distract from what you have to say and make you look less authoritative.

  • Don’t turn your back on the audience to read your bullet points verbatim, your audience will immediately switch off and you will be much less credible.

  • Don’t write sentences for bullet points. Say the sentence the text prompts you to say.

  • Be enthusiastic and your audience will feed off your motivation and be more engaged. Enthusiasm can also help to calm nerves and mask a faltering voice.

  • Present simple slides with confidence. In my experience, the more detailed the slides, the less confident the presenter.

  • Make sure your laser pointer works before stepping onto the stage.

  • Where necessary, send your slides to the conference organizer well ahead of time. Just watch how much more favourable your introduction is when the session chair or your manger or meeting organizer don’t have to hunt you out to prise your slides from the dreaded memory stick.



Embrace Questions

For many this is the most difficult aspect of presenting and I’ve seen the look of relief on so many presenter’s faces at the phrase “Well we are out of time for questions” or “Well if no one has any questions we will move on with the programme”. This is usually followed by the presenter scuttling off stage as quickly as possible.

Of course, it is the fear of the unknown, of being embarrassed by the left-field question for which we have no answer. I’ve seen the confidence of presenters shattered by “experts” who deliberately set out to make themselves look superior by asking dastardly awkward questions. They usually justify this with “Our colleagues need to know that this is incorrect” or “It would be remiss of me not to point out these scientific flaws” or “We need to understand these things in order to challenge the presenter and make them think more deeply about the subject”. To be honest, I’ve heard them all, and often the killer question starts with words such as “I’m struggling to understand...” or “Please help me to understand your point on...”. The truth is they could question the presenter in a way that leads them to an alternative conclusion, taking a more empathetic approach in order not to embarrass or degrade the speaker. However, thankfully, there seems to be less of these “experts” around these days and long may that continue. They need to be more benevolent in their questioning and encourage good science and presenting rather than making presenters fearful of their potential questions. The advancement of science doesn’t rely on them looking good against an inexperienced but aspiring scientist.

Back to the matter of how to overcome your fear of questions. There are a number of tricks you can employ to help out:

  • Allow each questioner to finish asking their question and, through your fear and trembling, listen intently to what information the question is actually eliciting. Try to provide this information as succinctly as possible.

  • Pause for a short time before you answer to structure your response properly. This won’t come across as you struggling with the question, merely that you are giving proper thought to your response.

  • Don’t ever make up an answer to a question if you don’t know-this will destroy your credibility and will be very obvious. Instead, frame your response in what you do know, how your presentation relates to the question, and why you are unable to answer. You can speculate, but please say that you are doing so.

  • Ask the questioner if your response has helped to inform the discussion or if they have any further thoughts on the matter.

  • Never be afraid to ask the questioner to re‑phrase their question if you don’t understand it. Even if you did, this buys you some precious thinking time.

  • I always find that avoiding questions by calling them “out of the scope of this discussion” never really goes down well unless the question really is very tangential.

  • If you tell someone that you will take their question off-line, make yourself available after the session to have the discussion before running off to have a stiff double whisky!

For those who were hoping to read this and get a recipe for the perfect PowerPoint presentation-apologies. Hopefully I’ve demonstrated that there is so much more to presentations than developing a good slide deck.

Aim high and be unforgettable-for all of the right reasons!

Contact author: Incognito

Related Content