As scientists we have two ways to communicate our work: Publications and Presentations. Both are critical for advancing our careers and our science.  


Presentations are an art

If you’re like me, you didn’t go into science because you love giving public presentations. Most of us are very self conscience and don’t like the prospect of being judged by experts in our field.

And not many of us have been formally trained in HOW to give a presentation.

Sure, we’ve given many talks and perhaps we’ve learned a few things via trial by fire. But the process doesn’t have to be so brutal.

In 10 Steps I’ll walk you through EXACTLY how to give an effective scientific presentation:

Step 1: Watch this video

I kid you not when I say this video by Prof. Susan McConnell is one of the corner stones for giving a good talk. Yes, it is long. 42 minutes long. But it is well worth your time and will set the foundation for the rest of this blog post.

Okay, welcome back. If you didn’t watch the video I encourage you to do so. Obviously Prof. McConnell is a biologist, but the points she made apply to most scientific fields.

This includes chemical biology, however as a chemist there are additional items you need to consider.

Step 2: Integrating the chemistry and biology mindset

Chemists and biologists have different ways of approaching how they present their research topic. If the chemist is interested in natural product synthesis they will usually begin by showing a picture of where their natural product comes from and what biological effects it has. A biologist will begin with either their disease of interest or their biological problem of interest.

For a chemical biologist that is developing new tools/therapies you should outline your talk: Biology, chemistry, biology.

Usually we will never be talking directly to someone in our specific field.

This is the nature of doing chemical biology research. Your research spans so many disciplines and needs to give adequate background on each topic without making the expert in that topic feel bored. But you also don’t want to lose anyone along the way.

For those of us who are working on disease models it is important to explain the biology, the current state of therapy, why that therapy isn’t ideal, and how our approach is novel.

Then talk about the chemistry behind your approach. But at the end remember to loop back to the biology, tie it all together, and show the alternative ways your newly developed drug/tool could be used to explore other therapies/learn more about a particular biological aspect.

And for God’s sake don’t make an outline slide. Do not tell me what you are going to tell me. You are in control of the talk. Let your slides dictate what I think and when I think it.

Step 3:  Chemical structures in presentations

Remember Prof. McConnell’s part on choosing the right text? Well the same goes for your chemistry structures. By now you should be well familiar with chemdraw, if not I will cover that in a future post and add a link here.

Essentially, you should be using the ACS Document 1996 format. You should also highlight all your structures and bold them to make the heteroatoms stand out. This is the “industry standard”.

In larger, more complex, structures you can also shorten the carbon-carbon bonds to make the heteroatoms look nicer.

Pro tip: Make all your structures and reactions in chemdraw and then copy all of them. Go to your powerpoint slide and paste them there. (I know this works using Windows and I’m unsure of the Mac work around). This way if you need to make a correction all you need to do is double click on the structure in powerpoint and it will open in a new chemdraw window. Make your changes and it will update automatically in powerpoint. This one tip will save you hours of frustration!

Step 4: Chemical reactions in presentations

Now that your structures look handsome it’s time to decide when and how to show them.

First is the size consideration. If you want people to be able to read the reaction, then make sure you do not shrink the copied chemdraw. It pastes in as a very readable size. I recommend not changing it too much.

Let’s say it took you 10 steps to make your final product. Should you show each step?

Well this depends. Is your synthesis novel? Does each step highlight a tricky transformation? Or is the synthesis directly from a previous publication with little modification on your part?

Often in chemical biology we fall into the grey space. We aren’t inventing new challenging reactions but we are applying literature reactions to access novel chemical space and application. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have to spend a lot of time optimizing the reaction though.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • If you optimized literature reactions for your substrate show the whole synthesis scheme. But do not linger on steps that are standard (like a Boc deprotection or a Mannich reaction). Just say you did a deprotection or a Mannich reaction and move on.
  • If one particular reaction was key in getting your compound it is okay to highlight that reaction by switching to a substrate table. This should show the reaction above the table. (More on tables below)
  • If your synthesis is not novel and really not the point of your research, then either skip showing the whole synthesis or go through it very briefly. Only mentioning the names of the reactions. Don’t talk about yields and don’t name every intermediate. We honestly won’t be interested. We want to hear about the amazing way you used the molecule.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: do not just put the whole synthesis scheme up there and expect the audience to follow you through it. While you are on step 2, your audience is looking at step 5 or 7.

You have now lost their attention and have to work hard to get it back. Make the slides work for you through controlling what comes up and when.

Step 5: You are in control…remember that

Your audience doesn’t know your presentation. They won’t know if you forget to say something you memorized and they sure won’t know what slide comes next. So let it flow.

You are a storyteller. Treat your slides like you would if you were writing a novel. You wouldn’t cram half the book(i.e. figures) into one short chapter (i.e. slide). Use slide animations to your advantage, to give you control of what they see and when. Direct the conversation.

Pro tip: Ditch using traditional slide animations. Meaning don’t put your whole figure on one slide and then have tons of white boxes disappear in a particular order to reveal the figure piece by piece. If you have to make a slight change to that figure you now have a whole crap ton of layers to rearrange. Instead, use multiple slides. Remove one box per slide to slowly reveal your figure based on what you want to talk about first.

Example: Slide 1

Example: Slide 2

You can just click through the slides as if you are clicking through animations. You can also add “slide transitions” to make things “appear” slowly when needed.

Step 6: The difference between you and me?

Style. Notice the reference I use on the slide above: “Adapted from…”

This means I took the time to simplify the figure, to highlight what I want you to focus on. It also helps you not memorize your presentations. How?

You know the data. You know the figures. The literature. The idea.

By integrating the text and images you increase your natural flow. It will make sense to you what you need to say next. And importantly your presentation will be effectively communicated.

The easiest way to lose your audience’s attention is by putting up a poorly designed figure with either no text (i.e. they don’t know what they are looking at) or a figure with too much extra text (i.e. they don’t know where to look first or what the point of the images is).

To fix this use either powerpoint or (even better) Photoshop to edit images, simplify existing text, or add to the image.

Photoshop comes with a steep learning curve, but there are many resources out there. Hopefully your university gives you access to photoshop, but mine didn’t so I had to purchase a monthly subscription.

Step 7: Tables in presentations

Recently, Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi retweeted Catherine Crompton’s posted GIF of how to present a table of data. I think it also applies to substrate tables:

Step 8: Workflow “aka the chemist’s home slide”

I spent hours trying to figure out how to incorporate a home slide into my presentations. Ultimately, I decided the most effective way was to show a workflow slide. I can only show a dumbed down version as mine revealed unpublished data, but this a good starting point:

See how this slide could connect different aspects of your project or specific aim?

Also use this slide to set criteria (like “binding affinity” criteria) for when you will determine if the experiment is successful and when you decide to move to the next step.

This is a crucial element to include if this presentation is made before your research lab or to your committee members. You can also revise the workflow slide if your research is complete and you want to highlight the logic of the direction you took.

Step 9: You are part of a team

Acknowledgments. Your presentation is done! Or is it?

Just as important as the work you present is the people who make that work possible. Please spell their names correctly. I have seen too many presentations where the presenter didn’t take the time to spell a name right, and it really reflects negatively on them.

Include a lab image. Make sure it isn’t way out of date.

Also, break down names based on what project or part of project they helped you with. If they didn’t work directly on your project then place their name under your PI’s name for general lab members.

Lastly, include your funding agency’s logo (including your university/department). Without funding and taxpayer dollars we can’t do the beautiful research and present our findings.

Step 10: Practice, practice, practice…did I mention practice?

Do not write out your whole speech word for word. You will forget words or phrases. And you will be tempted to read off a paper. It will sound robotic and you will not engage your audience.

Instead it is okay to write in the notes section of you powerpoint slide a keyword to remind you of the topic or data you wanted to really hit home to your audience. If they should get anything out of that one slide what is it?

To reduce clutter on the slide you can also keep some statistics or numbers in the notes section. Just make sure that your audience has something to look at that correlates with what you are saying while you read those numbers.

Importantly, ask senior lab members and a few people NOT from your lab to watch your more seasoned practice talk. This will give feedback both on your presentation skills and it may highlight where you will lose your audience.

Time to go back and refine that beautiful talk now…


If you liked this post and want to see more topics covered like it, leave a comment and let me know!



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