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Presentations – Communication Lessons

Modern science is defined by collaboration. I work in a lab as part of a team. For our team to be effective, we need to have good communication. We need a seamless exchange of ideas to effectively plan experiments, troubleshoot problems, and pursue the best hypotheses. Great research requires great communication.

A researcher must also be able to share their ideas with others outside their team. This communication takes on a very different tone from discussions done within one’s lab: you must become a salesperson. You need to captivate your audience. You need them to become invested in your research. And you must be as simple and concise as possible.

These are not skills that come naturally to me or to most scientists. We spend so much time immersed in the minutiae of our work that we forget its broader context: what is the real world problem that I am trying to solve? How will my results contribute to a tangible solution? It would be counterproductive to dwell on these questions daily: I would second-guess the purpose of each experiment and become paralyzed with uncertainty. Yet when it comes time to showcase your science to a large, diverse audience, it is imperative to think about the larger context.

This week, I had the honour of presenting my research at the IUSM Department of Biochemistry Research Day. I had 12 minutes to convey my work to an audience of almost one hundred graduate students, post-docs, and faculty, each with diverse backgrounds and interests. I prepared for my talk carefully. I decided to devote significant time for background (see below) to ensure that my audience understood the clinical reasons why it is so important. I avoided the use of abbreviations; after all my CMPs are common myeloid progenitors but yours may well by cytidine monophosphates. Learning from previous errors, also I ensured that my figures were sufficiently to be seen from the back of the hall. And I tried to convey enthusiasm—varying my tone of voice and moving around the podium to avoid monotony. It undoubtedly was an improvement on previous orations.

But I still have a lot to learn. Three lessons stand out from this presentation. First, I need to present more data. I devoted too much time to background info. While background is important, in order for your results to be taken seriously you need to show as much supporting data as possible. One slide is not enough; show the supplemental data too—even if you think it redundant.

Second, I need to learn how to answer questions to which I do not know the answer. “I don’t know” may be the correct answer but it is never the appropriate answer. Instead, when asked a challenging question, you should pause. Breathe. Reflect on the question’s significance and use it as an opportunity to describe data that you did not present or to convey your knowledge of the field’s literature. Never say “I don’t know”. That may be appropriate in a patient setting but not during a presentation. After all, “I don’t know” will  prompt the audience to lose faith in your expertise and question the validity of everything you’ve said.

Finally, I must be confident. Believe yourself to be an expert in your field. Because—compared to your audience—you are an expert. This is not the time to be timid. Stand tall and confidently describe your results and answer questions. Your demeanour should demonstrate to the audience that you know what you are talking about that that your results are important. You audience will sense your hesitation – if you have any – and it will cause them to question your knowledge and lose interest in your presentation.

Overall, I was rather disappointed with my performance. But as a 2nd year student, I still have a lot of time to learn and improve. Next month, I will have another chance to present my work in San Francisco at the American Society of Hematology. I cannot wait to apply the lessons I’ve learned and have another chance to share my work with my peers.


My presentation had 15 slides total:

1 title page

6 background

1 hypothesis slide

2 methods

3 data (Should have been more – read above).

1 summary

1 acknowledgements


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.