Lab Meeting Presentations Done Right
by David Bourdon - 03/29/12
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It’s a common scenario. You’ve worked hard landing a spot in your new top-notch lab in graduate school, a postdoctoral fellowship, or even your first professional position in academia or industry. You’ve made advancements in your project, and your supervisor has now asked you to present your work to the immediate lab group or the department at large. Even though you don’t suffer from glossophobia (fear of public speaking), you’re afraid your lab presentation may not go as planned or best represent your strong work ethic and exciting results. With input from the Life Technologies R&D community, I’ve constructed a helpful hints guide for your lab-meeting presentation. It’s not an exhaustive list but addresses key areas. (Tips marked with a P.I. will be helpful for principal investigators.)
- Know your audience and prepare technically appropriate content. Nobody likes being talked over or under.
- Engage your audience from the beginning. You want your audience to feel like a necessary ingredient in the lab-meeting recipe.
- Remember to see the forest through the trees. Citing Leonardo da Vinci, Apple Computer’s 1977 brochure stated, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," which meant as much then as today…even in the life sciences. One of your jobs as a technical expert is to help simplify complex subject matter.
- Use an outline. You may have questioned the usefulness of outlines in high school English composition class, but those lessons still have use today. Utilizing a simple outline ensures that you organize your thoughts in a logical order. Including a high-level outline slide in your introduction also sets the tone for your audience.
- In your introduction, include pertinent background, with focus. Reciting your encyclopedic knowledge of your work will impress few in the audience, and may irritate even more.
- Describe your methods and results with experimental purpose. A succinct explanation of why experiments were done is critical. Your audience will respect your scientific method. Mindless rehashing will buy you nothing but blank stares and extra years tacked onto your dissertation defense date (for you grad students).
- Conclusions and future directions should be reflective of what you’ve presented and also highlight your ability to think beyond your current experiment. Creative vision is a powerful attribute to have as an R&D scientist!
- Acknowledge the hard work of others as it pertains to your lab presentation. Few of us work in a vacuum, and the quickest way to build/maintain camaraderie in the lab is to acknowledge the collaborative efforts of your colleagues. They should do the same for you.
- P.I.: Clearly state your expectations for lab meeting presentations. This can be in the form of an annual kick-off meeting (pizza!) or a memo sent to new members of the lab after joining the group.
- P.I.: Encourage the “work hard, play hard” mantra by avoiding lab meetings that fall on holidays observed by your organization. Dedication is important, but asking lab personnel to come in on holidays can impact team morale.
- Avoid overuse of slideshow animations. Sequential layering of information on a slide can be effective in drawing focus to key talking points. However, animations on the order of a Pixar feature film become distracting and suggest that your data lacks sufficient scientific impact.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know…but I know how to find out.” Pretending to know every detail (even if you don’t) is a quick way to lose respect among your peers.
- Don’t present data that doesn’t fit the story being told. Too often, presenters feel inclined to show every experiment that has been done in order to demonstrate how hard they’ve worked.
- Avoid focusing on tiny details. If necessary, call an offline meeting with the pertinent individuals to discuss troubleshooting or technically dense results.
- Never show up late! Capturing that “hot-off-the-press” western blot is no excuse.
- Don’t overextend your lab presentation time limit. Your audience was generous enough to share their time and suggestions with you. Don’t take that for granted. If you do, they will be less interested in participating in the future.
A lab presentation is your time to shine—enjoy it! It’s not only an opportunity to share your exciting discoveries, but also to create an ongoing dialogue with members of your scientific community. The vast array of experience in your lab or organization can be instrumental to your intellectual development; harness that wealth of knowledge! Engaging your audience with these tips will help you become a respected member of your scientific team.
Good luck and I’ll see you at the bench!
About the Author
David Bourdon earned his Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Missouri-Columbia and performed his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is an R&D staff scientist in molecular and cell biology systems for Life Technologies.
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