Becoming Skilled and Competent: The Essentials of Presentations

February 11, 2013

One of the most common forms of professional communication is the ‘Presentation.’  No matter what career you have – professor, researcher, science policy analyst, CEO of a company – chances are you will have to prepare and deliver professional presentations.  In fact, you probably give presentations regularly already – for lab meeting, at professional conferences, for your thesis proposal, or for your job interview.  However, no matter why you are giving your talk, the goal is the same: Communicating and sharing information with your audience.  Because of this, there are some simple principles that any talk should have – and you can use these are the building blocks of any presentation you prepare.

  1. Have a story:  Every talk has a story.  Just like any story – from a book or a movie – no one remembers every detail, but just the major events.  Your goal is to construct your presentation so that people leave remembering the major points.  Start by asking yourself, “What are the ‘major events’ your audience should know about your story?  If they have 5 minutes to summarize my talk, what is it I want them to be able to say?”
  2. Plan your TransitionsSuccessful presentations are about successful transitions.  Transitions occur throughout your talk.  There is a transition from your introduction to your first major point.  Another transition occurs when you move to the next point.  Transitions also occur from slide to slide.  If you understand the story you are trying to tell, then having smooth transitions is easier.  When you are practicing your talk, think about how you will lead your audience from one point to the other.  For example, once you complete your specific aims of your experiments, your audience should know (and you should too) that the next major point to discuss is the methods used, in only enough detail for them to understand what comes afterwards – highlights from the results.
  3. You are the Presentation, not the Slides: With Powerpoint and other presentation applications today, most people prepare slides to go with their talk.  While this is not a bad thing, the slides should not be the focus of your story.  Filling your slides with the verbatim text of your presentation bores your audience, invites them to read ahead (and by doing so, stop listening to you), and in the ends, makes them wonder why you could not have just written the talk and handed it to them before hand.  You are the presentation:  You tell the story, you decide what the important aspects to emphasize are, and you direct the audience’s attention to interesting features of graphs and figures.  Your slides are tools and landmarks that help you stay on track, and remind you what major point you wanted to make at that time.  Perhaps outline your story on a piece of paper, and then create your slides to help support your story.

Here is a recent videocast of a workshop that the OITE did on Talking Science: Designing and Delivering Successful Oral Presentations

No matter what type of talk you need to give, before you start, think first about your story, how you will transition from major point to major point (and from slide to slide), and do not rely upon you slides to tell your story.   With these basics you can create any great talk!


The Postdoc Journey: A Developmental Approach to Independence

September 23, 2010

In continued recognition of Postdoc Appreciation Week, I share a developmental model I crafted for a presentation to the National Academies some years ago. My argument is that postdocs move through four developmental stages as they progress toward independence, both scientifically and professionally.

These stages are fluid, and postdocs may move back and forth among stages throughout their tenure as trainees. Below is my model, subsequently published in Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research, with programs offered at the NIH inserted as examples of developmental opportunities.

Developmental Model


A postdoctoral scholar typically moves through the following four stages: (1) adjustment (year 1); (2) skill enhancement (years 2 and 3); (3) search for positions (years 4 and 5); (4) and transition to independence (by year 5). Again, these stages are fluid, and the amount of time actually spent in each stage depends on the individual’s specific skills, discipline, work environment, and mentor.

Stage 1:

During the first stage, postdocs need to develop healthy patterns of behavior that will continue to serve them throughout their tenure. In order to adjust to the training period, postdocs should attend orientation sessions offered through OITE and any offered through their IC. Below are other programs offered to assist postdocs with adjusting effectively:

Stage 2:

During the second stage, postdocs might attend workshops and seminars such as those below to build skills as independent researchers, teachers, and mentors. They might also consider seeking individual grant reviews through PIs or senior staff at OITE.

Stage 3:

Stage 3 focuses on the development of job search related skills, such as writing effective resumes and CVs, interviewing, negotiating, and so on. OITE offers many programs and services in a variety of formats designed to meet the needs of trainees regardless of the type of career they are pursuing:

Stage 4:

Finally, postdocs in the 4th or transition stage should be preparing to move into their chosen career. OITE offers informative programs for all postdocs in leading teams effectively, resolving conflict, and more:

When applied during my tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this model proved successful in that UNC saw job success in its postdoctoral population and positive outcomes in terms of skill development through its program evaluations.

Take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to you through OITE and the NIH. Enjoy the journey!

Make the Most of Your Mentoring Relationships

May 25, 2010

LeaderWhen I think about the mentors I’ve had over the course of my professional life, I feel very fortunate. Each has been unique, injecting his or her thoughts, experiences, and personal style into our mentoring relationship. As I reflect on time spent talking with, listening to, or emailing with each of my mentors, it seems like the role of mentor came quite naturally to them, an effortless act that engendered feelings of respect and gratitude on my part. So what’s the secret? How can we take full advantage of the mentoring relationships we are currently in, either as mentor or trainee? I have culled information from a variety of sources cited below to assist you in building and maintaining strong mentoring relationships throughout your career.

As a trainee:

Assume primary responsibility for your own career development.

This is critical, as I have met a few trainees who have been unsuccessful at forging strong mentoring bonds because of an expectation that “other people should be looking out for me.” Take charge of your own career, always.

Communicate your goals often—both formally and informally.

Again, this is your responsibility. Trainees who have shared their professional goals with their mentors early on in their research careers have enjoyed more satisfaction long-term than those who have not.

Assume progressive responsibility and management of your research.

If your current PI serves as a mentor, demonstrate your willingness to take on new projects or learn new skills, with a view to enhancing your own career development and assisting with the growth of your PI/mentor’s lab.

Seek feedback on your performance regularly.

Think about identifying mentors who might be best for providing feedback in a particular area. Do you know of scientists who are great at mentoring others? Building research teams? Those whose strengths lie in editing? How about someone who approaches research problems creatively? Asking for feedback from people who are gifted in a particular area will help you grow as a professional.

As a mentor:

Listen patiently.

If you are mentoring an undergraduate, graduate student, or technician in the lab, try to listen actively to what the trainee is sharing, rather than jumping in and trying to offer a solution immediately.

Communicate regularly.

Decide on place, time, and frequency of meetings with your trainee and stick to this schedule. Checking in often and keeping lines of communication open will strengthen any professional relationship.

Be clear about your expectations.

Work with each individual you are mentoring to set specific goals. This might include publishing goals, skill development, or a goal related to the job search. Let the conversation be driven by the trainee you are mentoring. Some questions you might ask are “What skills would you like to develop?” “How can you make this happen?” “How will you measure progress in this area?” “How can I facilitate this process?” Have trainees explain projects back to you, or write a paragraph describing a given project and their role in it.

Keep trainees motivated.

Encourage strategic thinking and creativity in your trainee. If feedback is needed, offer criticism in a way that doesn’t shame or discourage your trainee. Encourage your trainee to learn new skills. Provide networking opportunities by introducing your trainees to other scientists while at professional meetings, or on campus in different institutes or departments.

Stay in touch.

Keep in touch with those you are mentoring and those who are mentoring you. The time you invest in these relationships now will pay dividends both now and in the future.


Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors, Association of American Medical Colleges

Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine

Still Waiting for the Phone to Ring…

April 27, 2010

cellieThrough my many forays into the job market, I have anxiously awaited responses from employers, either to application materials I had sent out in response to a job ad, or as a follow-up after I had interviewed with them. Through these experiences, I have come to identify several different employer communication styles:

The “As-If-You-Didn’t-Know-Already” late response guy, also known as the “In-Case-You-Were-Thinking-of-Calling-a-Moving-Truck” guy

This person is one of the most frustrating of the bunch. He is the one who tells you months (and sometimes years) after your application has been submitted that “the search process has ended and the position has been filled.” This typically happens after you have heard a conference talk by the very employee who had been hired for the position you applied for.

The “Affirmative-Action-Card” lady

This is an important person, as she provides proof of receipt of your application materials and keeps your hopes alive…but often fails to provide any further follow-up on the status of your application. Just when you were getting to know her better…

The “Just-Wanted-to-Keep-You-in-the-Loop-though-I-Have-Nothing-New-to-Share” guy

This is the most obsequious employer, a kindly chap who shares the every move of the hiring committee. Sample email posts include: “The search committee met today to discuss the applications,” “We are currently in the process of reviewing all of the materials submitted,” “I wanted to let you know that we have not yet decided which candidates we will bring in for interviews,” or “I’m having tuna salad for lunch today.”

The “Oh-Yes-I-Remember-You” lady

This person always seems surprised to hear from you, whether you met two weeks ago, or just phoned yesterday and was asked by this very person to call back at that particular time.

And finally, the dreaded “”

That is, crickets, and/or the Silent Treatment. This is the communication style we have all come to know and dread. Whither the manners of these mute employers? Could they not muster a simple, one-line text of email indicating (at the least!) receipt of our application materials? And what of employers who are incommunicado after you meet with them in person? This has happened to me and leads me to wonder—“Did I offend someone during my interview? Did I curse? Spit? Insult someone’s family? Have spinach in my teeth?? What was it??? Why are they not calling me?????”

While there are many interpersonal skills we need to engage during a job search, none seem as difficult as drumming up enough self-confidence to accept that communication styles, like people, vary greatly, and do not necessarily indicate a poor application or interview on our part.

The good news is that we do have the power to overcome substandard communication by following up. Following up with employers after submitting your materials or after an interview is completely appropriate. You might even consider following up with someone after a brief exchange at a career fair or scientific meeting.

The trick here is to use appropriate language. In regards to a job application, there are two questions I would encourage you to ask:

1)    “Have you received my materials?” (unless of course you have already received notice of this), and

2)    “What is the time line for your search?”

These questions can come at any point after submitting your materials electronically or via snail mail, and may be sent via email or asked by phone.

In regards to interview follow up, I would recommend two things:

1)    Send a thank-you email or letter immediately after you depart an interview—or at least within 24 hours.

2)    Follow up with a phone call or email if you have not received word of the outcome by two weeks time, and again, ask about the intended time line for the search.

As with most things, there are few caveats I’d like to share:

1)    Do not call an employer who has stated clearly, either on a website or via an electronically generated email, that candidates are NOT TO CALL.

2)    There are, unfortunately, sadly, and quite commonly, many employers you will never hear back from, regardless of follow-up tactics and conscientious behavior.

The key is to keep your spirits up, try to enjoy yourself, and use a variety of job search methods (and not merely apply for jobs online). Chances are you will ultimately be successful in finding a position you enjoy—with someone whose communication style suits you just fine.