Org Prep Daily

June 10, 2007

On boring medchem talks

Filed under: industry life — milkshake @ 6:34 pm

Sitting through the endless tables of analogs with a steady dribble of nearly identical slides can be a pretty stupefying experience. Especially if the listeners do not care much about the details of the work or if they get lost. In the past I had to give some medchem talks for audience that included biologists, pharmacology and animal studies folks and computer guys and, worst of all, the management. (Some of the business types in the industry have only faint appreciation of what the lab work is about – for them, research just costs too much money and is never finished on time.)

A simple trick that I copied from Tarantino movies has worked for me quite well: With the mixed audience, you skip through the introduction in two sentences. You tell about your best and latest results – right on the first slide. While they stare at this thing that hit them out of the blue, you are explaining what it is and how it compares with the situation you had when you joined the project  – and how that relates to what was wanted. This will focus the listeners on what is important in the presentation and what direction is your talk headed.

On the second slide you go back and begin at the beginning. You take the audience through the ups and downs of the project (you put it together into a coherent story about how you made a plan and was hopeful but the hope was soon crushed by hitting an unprecedented snag so you had to come up with alternatives – but you had also few pleasant surprises along the way, etc.) At the end you recap the summary for the second time so everybody understands what was the stuff that you did and why – but while you summarize you also add the plans for the near future. It looks good when you provide some raw time estimate about by when you hope to find out if the project is still headed in the right direction. You explain what the fall-back option might be if it did not.

The advantage of this scheme is that it helps to keep the interest going. It makes it easier for the non-technical audience to catch “This is where I was, this is where I am – and now I’ll tell you how I got there and what happened meanwhile”. You can get through without dumbing down your presentation. The non-chemists maybe won’t get as much from some weird reaction mechanism – but if you present your technical material with a sufficient enthusiasm and if the leitmotiv we-are-improving-the-stuff-one-step-at-a-time is clear, then they will not suffer. (You may even look smarter if you go through your stuff allegretto without providing a primer on the basics; HOBt and DCC structures can appear sophisticated to a nonchemist…). You can also drop in some self-deprecating comments (as to avoid looking smug) or a tongue-in-cheek joke. If you don’t make them smile at least you shouldn’t make them yawn. At the end you should have a decent acknowledgement – not overtly brown-nosing but showing a fuzzy apprecition for the help you get from your colleagues (including colleagues in other departments) and the gratitude to your immediate advisor – for putting up with you.

The non-scientific people in the audience (for example the CEO and his stooges) need to get the impression that you are a competent, smart and motivated but unpretentious guy who is making a steady progress.  The subliminal meaning of your presentation should be “Things happen in the research that one cannot anticipate but this young man has the drive and common sense to make it work in the end”


Presenting is matter of practice combined with a few confidence-boosting tricks: You can adopt a chatty, conversation-like tone as if you are talking to a good friend (a visiting former classmate) while you are drawing for him on the sash of your hood. Act as if you are still amused about the twists and turns that a medchem project can take – a mild irony in fact is a good way to convey to a non-technical audience what research feels like from inside.

There is no reason to worry about making fool of yourself: even though there might be better chemists in the audience then you are, you happen to know much more about your project then what they can possibly think up during your talk. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” (it should be followed by “But I think one possibility is that…”) The chances are that in the discussion at the end you will be asked about stuff that you thought through already, months ago.

Please, whatever you do – don’t read bullet points -ridden text from Powerpoint slides, slowly and verbatim.


  1. Amen to the request of not reading the “bullet-ridden text from Powerpoint slides.” Far too many people in academia – grad students, post docs, and visiting professors – do that at my university. It makes an hour-long presentation feel like three hours.

    Comment by Ron — June 10, 2007 @ 11:51 pm

  2. I try for as little text as possible when I’m forced to do Powerpoint. Figures, structures and photos of glowing things are much better. The downside is that you have to know your presentation very well (else, you skip something here and there from being nervous).

    Comment by Ψ*Ψ — June 12, 2007 @ 3:58 am

  3. You are right, verbose slides are terrible. I tend to do all slides in ChemDraw, text, tables and all – and then just copy/paste them to PowerPoint.

    Comment by milkshake — June 12, 2007 @ 11:25 am

  4. Just attended a Phd Seminar yesterday, that guy spent 20 minutes on intro, 15 more on the importance of his work and details through the last 20 on his results. Showed us never ending of tables, datas…. stressing the importance of hydrogen bonding, inter molecular bonding, intra molecular blah..blah… most of the audience left halfway. Too painful. In the end, The guy got ticked off by the board. We? We learn from his mistake. Poor guy. He look a bit crushed. One of the board member commented that “where is the significancy of your work? I don’t see it in your slides. You spent too much time talking on the non-important thing.” BOOM!

    Comment by Taitauwai — June 14, 2007 @ 8:12 pm

  5. BOOM indeed….but did this guy pass or not??? Don’t leave me hanging.

    Comment by Bad Cop — June 15, 2007 @ 12:58 am

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