Presentation Tips for First-Time Abstract Presenters

Apr 28, 2020

By Muhamad Alhaj Moustafa, MD

The ASCO Annual Meeting is the largest educational and scientific conference in oncology. In 2019, ASCO attracted more than 42,000 attendees from all over the world. The fundamental goal of such a scientific meeting is to share knowledge and accelerate scientific advances. Investigators use different types of presentations as methods to disseminate and share their valuable work with others in the field. This is an important aspect of promoting their scientific careers. These presentations are important to communicate findings and connect with others in the field with similar interests. During these meetings, your research work has the potential to get the highest attention and visibility. This is a great opportunity to get feedback on your work and to build future collaborations and valuable connections.

I attended my first ASCO Annual Meeting as a post-doctoral fellow in 2015. I remember being so excited about my abstract acceptance but also stressed out about presenting at such a large-scale meeting. I had to read a lot of articles and seek advice from mentors on how to prepare the perfect presentation and how to connect with and impress the audience.

Now, having presented multiple times and in different formats and meetings, I have come to the conclusion that presentation skills are highly valued tools that can promote your work and help you achieve prominence in your field. Thus, it is important to train yourself and master these skills. Here are some tips that I have learned from my experience, particularly for first-time presenters.

Understand Your Audience

Knowing who your audiences are and what they are looking for in your presentation is of utmost importance. It will help you determine the appropriate scope and depth of content you should provide.

In general or large audience sessions, including poster presentations, you have to presume that most of your audience members are not experts in the topic you are presenting (although some are). Thus, you have to give a concise and easy-to-understand background of your topic before you go into details of your work. That way you will connect with a larger portion of your audience.

In smaller sessions, where the room is filled with experts in a certain field, you can assume that you don’t have to give a lot of details about the basic background. Focus more on your research question, methodology, and the importance of the results.

Prepare for the Right Presentation Type

Just as you must tailor your presentation to your audience, you must also tailor it to the type of session where you will be presenting. These are the main types of sessions at which you might be invited to present your abstract at a future ASCO Annual Meeting or similar conference:

Oral abstract presentation

High-quality abstracts are selected for Oral Abstract Sessions. These sessions typically attract audiences with special interest in the topic you are presenting. The typical presentation time is 10 to 12 minutes. Two or three presentations are given back to back, followed by a presentation by a discussant of the abstracts, then a Q&A session.

Usually, you will need to prepare PowerPoint slides to help you walk the audience through the presentation. These slides are not meant for you or the audience to read from. The best PowerPoint slides are ones with simple high-resolution figures and tables that help you illustrate the concepts that you are presenting. Refrain from using busy and over-filled slides with more than three to four lines of text.

Tip: Create a story! A good narrative starts with a captivating introduction. Once you’ve hooked your audience, they will be ready and attentive to learn more about your research. Make sure your first slide and your first words are engaging.

Through your presentation, you have to convey to your audience the primary research question and why it is important to answer (background), what you did to find your answer (methodology), and the interesting findings you expected or did not expect to find (results). Lastly, you have to showcase the importance of your findings and how they add to the current knowledge with emphasis on the next steps you are planning to take (conclusion). You are the storyteller of your work and it is your presentation that makes the content more compelling and exciting to the audience.

Presenting your research is essentially an act of performance, and therefore preparation is crucial for your success. Try to start practicing early by videotaping yourself and/or by presenting to your mentors and colleagues. Constructive feedback is key to improving your performance.

Poster presentation 

Many abstracts are selected for poster presentations, where abstracts are displayed in poster format. The advantage of a poster presentation is that you have more time to interact with your audience and get their feedback, compared to a 15-minute oral abstract presentation. This will also give you the chance to mingle with more people who are interested in your research and possibly build some contacts.

To gain all the benefits of this format of presentation, you have to start with building an attention-grabbing poster that is easy to read. Keep in mind that most people don’t have time to read the whole poster. Avoid filling the board with small text that is difficult to follow; use bullet points rather than long paragraphs. High-quality figures might be all you need to convey your message.

Building a good poster for the first time can be difficult and time-consuming. Initiate the process a few weeks prior to the presentation and review your poster multiple times with your mentors.

First impressions really count in poster presentations. You should be prepared with a quick 1- to 2-minute talk-through presentation that highlights the significance of your work. This can be used to engage in conversations with people who are interested in your poster.

During your presentation time, try to stand next to your poster for the entirety of the session and do not block the view of your poster by standing in front of it. Be welcoming, give appropriate time to each interested individual, and avoid ignoring visitors who are standing and waiting for you.

You can support your poster presentation by using handouts. Handouts will help individuals remember you and your research, and also give them a way to contact you should they have further questions. Handouts typically include:

  • Abstract title and number
  • Your name and affiliation (include your email if you are interested in people
    contacting you regarding your project)
  • Key information from your abstract
  • Any supporting material that is not included in the poster
  • A scannable QR code to help people locate your abstract online

Poster discussion presentation

Select posters will be chosen for Poster Discussion Sessions, where abstract authors will be participating as panel members. These sessions are followed by networking sessions with discussants and authors. In this hybrid type of presentation, you will have the chance to talk to your audience and answer their questions in similar fashion to Oral Abstract Sessions. Prepare yourself to highlight the important points of your research and to answer audience questions.

Be the Expert on Your Abstract

Many presenters, especially in their first few presentations, may demonstrate lack of confidence because they believe that their audience knows more than they do. This increases stress levels and can impair your performance.

Good preparation and sufficient practice are the keys to tackle this issue. You need to make sure that you know and understand all the key points, figures, and tables you are presenting and their implication on the current knowledge. Along with your mentor, prepare a list of possible questions the audience is likely to ask and practice how you will answer them. You may not yet be an expert in your field, but you can and should be the expert on the abstract you are presenting.

Although it is rare, be prepared for negative comments. Do not be defensive in the face of criticism. Your knowledge of your work will help you answer critiques in a professional way. It is very important to welcome feedback with open mind. Always remember that every piece of feedback, whether negative or positive, is a great opportunity to learn, improve your work, and understand different perspectives on a particular topic.

Finally, always keep in mind that the people who have listened to your lecture or visited your poster could potentially be future employers, colleagues, or collaborators. Be polite, professional, and gracious.

Dr. Alhaj Moustafa is a hematology/oncology fellow and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Florida. He is a member of the ASCO Trainee Council and Publishing Research Group. Follow him on Twitter @AlhajMoustafa.


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