Tips for First-Time Abstract Presenters

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The fundamental goal of scientific meetings is to share knowledge and accelerate scientific advances. Investigators use different types of presentations 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.

Muhamad Alhaj Moustafa, MD

Muhamad Alhaj Moustafa, MD

During these meetings, your research work has the potential to receive 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 postdoctoral 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 valuable tools that can help to promote your work and advance in your field. Thus, it is important to train and master these skills. Here are some tips that I have learned from my experience, particularly geared to first-time presenters.

Understand Your Audience

Understanding who your audience is 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 summary 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). Therefore, giving a concise and easy-to-understand background of your topic before you go into details of your work is helpful. That will connect with a larger portion of your audience.

In smaller sessions, attended by 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. Here are the main types of sessions at which you might be invited to present your abstract:

  • 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 question-and-answer 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 to illustrate the concepts that you are presenting. Refrain from using busy and overfilled 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 more attentive and ready to learn about your research. Make sure your first slide and your first words are engaging.

Throughout your presentation, you will 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’ll want 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 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 network.

To gain all the benefits of this format of presentation, 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 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 summary that highlights the significance of your work.

During your presentation time, try to be available for the entirety of the session and do not block the view of your poster by standing in front of it. Be welcoming and give appropriate time to each interested individual.

You can support your poster presentation by using handouts or supplemental materials. 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 e-mail 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 participate 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 an oral abstract session. Prepare 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 can increase stress and impair performance.

Good preparation and sufficient practice are key to tackle this issue. Make sure that you know and understand all the key points, figures, and tables you are presenting and their implications for 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. Knowledge of your work will help you answer critiques in a professional way. It is very important to welcome feedback with an 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.

Editor’s note: Although these tips were originally written for researchers presenting at in-person meetings, we hope they will also be useful to presenters preparing for virtual conferences.

Dr. 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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