Lost in presentation

Last week I went to a meeting for a European technology platform.  It was the usual round of scientific papers outlining progress in tackling the challenges of the area, but it also contained a couple of sessions enabling attendees to “pitch” their work.  I went along expecting the sort of pitches I was used to, but instead listened to more scientific papers – with one honourable exception.  This got me thinking about how we communicate the understanding that science gives us in the context of business.  

I am old enough that the first science presentations I gave were either with 35mm slides or (what we called) acetate overhead slides (which I think were actually polyester).  As I remember it , each slide had a small number of points in text, or a graph which illustrated the points about to be made in the next slide.  The advent of PowerPoint initially made this easier to produce, and allowed for electronic delivery, but has evolved to actually degrade communication rather than enhance it.

I have long ago lost track of the presentations I have sat through where the majority of slides were unreadable or unintelligible.  There were graphs where the axes are unreadable, the colours too similar to differentiate between the lines, and which the presenter never explained the significance of. There were endless coloured boxes with text inside (often with low contrast so also unreadable) that purport to explain a process or workflow, but confuse even more.  There were images taken by microscopes with no scale bars, so the viewer didn’t know what they are looking at – and sometimes a pair of images with different scales so comparison is meaningless.  There were slides with multiple graphics – graphs, images and text all piled on top of one another and never explained – that come across as a testament to how productive the presenter is rather than how insightful. But, at its heart, a good scientific presentation communicates how the presenter (and/or their team) understands how something works and what would happen in an extrapolated set of circumstances.

Explaining science in the business world is different.  Whether it is within a company and the audience are your colleagues, or it is to an external audience of strangers, the probable reason is to get them to give you money.  After a long time in industry, I spent 7 years in a government organisation that gave out grants to translate science into commerce, so I saw a lot of such presentations and came to understand that it is possible to miscommunicate a good idea and not get funded, but that even superb communications skills cannot disguise a poor idea.  There has been much written about pitching, so the next section of this post goes over well-trodden ground, but it bears repetition.

The first thing to do is to get the audience to understand how important what you are going to tell them is.  Given that you are also effectively introducing them to you (the speaker) the manner and tone of how you do this is critical to success.  This brings me to the one presentation in the session I watched that nailed this aspect of “pitching”.  She started with a slide of 100 stick figures.  The first thing she said was “In their lifetime, about 50% of people will get cancer” and then, on the slide, 50 of the figures turned orange.  The second thing she said was “About half the people diagnosed with cancer will survive for ten years or more”, whereupon 25 of the orange figure turned red and disappeared.  She went on “…and the earlier the detection the more likely they are to survive!”.  This was a pitch about early stage diagnosis of cancer, and she had made the point that a quarter of the audience ought to care – and care a lot!  Pitching healthcare ought to be easy, because you are invariably engaging the sympathy of a significant fraction of the audience, but there are environmental, transport, energy and a whole range of other issues that people probably care about enough to engage them in a similar way.  Having got them to understand what the challenge is, it is important at this point to include your understanding of the value of the solution. Given that actual financial performance is almost impossible to predict, the best course is to provide a credible estimate of the value of the “market”.

Having persuaded the audience that it is an important and valuable issue, the next step is to articulate the “unmet need”.  This does not have to involve slagging off the competition or ignoring them (both common approaches).  It is more about offering a route towards a solution to the challenge you have just got the audience to think about.

Since you have given them both a challenge and a route to a solution, the next step is to convince them that you are the best person (or company) to be successful.  To an extent, if you have communicated successfully already, you have their emotional commitment, so now is the time to lay out a plan to deliver the solution.  Timescales and resources are important – given that you are invariably asking for money, disclosing what you will spend it on seems only fair.

Finally, most money comes with a requirement for repayment – and usually with interest, so you need to explain how your solution will be delivered, what fraction of the market value (see earlier) you will achieve and therefore how you will earn back the money you need to repay the investment.  

I have seen this done with as little as 4 slides but am aware that people often need the security that every point they want to make is written down in the slide-set.  Getting the balance is important – too many slides, particularly if they are poorly explained, can lose the attention of the audience, but too few may leave the audience worrying that they don’t have enough information to follow the thread of the story you are telling them.  

In the end it all goes back to one of basic premises I was taught early on about presentations – there are three things to consider, what you want to tell people, what they think they are going to hear from you and the environment of the presentation.  When explaining science it is vital to think about the audience and make sure you answer the questions they came into the room with!  Otherwise, you will waste everyone’s time!

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