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Responsibilities May Include

Presenting your research effectively online

You still need compelling content while also giving extra focus to your voice and visual elements of your presentation.


Imagine you walk into an auditorium for a keynote and there are two screens instead of one. On the right is a smaller screen with a picture of the speaker. On the left is a larger screen featuring a beautiful scientific illustration with a title. Where does your attention go? Where does it linger?

This is what our new online reality is like. In order to give effective online presentations, we need to be able to understand the differences between presenting in person and presenting virtually.  And presenting well everywhere is a critical skill for all graduate students to develop.

What’s similar?

First of all, content principles haven’t changed, but it’s even more important to understand them when presenting online. Without being able to see an audience and gauge reaction, presenters cannot recognize missteps and self correct nor identify when the audience is distracted and tuning out. These challenges mean content trajectory is more important than ever. Here are three good concepts to keep in mind.

Start with why. Begin with your research knowledge gap or research question and ask “so what?” three or four times. You’ll be surprised how effectively this exercise can take you from a research hypothesis of “produce more evenly distributed material coatings” to “charge a car in less time than filling a tank of gas.” The first leaves people guessing at importance, the second gets people motivated to learn. For more about “start with why,” watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk.

Pare back content. The rule of three works well. Most people can process three things without feeling overwhelmed, and most people can remember three things. For longer talks, scaffold patterns of three: three main ideas, three sections, three points within a section, etc. Just remember to summarize and foreshadow between sections. Keep the audience grounded. Exceed three cautiously; it’s usually not worth it.

Use patterns that work. One good strategy is to start with something familiar and tangible, preferably in story form. Then use this form as a bridge to a general understanding. For the rest of the talk, work in reverse: general to specific as you dive deeper and deeper into the less familiar and challenging details. Then circle back and finish where you started. This pattern mimics an hourglass. Other patterns work too, but be sure to keep the flow simple and logical.

What’s different?

Presenters are now two dimensional and restricted to one spot. Visuals are brighter and higher resolution. These changes cause people’s visual focus to shift to the slide deck, and then potentially to their phone or second monitor. Your body language impact will fade, and your voice will become more important. Applying these three tips will increase your impact:

1. Reconsider your set-up

We used to travel to a classroom or auditorium to present. Now most people present seated at their work desk, with no thought about transition. Consider making three changes.

  • Establish a pre-talk routine. You need transition time to warm up and get ready. Leave yourself 15 minutes before presentations and experiment a bit to see what works for you.
  • Don’t present from your desk chair. Stand up, and, if possible, move to a different location. If you can’t move, stand at your desk. Get the camera on your laptop at eye height by placing your computer on a stable stack of books, a stool or a chair on top of your desk. Standing will serve as reminder you are presenting, not writing a journal article.
  • Find a decent wired mic. A lot of cellphone microphones work fine but test yours with a friend. Your voice is now critical; your mic needs to be clear.

For more on how set up shifts can help combat Zoom fatigue see this recent article.

2. Be more vocally dynamic

Your voice has now become your most important tool for being dynamic – use it! Extending your vocal range is achieved by shifting attitudes, because, as attitudes shift, our pitch, tone and volume do as well. But this attitude shift comes with a disclaimer: it needs to be authentic. Your goal is to simply allow attitudinal shifts to occur that are genuine reflections of how you feel about various content. Does your opening problem make you sad, angry or curious? Is your methodology relatively straightforward? Was your result expected or surprising? Allowing yourself to feel will trigger a dynamic vocal presence that will keep your audience engaged. Standing will help here too as our voice follows body language. Michael Grinder explains this relationship nicely on Floor 2 of his House of Communication.

3. Develop better visuals

Visuals matter more and serve a different purpose. Here are three keys to consider.

  • You need high resolution photography that will help increase emotional impact and memory. Look in PowerPoint, which now has royalty free images as well as icons and illustrations (go to “insert,” “pictures” and then click on “stock images”). Also, take pictures in your lab with your smartphone. The impact of your own pictures can be powerful.
  • You need well-developed illustrations (likely animated) that will increase comprehension and decrease audience processing time (double bonus!). For general phenomena, look for professional infographics you can then cite. For specifics to your research, build them yourself. Try using Canva.
  • Activate your visuals. Use animation, morphing and annotation to keep the visual stream dynamic. The goal is to create slide deck visuals that scaffold and shift in real time alongside your voice. Done well, this movement aids comprehension and discourages people from looking at their phone for fear of missing out.

Notice nothing here says more visuals, and certainly don’t add more text! Visuals just need to be better developed and more dynamic.

Learn and practice

Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to presenting again in person. But even when we do, online presenting is not going to disappear; the convenience and increased reach of virtual presenting are too valuable. Understand the differences between in-person and online presenting, seek opportunities to practice and learn to do both well.

Andrew Churchill
Andrew Churchill is the presentation skills training manager at teaching and learning services at McGill University, where he has been helping researchers present better since 2015. He also works with emerging start-ups competing for non-dilutive funding.
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  1. Margaret Forrest / June 2, 2021 at 13:44

    Fantastic advice — clear, dynamic and most of all do-able! Thanks, Andrew.

    • Andrew Churchill / June 3, 2021 at 09:03

      So kind of you to say! The journey started together at Mac Campus with the writing of the Lister Family Engaged Science Initiative grant now almost 5 years ago. Time has flown.

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