5 tips for a high impact talk

Having just returned from the BIO conference, I am reminded of some of the better panels I have seen and the ones that could use some improvement. There are some fairly common and easily correctable issues that can be addressed to improve panels, and I would like to share my observations here.

1) Know your audience

It may seem simplistic, but when a speaker or panelist does not consider to whom they are speaking, they risk alienating their audience and wasting the opportunity to convey their message. To illustrate, I’ll bracket the concept with two examples:

Several years ago I was at a biotechnology development conference in an emerging economy. I had gone to pains to understand the innovation capacity of the country and had focused on topics such as biopiracy and brain drain to provide what I thought would be useful guidance. Another group, a pair of business development consultants, gave a talk on how to pitch a drug lead to venture capitalists. The problem with the talk was that there was no drug development occurring in the country, and the domestic VCs were not interested in investing in life sciences. I found the talk interesting, but I doubt that anybody else present learned much of value. So, while the consultants likely had knowledge that could be useful to the local audience, they chose instead to address a topic that was not relevant. Even if they were set on presenting a VC pitch talk, it would have been better to use locally-relevant or abstract concepts rather than to focus on an topic of no local relevance.

In another example, a patent searcher was giving a talk at a patent conference before a group of patent attorneys and other patent searchers. Presumably everyone in the room was extremely familiar with patents. Ignoring this fact, the patent researcher gave a canned talk of which approximately three-quarters was an elementary introduction to patents. The conclusion was a trivial example of a notion that most anyone familiar with patents would have known to expect. While the talk was probably based on a pitch she regularly gives to clients, and would have been of value to those less familiar with patents, it added no value to the event. As above, this searcher likely had knowledge that would have been useful to the audience, but because she hadn’t considered their interests she deprived them of an educational opportunity.

The common problem in both these examples is that the speakers did not take the time to research the audience. Giving a canned talk before the wrong audience shows a lack of respect for the audience — it would be much better to take the time to learn about the audience’s background or needs — and will likely only serve to alienate the speaker.

2) Not addressing the topic promised

This is a cardinal sin for talks, akin to sending spam emails or unsolicited telemarketing.

The most common form of not addressing the topic of the panel is when a speaker uses the speaking opportunity to tell you about their company, sometimes going so far as to list in great detail the names of all the partners and the products in development, but saying nothing about the topic promised. As above, these canned talks indicate to the audience that the speaker has little respect for them and did not bother to prepare a talk suited to their interests. Furthermore, it comes across as a thinly veiled sales pitch. Just as unsolicited marketing messages with misleading titles are unlikely to have an impact, giving a sales pitch when you promised a thematic talk is unlikely to have a positive outcome.

3) Repeating common knowledge or other panelists

Rehashing common  knowledge is very common among venture capitalists for some reason. It is too common for VCs to parrot common phrases such as ‘we invest in people’ or ‘the economy is good/bad’ or ‘we look for transformative growth opportunitities.’ While these statements might all be true, it is worthwhile to go into greater details. For example, I recently heard a VC describe how he preferred to invest in pitches from women because in his country women face an educational and career path that means that the women who do start businesses are very likely to succeed — that’s informative and interesting!

Likewise many technology licensing talks describe the same basic set of criteria for finding deals of interest. In these areas it may be better to provide case studies or tell war stories than to repeat vague guidance that is widely available.

It is also common for all panelists to feel the need to answer each question asked. If the prior panelists have already covered a question, it is perfectly fair to say that the question has already been answered. In doing so you can also take the liberty to be the first to answer the next question.

4) Presenting too much raw data

Scientists work very hard to collect their data, so they often want to present the fruits of their labors in great detail. While this may be useful among scientific audiences, to establish credibility for any claims made, it does not work well in mixed audiences (I’ve been guilty of this many times over). When presenting before mixed audiences who will likely not appreciate your data, it is better to focus on presenting conclusions and implications. You can always keep the data slides ready in case someone wants more information, but if you’re not at a scientific meeting it is best to minimize the amount of science you present.

This concept is especially important when pitching investors. If investors are interested in the science behind your talk, they will likely ask their scientific advisors to do a detailed examination. Investors are far more interested in the commercial implications of your work. By focusing on the science and not paying sufficient attention to the commercial implications and the path to market, you are communicating to investors that you do not understand their business and their needs, and that they may be better served by investing in other opportunities.

5) A bad closing slide

I recently attended a talk which presented the results of a study that I found interesting. The second last slide had the links to download the study, and the final slide contained only two words: Thank You. Unfortunately the speaker felt rushed for time so he quickly flipped from the important second-last slide to the “Thank You” slide, depriving the audience knowledge of where to find his work or how to contact him.

Instead of posting a final slide with a closing picture, a “Thank You,” or your team members, it is better to repeat your conclusions and post any relevant links along with your contact information. That way you can leave the slide up during Q&A and the audience will have ample time to think about your statements and to record these important elements.


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