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The Right Slides for the Right Audience

One thing that a medicinal chemistry conference has going for it is that the field is very broad. A wide range of topics can fit into a presentation, from straight organic synthesis, through cell assays and formulation topics, all the way up to human clinical data, and the audience will include plenty of people who will appreciate a good talk on either end of that scale. To some extent, that lets the speakers off the hook, because as long as there’s some connection with medicine and with chemistry, your talk can (in theory) be part of the agenda. That’s not to say that there aren’t good talks and bad talks (you’ll never get me to deny that!) All of these topics have interesting aspects and yawn-inducing ones, things that will get the audience’s attention and things that they’ve all seen a dozen times before.

But it does let them avoid a major problem that you see in more narrowly focused meetings. Far too often at these, you see someone with a top-to-bottom med-chem story come in and present the whole thing to an audience whose interests lie in about one-third of the slides. A conference that’s devoted to organic synthesis, for example, does not need to hear the last half of your talk about cell assay development and small animal toxicology. Likewise, a meeting directed to clinical results does not want to hear about your quest to work out the metal-catalyzed coupling conditions in step four.

The former case happens more often than the latter, since by the time things get deep into the clinic, the earlier research has often disappeared over the horizon. The real problem seems to be when you have someone presenting who’s worked on both the early and middle stages of a project (and who may have slides summarizing the later parts as well). They’ve got a presentation directed to The Story of the Project, and that may well be fine for some meetings (like a general med-chem one!) But if that describes your PowerPoint file, you should think carefully about the audience you’re going to be running it past. There may be a point at which you lose the crowd.

Fixing that won’t necessarily be fun, because you’re going to have to pitch a good number of your slides. Then you’ll probably need add some more that you don’t have made yet to shore up the part of the talk that your audience actually cares about. But do the math: putting you out for a while by making you rework your talk will save you from boring and irritating an entire large room full of people later on. Perhaps even more compellingly, it will also keep you from being seen as that speaker that gave that boring and irritating talk full of things that no one wanted to hear about. Worth a thought, eh?

Update: in response to a query, the talks at the conference I’m attending have been fine, since they’ve enjoyed just that med-chem-meeting advantage mentioned above. If you tried to give a whole talk without a single chemical structure in it, well, that might be different. Although, come to think of it, my own talk tomorrow doesn’t have a single chemical structure. Hmm.

16 comments on “The Right Slides for the Right Audience”

  1. Isidore says:

    You mean boring and irritating an entire room full of people is actually not the objective of quite a few speakers at quite a few meetings? You could have fooled me!

  2. watcher says:

    But it’s all about the biology, silly.

    1. bhip says:

      At a conference, it’s all about mouse biology. Try showing them that the mouse biology they have been publishing on, getting grants for, etc. does not reflect human biology & see how that goes over.

      Variation on Dereck’s theme- giving program updates for the company VPs i.e. the annual departmental infomercial.
      When I first started as a shiny ex-postdoc, I naively believed that R&D C-suit types would be interested in the fascinating nuances of the pharmacology, the exciting advances in our understanding of the biology, blah-de-blah-de-blah….It took me a long time to understand that they really wanted to know if we would make the deadline for IND-enabling studies….. I try (not always successfully) to keep the fascinating bits to myself while highlighting the time lines….

    2. Blabla says:

      That is of course true. I couldn’t care less about your drug if it’s not doing anything biologically. Chemistry is a utility science.

  3. Anon says:

    To be honest I think the conference organizers are also to blame: too focused on quantity vs quality as they try to appeal to a broader audience rather than making sure presentations are targeted at the right audience.

  4. Phil says:

    My biggest conference pet peeve is when someone takes a PowerPoint slide deck they had previously prepared for a 50-minute talk elsewhere, and crams it into a 20 or 30 minute conference slot by whizzing through slides and talking a mile a minute. I saw this time and again at the ACS. Is it really that hard to edit a talk to fit a shorter time slot?

  5. DCRogers says:

    > My biggest conference pet peeve is when someone takes a PowerPoint slide deck they had previously prepared for a 50-minute talk elsewhere, and crams it into a 20 or 30 minute conference slot by whizzing through slides and talking a mile a minute.

    A related bugbear of mine has the speaker trying to do on-the-fly editing by talking about a few slides, then rapidly moving through a bunch they’ve decided to skip (often containing the part I would have found the most interesting…), and ending randomly before the end of the slide deck at whatever point their time runs out.

    And to all speakers – please don’t use up your Q&A time by badly misplanning your talk length!

  6. 20-20 hindsight says:

    By their very nature, med-chem stories are presented from the vantage point of 20-20 hindsight. This can often contribute to the telling of R&D stories in overly deterministic terms, especially by uber med-chemists with career advancement agendas in conference forums. Absent are the errant and costly project decisions which led to random, or even negative, project progression. Also, insufficient credit may be given to individual (junior) scientific insights or serendipitous events that led to significant progress. In contrast, too much credit may be given to platform technologies because they’re sexy or need justification – e.g. amenities like co-crystal structures that make nice eye candy, but did not significantly contribute to program success. Drug discovery & development is an amalgam of platform technologies that may (or may not) be impactful, old school scientific reasoning and inspiration, persistent individual and team work, and simply luck – good stories reflect this. It’s a skill to tell them well.

    1. Oliver Hauss says:

      Isn’t that true for pretty much any scientific publication or presentation out there? Few of them go into the rocky road to Eureka, rather presenting the motivation and how they arrived at their conclusions, with no detours, dead ends, road blocks etc. as if the entire three year project had been nothing but smooth sailing (which often begs the question what they did with their time…. )

      1. Whig Historian says:

        Everything is for the best, because this is the best of all possible worlds

  7. Gaear Grimsrud says:

    Your heads would have exploded at last weeks ACS meeting- first time disclosure section last Wednesday. Some guy got up there (no names needed) and spewed out everything they ever did in the course of a half-hour, speed talking to the point of absurdity then rudely brushed off any questions the audience might have had.

    But these conferences have turned into marathon sessions to legitimize their existences with science aimed towards drug discovery.

    I am skipping the next ACS meetings for a few years. I am sure I wont miss a thing.

    1. anon says:

      I attended the whole session and I didn’t witness anything at all like you described. There was one talk by a guy who unfortunately couldn’t stop stuttering. It GREATLY slowed him down, with tons of uncomfortably long pauses, and he then he hugely exceeded his time slot and prevented all questions. Other than that (and the final talk by the deuterium-switch company rep) it was a great session, IMO.

  8. qvxb says:

    A slide with a picture of Britney Spears or Sarah Hyland will enliven your presentation and possibly wreck your career. And you’ll get to meet a lot of HR people.

  9. el gorrion says:

    For what it’s worth I’m really looking forward to your talk tomorrow.
    Welcome to Manchester from one the locals, just down the road from the venue…

  10. Anonymous says:

    “We have 20 min slots. We would appreciate if the speakers in the session could give their standard 40 minute presentation at double speed, rather than their standard 60 minute presentation at triple speed. Thank you for your consideration”

  11. Li Zhi says:

    Some of the best – or perhaps just best practiced – speakers I’ve encountered over the years have stories with many slides many and often most of which are excluded by the speaker as s/he gauges the audience’s interests (before hand, ideally). I’d call it a bespoken talk, if that weren’t so much of a groaner.
    The part that seems to me the hardest is to design the book so that it enables the selection of the appropriate slides without having to completely re-order them and without having to create an entirely new talk with each different selection of slides. When done well, the slides pull the speaker along and avoids the pot holes and dead ends which I often encounter when I get ahead of the slides (especially the ones I’ve pulled out, oops!). Of course the effort is only valuable for talks which are given before more than a couple of audiences…

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