The art of presenting a scientific paper:   


Dr. K. Ganapathy,   

Neurosurgeon, Apollo Hospitals,  Chennai , India.

A philosopher once remarked " There is no subject, however complex which � if studied with patience and intelligence � will not become still more complex ". Presenting a paper, is no exception. The best way to ensure that a scientific paper is properly presented, is to remember that 420 seconds is enough to undo years of hard work. A tourist once asked a police officer, " How do I get to the White House " "Hard work young man, hard work and still more hard work " was the answer.

It is seldom realized that the world�s greatest orators were not born with the gift of the gab.

Preparation, more preparation and still more preparation is what makes a paper stand out. The person who boasts that he has put his talk together in the train on the way to a meeting. may very occasionally be brilliant. More often a listener wishes that the journey was longer or had not been undertaken at all !

With the East aping the West the term " publish or perish " is becoming relevant in the Indian context. Despite peer pressure and the compulsions to present a paper at a national conference, one has to seriously consider whether there is really " meat " in the paper. Tandon (1984 ) did not mince matters when he said, "Will the contents demonstrate, answer or prove something which will be of interest and at least of some use to the audience". The latter is as important as the former. The key word is to cater to the consumer. What is the take home message of the paper? What is it that you want the audience to remember after one day, one month and even one year. Obviously the speaker knows or should know at any rate more about the particular topic being presented than most members in the audience. A paper presentation is not an occasion to display one�s erudition. Having taken a conscious decision, that one really has something worthwhile to contribute, the next logical step is to prepare for the talk. Talking " "off the cuff " is tantamount to arrogance - usually a sequel to ignorance. The more " casual " and " ex tempore " a talk appears the more the preparation that has gone into it. International leaders spend dozens of hours rehearsing, and re rehearsing again and again, before any major conference. Dozens of professionals advise on the body language to be displayed, on the exact choice of a word, where to pause, what dress to wear, the ambient lighting, the surroundings etc etc. Yet most medical doctors rattle of what they want to say, oblivious of the preparations required. The audience wants pre digested food ready for assimilation and incorporation. Of course flavor, taste, an ambient environment, attractive hostesses, the way in which it is displayed, presented and served is important. However these embellishments will add value only if the basic food is well prepared.

Given below are some guidelines for presenting a paper which will prove to be handy for the neophyte and the veteran.

A paper should be presented only when there is a definite message for the audience. Introduction - one should capture the audience�s attention in the first 30 seconds � the raison d^etre for the paper - a brief explanation of how it all began � why one started the study in the first place.. Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. A powerful introduction creates an immediate impact. The title should be provocative but not flashy. Review of literature, and extensive elaboration of materials and methods are not necessary in an oral presentation. Any scientific paper should essentially follow the IMRAD method : Introduction, .Methods ( a description of exactly what was done.) Results - One should confine the results to those relevant to the questions asked initially. Discussion - The main findings should be discussed along with other results. The implications of the present findings and how they are similar or differ from others should be elaborated. If a presentation starts with a question and through a logical sequence of arguments ends with an answer then it is likely to engage the reader�s attention to the last.

Statistics : Knowledge of the statistical significance of the data being presented is essential. Graphic displays, histograms, frequency polygons etc should be liberally used so that a quick visual impression is conveyed to the audience. A picture is equal to a hundred words and if it is a moving one it is equal to a thousand words. The sample group studied must truly represent the population .Formulation of the problem, collection of the data and proper design of the study makes all the difference. Evidence-based medicine (EBM) - to use a vogue word - is the contemporary mantra of many academic physicians. Unfortunately, the evidence they consider, although superficially convincing, is often slanted, occasionally deliberately, but more often as a result of carelessness and defects in study design. These biases and confounding factors are often hidden and arcane and seriously impair objective assessment.

Style in its simplest description is the art of presentation. It is the art of choosing the right word at the right time on the right occasion. A reader should be able to feel and smell the style but not put his hand on it. Obscurity in writing is a proof of darkness of the mind. HG Wells once remarked � " I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere. I write as straight as I can , just as I walk as straight as I can, because it is the best way to get there ".Holding the floor requires an element of style, not dropping Latin metaphors and trying to sound very learned. One should never be witty, smart or learned but just be oneself ! To be impressive is not necessarily to be pedantic. The first deadly sin in style, is circumlocution or in simple words " to be a pompous ass " eg using a hundred words where ten would suffice. A speaker�s style reflects the lucidity in his mind. Disciplined talking comes from a disciplined mind. A wool gathering mind produces a fragmented and shoddy style. Presenting a paper signifies the culmination of an effort at adding to knowledge. It therefore requires as much care as is expended in planning and executing the research project. A badly written or presented paper may undo an excellent piece of work. A talk is more appreciated when it is easily understood.

A good talk is terse , logical and coherent. Bad speaking is convoluted, dense and rambling. English should not be used to obfuscate and debase. Rather it should be used to clarify and enlighten. People speak badly because they have nothing to say, or because they wish to conceal what they meant. Presenting a paper should be considered as equivalent to a general addressing his troops. The primary aim should be group solidarity and social control and the same tricks of ritual, rhetoric and responses apply to each. Any one may mouth out a passage with a theatrical cadence or get upon stilts to tell his thoughts; but to write or speak with propriety and simplicity is a more difficult task.

The quality of a presentation is judged by the quality of the technical content, quality of the actual delivery and organization of material. A paper should not contain material that is routine, sub- standard, repetitive, trivial or scientifically untrue. The paper must be accurate, authentic, lucid, brief, consistent and precise. Sentences should be simple and short. Varying sentences avoids monotony. The words in a sentence should be arranged in the best possible order to ensure comprehension. Redundancy should scrupulously be avoided. Well known facts should not be restated. Expendable data is best omitted. Vagueness and inconsistency should give way to precision and consistency. The exact information can be conveyed only when the right word is chosen.. Thoughts and statements that are closely related are kept together. At the same time different parts of the subject are kept apart.

A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant sees farther than the giant himself. Familiarity with the literature is a sine qua non of a good preparation. Background information permits critical evaluation of one�s observations. Credibility can best be achieved with implicit scientific honesty. However thin a slice is, it still has two sides. One should be able to present succinctly and clearly in less than seven minutes the most important and relevant observations. The aim of the study should be precise and unambiguous. " Showing Off " the data results in failure to put across the real message. In a short presentation supplementary information should be avoided. The title should give a broad idea of the contents of the paper. It is often a good idea to give the title after the talk has been completely prepared. The contents of a talk should merge imperceptibly from one idea to another While the speaker knows exactly what his talk is all about the audience cannot rewind, freeze a frame or fast forward ! The talk should always be similar to a constant " You are here" sign, in a large building which has a confusing plan. It is well known that variety is the spice of life ! The choice of words therefore is important. Ideally the same word should not be repeated.

The talk should be slow, audible and deliberate. Reading from a prepared manuscript in monotonous tones will ensure that the audience falls asleep. Eloquent, cogent, suave , smooth, laconic are descriptive terms which highlight how a talk should be given. All his or her life a doctor has to communicate. Failure of proper communication can be disastrous. Starting a lecture should be like sporting a bikini. The first impression is what counts What is not yet revealed should be made worth waiting for !

The paper should cater primarily to the needs of the specific audience whose composition should be known in advance to the speaker. Understanding why the audience has chosen to be present to hear the talk would go a long way in making suitable preparations. Relating to the audience is vital for the success of any talk This presupposes a thorough audience analysis � attitudes, values, beliefs of the audience their level of knowledge and expectations. The focus should be on the the needs of the audience not that of the speaker An appropriate dress befitting the occasion is of course mandatory.

Composure follows competence and credibility. Poise and aplomb becomes second nature when one is sure of what one is talking about. Proficiency and capability is the result of mastery of the specific subject. Credibility is having sufficient background to talk on the specific subject.

Establishing eye contact with the audience is crucial. Body language reveals the confidence of the speaker. Every member of the audience should feel that he/she is being specifically addressed. .A monotonous insipid voice is the surest way of putting the audience to sleep. Volume, pitch and tone should be frequently varied. The voice should be full of emotion. If the speaker himself sounds disinterested he is unlikely to make a hit. Enthusiasm is infectious. The speaker must believe that his talk is absolutely fascinating and utterly irresistible ! Mannerisms must be avoided. The speaker should not bury his face in a pile of notes, look only at the lectern or at the slides turning his back to the audience.

Ideas should be transmitted in a coherent and compelling fashion. A presentation should inspire, motivate, persuade and influence. It should be convincing, Informative, to the point and attention grabbing. Careful preparation not luck or accident is the key. The talk should always be aimed at the specific needs of the audience � relevant illustrations, stories, statistics and quotes should be used to provide additional interest.

Quotations in a presentation when relevant add a great deal to the impact of a presentation. It shows that the author has made an attempt to do his homework. Quite often a quotation may aptly express one�s own thoughts in a far better way.

'Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man'.- Bible: New Testament. Colossians 4:6.

'The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword: but not so many as have fallen by the tongue'.- Apocrypha. Ecclesiasticus 28:17�18

The above two quotations illustrate the impact of well chosen quotations. " Bookshelf " is a comprehensive source of quotations. Available on a CD, searches can be done in various ways and the relevant quotation transferred by the click of a button.

Deciding what information is not to be used is important since in the preparation of any talk there is likely to be an information overload. How long should a talk be ? Abraham Lincoln expressed it most aptly when he said, " As long as a man�s pants � just enough to cover the subject ". William Gladstone remarked, " one need not be eternal to be immortal ". Generally 20 to 25 minutes would be a reasonable length. Strict adherence to the time allotted is the mark of a good speaker. It is helpful if during the course of the talk occasional reference is made to time. One should always remember to make allowance for audience feedback and laughter. Be prepared to shorten the talk � not the conclusion. Starting a love affair is easy � ending one is not !

A talk should contain new information. The audience should be convinced that accepting the speaker�s ideas does not mean changing their own. One should start with points of agreement and advocate small changes rather than large ones. A successful talk is like a chess game � the next move must be anticipated.

Audience recall is the parameter to judge the success of a talk. . It is best to tell them what to remember. Their attention has to be gained, a rapport created, and reasons provided for listening. After all the talk is competing with hunger, day dreaming, tiredness, noise etc. The language should be simple and the sentences short.

Humor is a vital part in any presentation. However it should be relevant. It should not be sexist, ethnic, racist or of color.

"Casing the joint " is vital. One should arrive at the lecture hall at least 10 minutes earlier and reconfirm that all audio visual aids requested for earlier, are available and in working condition. The most sophisticated equipment will fail exactly when it should not. It is always prudent to expect the unexpected and have a back up plan. Slides are preferably personally loaded by the speaker. In some carousels the slides have to be loaded backwards. Always confirm that the projection in the lecture hall is exactly identical to that in the preview room. The author recollects a session at the neurosurgical world conference in Mexico where the slides were projected from behind the screen. None of the slides were loaded for this arrangement.

Visual aids should only act as an aide memoire. Information conveyed through charts, graphs and photographs have a greater impact. Slides should be used to convey facts � not to decorate the screen. It should be legible in the last row. A slide should not contain more than 6 to 7 lines, with less than 10 words in a line. Normally three to four slides can be projected every two minutes. . Several simple slides are preferable to a single complicated slide. The talk should correspond with the slides on the screen. The slides should be checked for spelling errors. Lower case is preferable. , Consistency is essential. " Fillers " � slides not relevant should be avoided. A " busy " slide resembling a railway time table should never be shown. Apologising for such a slide is even worse. Graphs and bar diagrams are better than tables .One should always talk to the audience looking at them and not talk to the visual aids. Inappropriate, poorly executed slides are a source of distraction. Slides should always be numbered. If they accidentally fall from the carousel just before the presentation they can be reloaded quickly. This is particularly important when double projection is being used. The speaker should ensure that the projectionist is familiar with the actual equipment being used. . Computer software templates are now freely available. Computer presentations using LCD (Liquid Crystal Display ) are much more elegant. They are extremely versatile. Animations and multimedia presentations, can be done using these. This method of presentation will be more frequent in the days to come. When planning a presentation sufficient time should be set for design and production of the slides.

The exact audio visual aids to be used will depend on facilities available at the conference venue and to the speaker. It is essential that both are confirmed well in advance so that appropriate preparations can be made. Attention to minute details is necessary. Nothing should be taken for granted. Is double slide projection available ? Will the projectors be placed in front or behind the screen. Will the slides have to be loaded from the front or from the back. Does the operator know English? Is there a remote control? Can the speaker himself project the slides? What is the size of the screen. Is there space for double projection ? Is double projection really necessary? Will a Video clipping be helpful. What is the format (VHS, U-matic, NTSC and so on ). Is there a laser pointer ?

One of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks of writing and presenting papers is the review and coordination of patient photographic records. For years, not only has the 35-mm slide been the means of photographic storage for patient records, but also the standard for illustrating lectures and presentations. Today ,easily available software can be used to prepare, create, and present illustrations for lectures. Patient images are digitized from any source (eg, photographs, slides, video tape) and electronically stored in the computer along with computer-generated illustrations. When a lecture is being prepared, the images are arranged sequentially in an electronic carousel. This computerized program is recorded on video tape and simply played through the video projector during the presentation to display the images. This system is more efficient since any stored image can be displayed instantaneously in any order without the handling of 35-mm slides. The only limitation of this system is the user's imagination.

It is essential that one becomes familiar with an LCD projection through a computer. An entire presentation can now be transferred to a 3.25" floppy using programmes like PowerPoint, Freelance Graphics etc. CT scans, MRI pictures, angiograms can be scanned using commercially available scanners. Even images of microphotographs can be directly fed into the computer. Even a movie can be shown in a presentation either from a CD or downloaded from the Internet. Music and specific sounds can be incorporated.

Discussion with knowledgable colleagues and a formal rehearsal in the department should be mandatory before presenting a paper at a national conference. It is dangerous to be complacent about giving a lecture because one is familiar with the subject.

Concluding a presentation : This is the last chance for the speaker to deliver a take home message , to make the audience remember the talk. Obviously this part of the talk should be attention grabbing and have an emotional appeal. It should be a direct hit, in other words going out with a bang. The ending could be emotional, humorous or provocative. The conclusion should be decisive, should refer to the opening and most important the talk should finish on time.

THE SECRET AND SHORT CUT TO A SUCCESSFUL PRESENTATION is preparation, more preparation, still more preparation, rehearsal, more rehearsal and still more rehearsal.



























































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