Advice for Virtual Research Presentations

by Heather Thorstensen | Aug 20, 2020

VS3 top student presenters

Top student presenters in the Sigma Xi Virtual Student Scholars Symposium (VS3) were announced in May. 

Students who participated in the Society’s Virtual Student Scholars Symposium (VS3) in May, and Sigma Xi members who judged, are sharing their advice for students giving virtual research presentations. The next virtual student presentation opportunity will be the Society’s Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference, November 5–8, 2020. Students may follow instructions at to submit abstracts for virtual poster presentations through October 1.

Make Your Key Points Clear and Succinct

When the student finishes talking, the judge should know 1) what they did, 2) why they did it, 3) how they did it, 4) what their results were, and 5) why the results are important.
— Stephanie Tristram-Nagle, Judge, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The following qualities in decreasing order would make a strong virtual poster or oral presentation; a) most important of all is being humble; b) stressing on the right technical words and being clear on what you speak (without rushing); c) having an open mind about the audience; having a few simplified general audience sentences at the beginning & in conclusion; d) slides with less words and more pictures (pictures should speak about your research).
— Sankar Narayanasamy, Judge, Berkeley, California

If I think of a presentation as a big scary separate thing, then I’ll freeze up, forget what to talk about, and get nervous. But if I remember that all I need to do is tell people about my research, then I gain confidence. I never memorize what I’m going to say, because then I would get stressed if I forgot something. Instead, I memorize the basic points I’m going to cover, and then I explain them in my own words.
— Kaija Gahm, Student, Newton, Massachusetts

Clearly define the problem you are solving, describe the state-of-the-art methods for solving the problem before your work or state that none existed if that is the case, and then present your solution by first giving a high-level view and then going into details.
— Miroslav Velev, Judge, Chicago, Illinois

Have a) confidence and knowledge of the material being presented, b) highlight salient features, this is even more crucial where there is a time limit, and c) if possible, having a graphical abstract can be helpful.
— B. Lungsi Sharma, Judge, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

It is possible that audio will not work well. Make sure that key points are written on slides.
— Brooke E. Crowley, Judge, Cincinnati, Ohio

In reviewing posters, I frequently ask students about their sample size, methods used, statistics used in results presented, and a summary of the relevance of their work to science and society. There is also less time to discuss your research with viewers as you would have in person. Therefore, it is important to craft your take-home message with a succinct summary of your project and findings.
— Christopher Badurek, Judge, Rochester, New York

Have Great Visuals, Less Text

The presentation needs to draw the attention of the attendees, with a short, clear message on the main points of your research . . . Please, avoid using much text in the presentation. 
— Guadalupe Virginia Nevárez-Moorillon, Judge, Chihuahua, Mexico

You definitely want to discuss the significance of your research and where it fits in the bigger picture. Try to answer the question, “Why should I care?” . . . People can’t step closer to read your poster the way they can in person, so using big font sizes makes it a lot easier for evaluators. This means you may have to cut down on words or pick and choose certain illustrations or graphs to include.
— Hanna Kiryluk, Student, Virginia Beach, Virginia

The presenter needs to keep in mind that the audience could be viewing their presentation/poster over devices having small screens (e.g. phone) or large screens (e.g. large monitors). The figures and text being presented should be legible on all devices. Many a times, presenters make slides for a traditional poster. It is almost impossible to see the axis and values in the graphs and much of the text ... I have found the key to a good virtual presentation is less slides and good speech ... Use your cursor to guide the viewers what your script is referring to.  
—  Vishal Shah, Judge,  West Chester, Pennsylvania

The strong virtual poster presenters had relatively simple and well-structured layouts/designs. This meant that the most important concepts of those posters were emphasized with clear (and large) graphics and text, with few side panels to distract from the main features.
— Rashika Karunasinghe, Judge, Auckland, New Zealand

Most students need to have fewer words and make all the fonts larger. The goal is to allow your audience to read the poster easily from their computer screen. Many students try to write about all aspects and every detail of their research on a single poster—usually all that detail is too much information for a poster. Students need to identify and focus on a few key themes/issues in their introduction, the critical methods (not all the methods), the major findings in the result section (not all the results), and the 2-3 take-home points/conclusions in the discussion section ... Try to point out, while speaking, where on the poster the audience can see the specific result you are stating.  For example you might say, "As seen here in Figure 2, the treatment with chemical X, indicated by the red line, produced a faster response through time than the control, indicated by the green line."
— Jessica E. Rettig, Judge, Granville, Ohio

Practice and Use the Technology  

Zoom into different parts of the poster to make it easier to see pictures and graphs and mark key text in bold to highlight it better and focus your audience's attention on the important parts.
— Vivian Ciaramitaro, Judge, Boston, Massachusetts 

In virtual presentations, you may want to consider being familiar with the technology. It says a lot about how prepared one is to not only tackle the content of the presentation but everything else that’s involved in it. Sometimes what stays in the listener’s mind after a presentation is how not prepared the presenter is in dealing with the technology for the presentation. Showing that you are familiar with the virtual platform says a lot about you as a presenter. Which means practicing with it a few (or a hundred) times pays off in the end.
— Patrisha Bugayong, Judge, Atchison, Kansas

When it comes to oral presentations, I believe that practice is a key determinant of success.
— Ava Bellizzi, Student, San Diego, California

Several digital tools like PowerPoint and Zoom allow you to record your presentation. You can record and play back your practice presentation to experience it for yourself from the audience’s perspective . . . Make sure that you are well lit, the camera is in a good position, and there is no background noise. Also check that your background appears professional: A blank wall, simple painting or bookshelf, or Zoom background image from your school can be good choices that won’t distract the audience.
— Jennifer Patterson, Judge, Leuven, Belgium

The location of where you are sitting or standing while presenting should also be noted because the backgrounds can be distracting for those watching the presentation. 
— Christina Kozlovsky. Student, Sunnyvale, California

Avoid placing important information at the bottom of the slides, because when sharing the screen, toolbars may appear and cover that portion. Use animated arrows to point out the information to be emphasized because sometimes the cursor can’t be seen when sharing the screen.
— Miguel G. Rodriguez Reyes, Student, Guayama, Puerto Rico 

I would recommend practicing your presentation beforehand using the appropriate virtual platform with a friend or family member, so that you know how your audience will view your presentation and any adjustments that you might have to make.
— Ángel Garcés, Student, Houston, Texas

Students should make sure that the presentation environment is quiet enough to deliver a talk with minimal interruptions. Beside this, check your audio settings beforehand and use a compatible microphone and audio accessories (headphones). Position the camera at eye level. It is essential to dress for success because it does help the presenter to feel prepared by wearing a complete outfit (preferably business casuals). During the presentation, when you look into the camera, imagine a person who seems to be the ideal person as an audience. It will help you to deliver your presentation confidently.
— Gaurab Dutta, Judge, Rockville, Maryland

During virtual presentations, presenters receive less feedback from the audience, and audiences can be distracted more easily. To overcome the challenges, presenters can a) use a mouse pointer or stylus to guide the audience, b) tell an interesting story to improve engagement, c) limit the number of messages to be delivered, and d) speak clearly and concisely.
— Yuebing Zheng, Judge, Austin, Texas

In normal poster session, [the] audience's attention is naturally focusing on the presenter, but this is not the case in virtual poster session. I would suggest the students try to make more interactive expressions and adding small talk to draw their attention. 
— Xiabing Lou, Judge, Bellevue, Washington

Use videos, visuals, animations to share the key points. Use the technology in addition to just talking in a monologue.
— Samir Iqbal, Judge, Arlington, Texas

Know how to distribute the time for each part and make sure to present the entire poster within the allotted time.
— Shuo Zhang, Judge, Houston, Texas

For oral presentations, use simple animations to make your content appear as you discuss it, so your audience isn’t overwhelmed by a ton of information on a slide at once.
— Jordyn Karliner, Student, Penn Valley, Pennsylvania

When presenting a section of their poster, students should enlarge that section on their computer screen so it is easier to view for the audience. 
— Emily Costello, Student, Haddonfield, New Jersey

Encourage the Audience to Get in Touch

A presenter in a virtual presentation might consider how to be contacted by members of the audience for questions or contributions. In a virtual presentation, there is often no time for this, and engagement afterwards is typically impossible unless the virtual presenter creates an explicit opportunity.
— Rocco Detomo, Jr., Judge, Indian Harbour Beach, Florida

Be sure to list all contact information for authors and presenters! 
— Marijo Kent-First, Judge, Tallahassee, Florida

Put your name, (and e-mail) on each slide somewhere as you have no way of knowing when audience members will join the session, and they may miss your introduction. This way they can still work out who you are and can contact you if they have questions, (or in my case, I was contacted about additional related research projects that one audience member wanted to share with me). You never know who is listening . . . Make sure you stick around! There is nothing worse than an audience member asking a question of a presenter only to find that presenter has gone, or simply left the session.
— Charlotte Till, Student, Tempe, Arizona (Fulbright Scholar originally from New Zealand)

What advice or questions do you have about virtual research presentations? Please share in the comments below. 

Heather Thorstensen is the manager of communications at Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. 

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