Get to the point!
Then explain, support, and prove it.
This failing is often the result of the presenter's underlying notion that data can speak for themselves, that anyone who sees the data will necessarily come to the same conclusions as the presenter. It also reflects a lack of recognition of how people respond to presentations of data, particularly scientifically-minded people. Scientific thinkers tend to start drawing a conclusion or formulating a hypothesis as soon as they encounter data for the first time. Once they have seen the data, the introduction of the speaker's hypothesis may be in conflict with the various hypotheses that listeners have already formed.
However, if a presenter takes a moment to prime the audience's thinking by stating a hypothesis or conclusion up front (the message or point), scientific thinkers will automatically approach the data with the presenter's point in mind, testing its validity against the support the data provide.
"Frontloading" is the term that describes stating one's point—hypothesis or conclusion—up front, speaking from a point rather than building towards one. The elements that explain, support, or prove the point then follow. The technique is a powerful tool in persuasion, specially in scientific presentations.
Frontloading is an integral part of the larger process of scientific advocacy, an approach to persuasion that uses scientific data to convince an audience to take a specific action. It's built on the notion that data cannot speak for themselves, that they require advocates to convert data into meaning and then use that meaning to attain specific objectives.
Message First in Presentation Structure
Most scientific presentations begin with a boring statement of intent or topic or just the title of the presentation. Examples include:
- "I'm going to take a few minutes to talk about Topic X."
- "This morning's presentation will focus on Subject Y."
- "The title of today's talk is Title Z."
Isn't it likely that the audience already knows everything stated in the examples above? Wouldn't it be great to hear a speaker say something substantive right off the bat instead of just stating the obvious?
Here are some examples of openings that actually make a point:
- "The data support the safety and efficacy of Product X."
- "The initial data from Study Y suggest that this new approach may increase overall survival."
- "Using Process Z can increase our lab's throughput by 20%."
In these examples, the speaker gets right to the point, priming the audience with the key message of the entire presentation. By beginning substantively, the speaker also conveys a subtler message – that this scientific presentation will not waste time or be boring.
Frontloading is powerful not just at the opening of the presentation but at key points throughout. It can deliver key messages at the start of every major section and even prior to the display of every data slide. Here are some examples comparing weak phrases to powerful substantive points:
"I will now discuss the efficacy results."
"Both studies met the primary endpoint, with statistically significant differences in favor of Product X"
"The next slide shows the rates of renal adverse events from the first study."
"In the first study, the rates of renal adverse events were similar for product Y and placebo."
The examples illustrate how the speaker can make a point and offer a hypothesis or conclusion to prime the thinking of the audience.
Using this approach prior to showing a slide has particular value.
Message First in Slide Transitions
Every time a slide appears before a scientific audience, it grabs the full attention of listeners. They rapidly process its contents. During the moments after the slide comes up, the audience will pay attention to little else. If a speaker makes a point during those moments, few audience members will hear it; their focus is on the slide. In addition, any statement of hypothesis will likely be in conflict with the rapidly forming hypotheses developing in their minds.
If the speaker can convey that key point before putting up the slide, the point will receive the full attention of the audience and allow listeners to test it against the presented data. Instead of competing with the different hypotheses forming in the minds of the audience, the speaker's point reaches the audience first. Then, when the slide comes up, the speaker can immediately address its content, working with the attention of the audience instead of against it.
Frontloading is also an important tool for focusing a response to a question, in part because listeners become frustrated if they have to endure all sorts of preamble and explanation before the speaker answers. Even worse, many speakers punctuate the start of their responses with empty phrases, some of which may be pandering, insincere, or even insulting:
- "Here's a little history that might be helpful…"
- "That's a good/interesting/clever question."
- "As I mentioned/presented/showed you earlier…"
Other speakers try to repeat the question as the start of every response, often mangling or distorting the question as they do so.
Wouldn't it be nice if every speaker started a response to a question with the answer right up front? Putting the answer up front does not preclude offering further explanation, support, or proof but does eliminate the frustration and annoyance of the listeners. Examples of frontloaded responses include:
- "The 30 mg dose is the one that consistently offered the best balance of safety and efficacy."
- "There was a 20% increase in the overall survival for patients with metastases."
- "This approach has been validated and used successfully at several other plants."
Frontloading the response also delivers the benefit of a strong stand-alone statement for those in the audience who didn't hear or understand the question.
Message First in Senior Management and Board Presentations
Typically, Senior Management and Board audiences have very limited time, so anyone addressing them needs to get to the point quickly and effectively. By frontloading the messages of a presentation for these audiences, speakers can raise their chances of being understood and thus achieving their goals.
Message First at FDA Advisory Committee Meetings
Frontloading is especially powerful at FDA Advisory Committee meetings. Time, pressure, and varying levels of knowledge among Committee members as well as the potential for costly confusion, misunderstandings, and even mistrust compel speakers to get to the point rapidly as they deliver presentations and Q&A responses.
Committee members who are concerned that presenters are trying to hide something will be scanning for signs of subterfuge. If a speaker doesn't get right to the point, suspicion increases. Speakers fuel that mistrust when they approach an issue in a manner that serves their own comfort rather than that of the audience. Speakers who can get to the point immediately and convey scientific equipoise in doing so can go a long way in building their credibility with the audience.
Messaging First Facilitates Success
Leading with the message is a powerful tool for scientific speakers. It can enhance their credibility and clarity and contribute to their persuasive impact. It's an important element of scientific advocacy. It is useful in opening a scientific presentation, introducing each section, and transitioning to each slide, particularly data slides. In Q&A, it can help ensure that a response actually and immediately answers a question. The more critical the presentation, the higher up in the organization the audience, the less trust and rapport exist, the more important it is to begin with the point. Frontload.