Conference Season Special #2 – Getting Your Key Message Across

In the second part of our special Conference Season series we look closely at the importance of your ‘Key Message,’ and how to get it across…

Key message:

What is the important message that those people who have come to the conference need to get, so that they go home afterwards and think: “That researcher said something really interesting about this?

The body of your talk is the place where you provide the reasons why your audience should believe in the main claim (key message) that you have made.

As you think about what material to include in your presentation you need to think about how you are building the audiences knowledge so that they can appreciate and understand what will come next.

Presenters of technical material will often “jump right in” to very difficult concepts, when in fact the audience might have benefitted from there being a sub-assertion or two that came before and gave them the information that was necessary in order for them to appreciate and understand the upcoming material.

One technique to use to avoid this mistake and logically build your presentation is know as the assertion or idea tree.

Your idea tree could be completely different from the example given below; but this is a really good way of thinking about the structure of your talk before you get into the detail.

Why not try it now? Work it all out on paper; this will give you a more coherent structure and a stronger narrative, and make it much easier for your audience to follow your ideas.


Example assertion tree 1:

TITLE: Occluded Fronts: A Fresh Look at Conventional Wisdom

Motivation to listen:
The way that we present cyclones in textbooks is inadequate

Four Tenets of Conventional Wisdom 

(summarises the current thinking in four points)


This current theory cannot explain the situation because…

(criticises each of the four points)

Introduces the proposed solution (Wrap-up) and describes why it is better in each case

Describes application of the new solution

Key message: Wrap-up is a better description of the occlusion


Questions to think about…Which ideas are dependent upon one another? What order do they need to be presented in to achieve the maximum comprehension of your audience? How can you build a logical flow of ideas that will help them to understand?

Writing an effective title:

The title is your first opportunity to interact with the audience. And is your first chance to communicate or hint at your key message. The title should be:

  • informative
  • accurate
  • concise
  • clear
  • attention grabbing

Sometimes these things are in contradiction; to write an attention grabbing title you may need to sacrifice being clear or informative. How much concision are you willing to give up in order to be accurate?

To come up with a title you need to look at the key message and draft a few sentences based around it; include words or phrases in the title that identify your work as unique.

Reduce verbosity for more impact:

Observation of resonance condensation of fermionic atom pairs

Perform colonic surgery:

The effect of the pole-to-pole temperature gradient on the overturning circulation in an eddy resolving model


Overturning circulation in an eddy resolving model: The effect of pole-to-pole temperature gradient

The latter title has the advantage of putting the most important bit first.

Design an Effective title slide:

The title slide is on screen the moment when the audience first sees you, if you have a high impact image, they might focus on that instead of you, so you should just have a plain background, with your title (which if you have written it correctly should be easy to read) and your name.

This will cause the audience to focus completely on you; and you will have their full attention, this is the moment to explain why you are doing this, why this research is important!

Repeat this design for the sub assertions (or questions in the body of your presentation) to emphasis their importance.

Think about Structure:

conf4The introduction (beginning)

  1. What is it about?
  2. Why is this research important to the wider world? Or how does this research relate to the rest of the discipline?
  3. Indicate briefly where the talk is going…

See an example of this structure here:

Tips for an opening hook (something to grab their attention straightaway)

  • Open ended question: do you know how many tornadoes there are in the UK each year?
  • Start a presentation with a story or anecdote that illustrates the key message.
  • Ask them to imagine something.
  • Use humour? (If you recoil in horror at this suggestion, don’t try it, it is obviously not for you)



The Body of your talk (middle)

  • Try not to focus solely on the background information and your general method but on the differences between your general method and the variant that you are using, and how this allows you to arrive at the key message that you defined earlier.
  • The point of including a method description in a presentation is not to describe experimental detail so that people can replicate the result – but it is to make the audience appreciate what the significance of using that method is e.g. why is it different from generic method, how does it affect the outcome of the research?

If you have done your structural work, then writing the body should be quite straightforward as you can just follow your assertion tree


Closing the talk (ending)

  • Very briefly summarise what you have covered.
  • Key point: again state what you want them to take away for this presentation
  • Strong clear closing statement: What is this research going to be used for and by whom?


In the next post we will focus on slide design


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