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Science & Technology

A Guide for Graduate Dragons on Acing Virtual Presentations and Defenses

May 1, 2020

COVID-19 has made virtual presentations the new norm. Two faculty members and two MD/PhD students who recently defended their thesis share tips on how to do this successfully, and why it might even be preferable to an in-person event.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest public health advisories.

From a presentation in the recent annual Drexel Emerging Graduate Scholars (DEGS) Conference to an end-of-year thesis defense, there is one thing that many graduate students may find themselves preparing for or reflecting on this term that they have no prior experience doing — providing virtual presentations.

This is of course due to the University’s shift to a fully remote curriculum this spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And although there are some obvious benefits to remote presenting, from not having to face an in-person audience to getting by without the high heels, there are also several unique preparatory and day-of considerations that graduate students must keep in mind.

“My advice is to be as prepared as possible,” said Elisabeth Van Bockstaele, PhD, senior vice president for Graduate and Online Education and dean of the Graduate College. “When graduate students present in person, they routinely check the technology and audio in the room, check the lighting and run through their slides to confirm that everything displays properly and animation features work. The same attention to detail should be paid to the virtual setting.”

DrexelNow asked two expert faculty members and two PhD students who have already defended remotely this term for their tips and advice on how to navigate these details for a successful presentation. Students looking for more information can also join an upcoming Zoom room office hour conference on the topic.

Despite all these resources and tips, there’s one other thing graduate Dragons should keep in mind: You’ve got this!

“Graduate students should remember, they have spent years on their research project and have a captive audience interested in the findings,” Van Bockstaele said. “This is their time to shine.”

Natalie Chernets, PhD Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies Director of Postdoctoral Affairs and Professional Development Associate Director of the MD/PhD program.Natalie Chernets, PhD

Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies

Director of Postdoctoral Affairs and Professional Development

Associate Director of the MD/PhD program

Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for graduate students planning virtual defenses or presentations this spring or summer?

A: Practice in the video conferencing environment that you will use for your defense, such as Zoom. Presenting in a virtual environment feels different than a live presentation for several reasons. You need to feel comfortable with the platform, as well as presenting through it.

Q: What are the biggest ways that virtual presentations are different than in-person presentations? How must you prepare differently?

A: It is difficult to know if the audience is following your presentation. In a live presentation, you can get a sense of the audience by seeing their facial expression and reading their body language. You can hear and see their response when you make a joke. In the virtual environment, everyone is muted. Also, depending on your setup, you might not be able to see the audience video feed, even if they leave it on. It will feel like you are all alone and talking to yourself. Therefore, it is essential to practice in the virtual environment, to speak slowly and clearly, and to look at the camera, just like you would look at the audience in a live presentation. 

Q: What is the biggest mistake a student can make during a virtual defense or presentation?

A: Not practicing in a video environment and not being familiar with Zoom (or your preferred platform) are two main mistakes. Also, not having a reliable internet connection and not having your devices fully charged (and charging) or backup devices ready to go. Lastly, not sharing your presentation with other committee members can prevent you from presenting if something goes wrong.

Q: In what ways might a virtual defense or presentation be easier than an in-person presentation?

A: You have more control over the presentation, and you won’t get distracted if someone’s phone rings or if people start texting during your presentation. Therefore, you can focus on what you are saying rather than your surroundings. You also can feel supported by family and friends no matter where they live. The number of people tuning in for the online defense is higher than in live defense. People are really making an effort to support their colleagues and students during these challenging times.

Q: How is a virtual defense different for the committee and the rest of the audience? How can audience members do their part to join and interact in the presentation respectfully?

A: I strongly advise the audience and committee members to pay their fullest attention to the presentation. Do not multitask. The student has devoted years in anticipation of this moment. Exaggerate your enthusiasm and smile (if your video feed is on). It is hard to convey emotions in the virtual environment. 

Q: Do you have any specific tips for the following: run-throughs, ground rules, electing a moderator, etc.?

A: I strongly recommend having a moderator to help you facilitate the Q&A portion of the defense and monitor the chat. You want to be focusing on your presentation, not the technical and administrative aspects of your defense. The moderator can be your advisor, another committee member or a fellow student. The moderator must disable the option for participants to unmute themselves to avoid unnecessary interruptions of the presentation. Also, the meeting should be password-protected, and the Zoom link should not be shared on public websites or social media to prevent “Zoom Bombing.”

Practice your presentation from the same space that you intend to use for the defense. You want to assure that the audience can hear you, can see you, see your slides and if you have video clips with sounds, make sure that the audience can hear them. Practicing will ensure that you know how to use Zoom efficiently and prevent unnecessary stress during the defense itself.

Q: What would you say to reassure any graduate students who are really worried about an upcoming defense or presentation?

A: I am sure you have pictured this moment from the minute you started your doctoral program, and in your mind, it looked very different. The good news is that you don’t have to wait to defend until this crisis is resolved and that you already know your defense date. … You are a pioneer paving the way for other students. What I am hearing from students who defended and their committee members that this virtual defense is here to stay in one form or the other. Many are pleasantly surprised at how smooth these events have been. Focus on the positive aspect of the defense.

You will definitely remember this moment, and one day, you will have a remarkable story to tell about your resiliency and success in this uncertain time.

Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA, Assistant Clinical Professor Department Head of Graduate Studies Goodwin College at Drexel University.Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA

Assistant Clinical Professor

Department Head of Graduate Studies

Goodwin College

Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for graduate students planning virtual defenses or presentations this spring or summer? 

A: Defending is stressful enough, then add in the novel coronavirus and students are under even more pressure. My advice to students is to: prepare in advance by doing a run through to make sure the technical pieces are all working; ask a trusted friend to identify any distracting things in your background, report on audio quality , and so forth; finally, be prepared that the defense will be different than you planned, but also know that the committee is likely to be understanding.

Q: What are the biggest ways that virtual presentations are different than in-person presentations? How must you prepare differently?  

A: Virtual presentations can leave you feeling like you are in a vacuum. I sat on a defense yesterday and there were three of us on the committee, one member never turned on her video and the other took copious notes, which meant neither were making eye contact with the candidate. She admitted to me afterwards that made her really nervous. No one was being rude, just adjusting to hosting a remote defense. Yes, she passed, but again — it was not how she expected, so let go of what you had planned on and be prepared that it will be different.

Q: What is the biggest mistake a student can make during a virtual defense or presentation?

A: The biggest mistake students can make is to not practice or be too relaxed. The candidate should still dress appropriately, practice, and present their hard work with confidence and pride. Candidates should not let their hard work be diminished because they didn’t practice or prepare themselves well.

Q: How can/should students prepare for the unexpected and for virtual obstacles that can come up during their presentation?

A: In every class I have ever taught, I tell my students when it comes to presentations, be prepared for the unexpected. In a typical defense, that likely means a technical difficulty, starting late, needing a drink of water, or someone’s cell phone goes off. In the remote defense world, it can mean all of those things, plus attendees not paying attention to the rules and interrupting, animals interrupting, kids interrupting, someone losing their internet connection and dropping off the call, attendees (even committee members) looking like they are not paying attention, and any other thing that could or might happen and has happened in a Zoom meeting. So my best advice, is be prepared for the unexpected and simply take a breath if and when it happens.

Q: What would you say to reassure any graduate students who are really worried about an upcoming defense or presentation? 

A: This may sound kind of trite, but it will be okay. It is likely you will be nervous — to be expected — but remember to breathe and remember that every attendee, including the committee members, want you to succeed and are present to help you do so.

Margaret O’Connor Drexel University MD/PhD candidate in molecular and cellular biology and geneticsMargaret O’Connor

MD/PhD candidate in molecular and cellular biology and genetics

Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for graduate students planning virtual defenses or presentations this spring or summer?

A: I recommend that every graduate student familiarize themselves with the Zoom platform and make every effort to mimic their defense as it would be live in-person. That means get dressed up, set your computer up so that you’re standing like you would be giving the presentation, and have a Zoom celebration or nice celebratory dinner afterward. Most importantly, I urge all students to focus on the positives that come from this type of defense. One, your defense was not cancelled, and two, many people who would not have been able to attend in person now can. So, focusing on these things helps alleviate some of the disappointment of this situation.

Q: How can/should students prepare for the unexpected and for virtual obstacles that can come up during their presentation?

A: I would have backup plans for worst-case scenarios. For example, we were having internet connection issues due to storms. So, I knew that worst case I would use my iPhone as a mobile hot spot if we lost connections. Practicing your talk virtually many times can also help catch any obstacles you would face ahead of time. For me, I watched many other defenses and saw that when the person shares their slides, they are still on video, so knowing that was very important.

Q: In what ways might a virtual defense or presentation be easier than an in-person presentation?

A: For people who are nervous at in-person talks, this is a great way to be able to take some of that pressure off. You can hide all the video screens and just talk to your computer from your own home. It really does depend on the student’s preferences, but this is a slightly more laid-back way to give a defense talk.

Q: Do you have any specific tips for the following: run-throughs, ground rules, electing a moderator, etc.?

A: I had my moderator be my committee chair and that was really great. It was even better to have questions come through the chat function so you could hear them and read them to help you focus and answer the question. I would just suggest as many run-throughs as you can do. Each time I improved on slides and the way I explained slides, and I felt more confident in my talk.

Q: What would you say to reassure any graduate students who are really worried about an upcoming defense or presentation?

A: This is a unique but exciting time. Focus on the things you can control. Focus on the positives as much as possible. Have backup plans for if things go wrong, and really just try to enjoy the process. It’s such an accomplishment and remember to remind yourself of that.

Linda Chamberlin Drexel University MD/PhD candidate in neuroscienceLinda Chamberlin

MD/PhD candidate in neuroscience

Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for graduate students planning virtual defenses or presentations this spring or summer?

A: Enjoy your presentation! You get to set the tone. If you feel excited about your content, your audience will be more engaged. In this virtual format, it is already easy for audience members to get distracted, so this is no time for a monotone, jargon-filled talk. 

Q: What is the biggest mistake a student can make during a virtual defense or presentation?

A: You must do all you can to prevent technical problems that can take time away from your presentation, and just sort of make you seem ill-prepared. However, if they do happen, the most important thing is to keep your cool, and do your best to carry on with grace.

Q: How can/should students prepare for the unexpected and for virtual obstacles that can come up during their presentation?

A: Practice using the technology to present your defense at least a few days in advance. It’s a good idea to do this more than once. My first practice session went fine, but the next couple times, I had issues. By practicing a few days in advance, I had time to adapt.

Also, have multiple back up plans. For me, this included having my presentation loaded on a second laptop and my iPad. I also recommend emailing your slides as a PDF to the committee members. I also sent my final PowerPoint presentation to my principal investigator and the moderator, so they could share it from their screen if needed. Make sure the moderator and your committee members have your cell phone number, and a number for the moderator if they are willing to share that. During the defense, I had my cell phone on silent but within sight so I could see if a committee member was trying to reach me about technical issues.

Finally, minimize the number of devices using the same Wi-Fi signal. Connect using an ethernet cable if possible.

Q: In what ways might a virtual defense or presentation be easier than an in-person presentation?

A: You get to sit! This made me more comfortable, and there is no risk of tripping, or having nice shoes hurt your feet after standing for an hour. You can choose where to present from: your desk, your favorite chair, your living room. You can light a candle, enjoy some natural light and/or have your pet close by.

You can practice as many times as you want in the exact spot, with the same technology that you will use when you present.

There is probably less chance of getting stage fright, since you don’t have to face an audience in person. You can choose to see as many or as few audience members as you choose.

As soon as it’s over, you can totally crash, relax, eat, drink, etc.

Q: How is a virtual defense different for the committee and the rest of the audience? How can audience members do their part to join and interact in the presentation respectfully?

A: Avoid multitasking. If you need to step away, it’s nice to turn off your camera. I did not have videos of anyone visible, and I did not have the chat visible while I presented. I wanted to see as much of my screen as possible, and avoid distractions. Others may choose to have these visible, so minimize anything that could cause unnecessary distraction. 

Q: Do you have any specific tips for the following: run-throughs, ground rules, electing a moderator, etc.?

A: Choose your location in advance. Make sure the lighting is good, you're a good distance from camera, the angle works and you're close to an outlet.

Set the stage. Make sure your background is professional-looking, or at least not messy. I had my living room in the background. If this is not possible, sitting in front of a blank wall is ok, but not ideal. I would not recommend a [virtual] background or a blurred background, as this can be distracting.

Read all the instructions provided to you. Join the Zoom call 30 minutes prior to your scheduled start time. Make sure everything is working. Ask your committee members to join 10 minutes before the start time. As others join, they should start off in a waiting room, and the moderator can let them in when you’re ready. Everyone should be muted; the moderator can set it up so that everyone is muted. It’s nice to have everyone unmuted for a moment at the end so they can applaud.

Q: What would you say to reassure any graduate students who are really worried about an upcoming defense/presentation?

A: Focus on the positive. Once I got the technological bugs worked out, I actually felt like having a virtual defense was great!