Speaking into the Ether: Challenges of the Virtual Pharma Workplace

Speaking into the Ether: Challenges of the Virtual Pharma Workplace

In today’s global pharma working environment, virtual interactions are sometimes more common than live exchanges. Many people work virtually through teleconferences, video conferences, instant messaging, phone calls, and emails. Through flexible schedules and working remotely, some people spend the majority of their day without seeing or hearing their colleagues.

Honing your skills

Pharmacometricians are like consultants; they tend to be influencers rather than primary decision makers in the drug development process. Therefore, the most important skill for pharmacometricians is not the ability to analyze data but rather to present evidence effectively. Here are some useful tips to improve your presentation performance.

Challenging assignment

Speaking into the ether—or giving a virtual presentation—is tough. It’s almost like presenting to an empty room! Engaging a virtual audience can be very difficult. It’s hard for you, as the presenter, to keep your energy level high without feedback. Furthermore, the audience knows you can’t see them—you are just a disembodied voice—and so it’s easy for them to tune out and do other things.

Engaging your audience

To retain your audience’s attention—and dissuade them from multi-tasking—you need to be more interesting than everything else that is going on around them.

In one survey, 90% of 385 respondents admitted to engaging in other activities instead of paying attention during a conference call. Those activities ranged from doing unrelated work (60%), answering email or instant messenger (50%) and eating (40%) through to changing clothes (4%), preparing meals (2%), and napping (1%). Attendees multi-task for many reasons—they are impatient, they are busy, their laptop is right in front of them (so why not), they feel as if they are getting more done, or they are bored.

An audience’s attention level tends to be high at the start of the presentation, wane towards the middle, and then pick up near the end. Break up your talk so that your audience’s attention is more like a sine wave, which fluctuates between peaks and nadirs, so the audience can naturally ride along with you.

You need to grab their attention right away with your content. State your message or conclusion at the start of each slide and then follow up with your rationale. Try some new or interesting graphics—such as “catter plots” (scatter plots that use cats instead of points as symbols) or take the lead from a fire science team who used flames as the backdrop for their plot.

Consider using interactive or dynamic graphics instead of static ones. Use an R Shiny app, for example, to show simulations in real time. Video clips and gifs also help to capture audience attention. Consider annotating your slides on the fly or using a mouse or on-screen pointer to highlight a word or phrase. Animation is also a great addition (used judiciously!). If your webinar tool doesn’t support animation, try using PowerPoint builds instead; stacked slides can appear a lot like animation.

Virtual presentations also don’t have to be one-way streets. We recommend employing a variety of strategies to engage your audience throughout the presentation. For example, ask attendees to use the chat box or instant messenger to share comments and pose questions throughout the presentation. Create a Twitter hashtag to encourage discussion about the content and include polls or surveys in the deck so you can learn more about your audience and their interests.

Develop a quiz or contest based on your presentation to spur friendly competition and lead to bragging rights or prizes at the end the session. It can be as simple and fun as counting the number of cats that appear in the slide deck! For the record, there are 12 in our slide deck!

And try to include personal touches to remind them that there is a real, genuine human being behind the slide deck. Showing a photo of you, seeing your face on video, or telling a personal story or self-deprecating joke all help the audience relate with you. The audience members may be more inclined to listen if they feel like they connect to the presenter.

Rising to the occasion

You are your own secret weapon. Audiences respond not only to your content but also to how you present it.

Learn to leverage your voice. Stand up straight when you are presenting—good posture will make you feel empowered, give you more energy, and make your voice sound stronger. Smile—even though they can’t see you—they can hear the smile in your voice.

Practice modulating your speech—change the speed, rhythm, word duration, and volume. Don’t be afraid to pause; it adds weight or emphasis to your point. Also, people pay more attention when you suddenly speak louder. Reading a book to children also provides an excellent opportunity to try modulating your voice, pitch, and volume.

Practice with a voice recorder so you can hear how you really sound to an audience—yes, that IS how your voice sounds!

Practice, practice, practice

There really is no substitute for practicing your presentation in front of a live audience. It will allow you to see when they are smiling, spot any confused looks, determine when their interest wanes, and learn whether they are going to laugh at your jokes. This real-time feedback will enable you to tweak your presentation to ensure that your virtual audience will remain engaged.

And definitely do not read out your slides; you will lose your audience’s attention immediately. The content should be used as a framework and not a script. To make the flow feel natural you need to practice.

Extroverts are particularly prone to skipping practice because they assume they can “wing it.” They can’t. Without practice, they don’t know where the natural breaks and transition points are in their presentation and they haven’t thought through what comments they want to make on each slide.

Avoiding technical glitches

While it may not be possible to avoid every technical issue when conducting a presentation online, doing a dry run beforehand will certainly allow you to spot many of them. Ask a colleague to log in as a participant for your test run to make sure that the audience can see what you want them to see. Ask your colleague to check that the animation and video clips run smoothly, they can see the whole slide, and the chat, survey, and annotation tools work for them. Make sure that your scientific formulae render correctly. Also, inquire whether there is a time lag on the presentation. If so, you may want to slow down the pace of your delivery.

Another rule of thumb is to share only one program or document if possible (such as PowerPoint or the PDF of your presentation). If you must share your monitor, close all programs except the ones you are sharing. Close all programs with pop-up windows such as instant messenger or chat, email, and calendar. If you have a dual desktop, make sure you share the correct screen. If you want to share an Internet page, pull it up in advance and close all other tabs. Also, be careful to remove any company intellectual property or personal information from your desktop. Once the presentation is over, don’t forget to STOP sharing your desktop!

Preparation is the key to a strong presentation. Plan for all eventualities including IT failure. Have a copy of your presentation printed, and also saved to the cloud and on a thumb drive. Make sure that your laptop or other devices you need for the presentation are charged beforehand. Turn off your phone. If you plan to give a demonstration, make sure that you have screen shots which convey the most important points in PowerPoint slides as a backup.

And if all else fails, laugh! Things do go wrong sometimes and humor will help your audience to empathize with you.


Strive to keep your presentation dynamic and interesting. The challenge is even greater with a virtual presentation when you can’t see or hear your audience, and they can’t see you. Learn to master all the presentation tools, particularly those which allow interaction with the audience, whether it’s the chat function or annotating slides. Don’t just project a slide show!

And most importantly: practice—that is the best way to overcome your natural fight or flight response and optimize your skills! Good communication skills are now a vital asset for successful pharmacometricians.

To learn more about best practices for virtual presentations, please watch the webinar. What do you think of these tips? Let us know in the comments section!

P Bonate, S Tannenbaum

About the Author

P Bonate, S Tannenbaum

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Dr. Peter Bonate is Executive Director of Pharmacokinetics, Modeling and Simulation at Astellas, and the author of “Be a Model Communicator: And Sell Your Models to Anyone.” Dr. Stacey Tannenbaum is Senior Director of Modeling and Simulation at Astellas, and co-founder of the American Conference on Pharmacometrics (ACoP) and the International Society of Pharmacometrics (ISoP).