‘I almost felt like a rock star’

The impact of Antonella Fioravanti’s killer presentation

Can a great presentation change your life? Yes, it can! In 2018, Molecular Biologist Antonella Fioravanti presented her research at the VIB Seminar, in front of 1,000 people. She won the public award and many other prizes after that, including the Eos Pipet 2020. But what made her presentation so memorable? And what is her secret to success? We asked Antonella herself.

I first met Antonella Fioravanti in 2018, when I was invited to train eight researchers that would be giving a TED-like talk at the VIB Seminar. One of them was Antonella. Her research at the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology focused on the anthrax bacteria. Perhaps not the hottest topic out there, but during the training we found a very appealing way to present it to a large audience.

Two years later, while training a new group of researchers for the VIB Seminar, they begin to discuss Antonella’s presentation. Which got me wondering: ‘How could they still remember the details of that presentation dating back two years ago?’

I decide to reach out to Antonella to ask her about that presentation in 2018, the impact on her further career and the advice she would give to fellow researchers.

People still remember your presentation at the VIB Seminar in 2018. What did you do?

Antonella: “There were 1,000 people. It was my largest audience ever. I started my presentation by greeting the audience, when suddenly one of the other researchers came up on the stage. ‘My apologies for interrupting you, but this letter just came for you’, he said. A few seconds later I was holding the letter in my hands. When I opened it, suddenly a cloud of white powder flew around and I began to cough.

‘This was just flour’, I said, ‘but imagine if it had been a real anthrax attack. What would have happened to me and my baby and to you all sitting in this hall?’. I was indeed pregnant at the time. ‘Regardless of the antibiotic treatment, 45% of the exposed people would die.’ Then I explained what the disease is, what we can do about it and what my research is all about.”

What happened afterwards?

“The audience was asked to rate each presentation and at the end of the event they announced the winner. It was a surprise to hear my name called out as the winner of the contest. I thought that only a few people had voted for me, but one of the organizers told me afterwards: ‘You scored across the board’, they said.”

“The beauty was that people felt uninhibited to share their stories with me.”

Your presentation was part of a two-day conference. Did you feel an immediate impact?

“It was incredible! Everyone, from PhD students to professors, came up to talk to me. Every single person I met had something to say. I almost felt like a rock star. The beauty was that people felt uninhibited to share their stories with me. This even extended into the second day of the conference. Even the VIB director reached out to me.”

Did the impact continue, also after the conference?

“Ever since that moment, whenever there is an occasion, they invite me to come share my research. And once my research results were published, there was much more echo, because people remembered my talk at the VIB Seminar.”

“Generally, scientists are not great presenters. It is refreshing if you are able to present in a different way, which also makes it easier for you to grab the audience’s attention.”

Where did you learn to present in such a clear and engaging way?

“The idea of the anthrax attack came from a brainstorm session with my boss. But definitely thanks to the work that we did during the The Floor is Yours’ training, I had been spurred on to find a perfect attention grabber. I also learned a lot from Jean-Luc Doumont. I had always been a decent presenter, but my slides were often too crowded. And just as every other scientist I tried to show too much data, even when people were clearly saturated. I also learned to structure my presentation better. Generally, scientists are not great presenters. It is refreshing if you are able to present in a different way, which also makes it easier for you to grab the audience’s attention.”

Did you continue to present your research?

“Yes, of course. And I didn’t just win that competition, but many others. I travel to conferences all over the world. I may not always use the wow factor of the powder letter, but I do make sure to engage my audience with an attention grabber according to whoever I have in front of me. I first engage them, so that they can be the main characters of the story. Then I explain the problem and ask them to imagine the potential consequences for them. This way, people understand the issue straight away and tend to be more attentive to the presentation.”

You used to play theatre. To what extent can theatre be useful for scientists?

“I played theatre for 15 years. This has helped me to optimally use my voice and to confidently stand on a stage in front of others. To not be ashamed to engage your audience and to look them in the eye. This is also something I apply in my teaching. Theatre for everybody, I would say. It should be mandatory at school.”

Would you like to learn to present like Antonella?