Science Talk Makeover

Back in the Dark Ages of my Leopold training (No twitter!  No Facebook!  No blogs! How did anyone talk to each other?!), we were put through communication boot camp.  Here’s how to talk to journalists: now go practice!  Here’s how to communicate with policy makers…go practice!  Etc.  It was great stuff, and often helpful in ways well beyond the central targets of a given exercise.

And yet, we didn’t spend much time assessing how we talk to each other within science.  That made sense – wasn’t really the point of the training – and yet it’s arguably one of the most important things we do.  The better we communicate with each other, the better (and faster) ideas are shared, challenged, refined and tested.  Do it poorly, and science will slow down.  By extension, so too will our goals for translating science into other spheres and for having the research we do help forge a transition to a more sustainable future.

Of late, I’ve climbed onto a soapbox when it comes to a centerpiece of scientific information exchange:  presentations.   Whether it’s a department seminar or a professional meeting talk, too many presentations fall short of their potential.  As a result, the brakes are put on scientific progress:  people tune out, miss the key points, fail to be inspired.  (Interestingly, talks are the one major form of scientific communication that typically don’t receive formal peer review – maybe part of the problem).

If we continue to rely on talks as the first line of new information exchange (published papers are old news compared to most professional meeting talks…), we should strive to make them as effective as possible, as often as possible.  Formal communications training should be part of every graduate program.  Professional scientists should put as much care into honing their oral presentations as they do their writing skills.   We should all help each other improve, because it’s to all of our benefit.   And nobody needs to reinvent the wheel or go it alone: our interweb world is now full of help for the powerpoint impaired.

Some additional thoughts and links are in a couple of recent posts on my blog.  Love to see other Leopolders (and anyone else) weigh in with their own thoughts, tips, tricks and resources.  I don’t prevent to be the expert in this – just trying to improve in an arena that often does not get enough attention.

5 thoughts on “Science Talk Makeover

  1. I think too many people don’t think about why they include particular elements in a presentation or where they put them. My major current pet peeve: acknowledgement slides at the end of a talk (particularly a short talk). Typical scenario–presenter hits their conclusions slide, blasts through it, and then goes to an acknowledgement slide, where they say “a lot of people you’ve never heard of helped” and they leave THAT slide as the backdrop for last comments and questions. I don’t give a damn about the acknowledgements, but I want time to digest their conclusions! That is the information that you should leave the audience with.

    As it is, the way the acknowledgements are often presented is rather disparaging of the people listed and it undermines the key message?

    Why do so few people even think about this?

  2. I agree with you both. As you say, Alan, the talks are not peer-reviewed. But they are peer-judged, and in real time. This can be terrifying to me, and can push me toward a bad presentation, as I think, my peers might find a problem with my methods, so I should review the assumptions of to show I’m on solid ground (one slide, for assumptions about methods…). They might point out others whose results differ from mine, so I should review the literature exhaustively – let know tangential citation go unmentioned (three slides, for obtusely related material we’ll call “background information”). Statistics and P-values. etc. Caveats before conclusions. etc. Finally, they might think I’m wrong, so I better avoid saying anything. Of course that’s not the conscious thought, but I think this is one root cause of bad presentations. I still get jitters before I give talks, and fear underlies it: fear of exposure, fear of embarrassment, fear of being shown a fool. And as mentors I think advising to deal with the fear is a place we may error. Is the answer to try to convince yourself that the fear is misplaced, irrational, or something to get over? I don’t think so. I think the answer is to recognize the fear, understand why it’s there, and embrace it as, if not essential, at least useful and motivating toward the first key criterion for any good talk: having something to say. That’s hard. I’m reminded of a headline in the Onion “National Science Foundation: Science Hard”. I show this to my students in a seminar on scientific presentations, Talor Mali on speaking with conviction:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEBZkWkkdZA

    Some ideas for exercises about presentations, designed to force the speaker to speak clearly:
    1) You are an actor but you don’t know your lines yet. So, give your talk as though reading lines from a script. (For obvious reasons, writing out talks has become unpopular. We should bring this back. Note how well it works when the words are chosen to be spoken and read from a teleprompter.)
    2) Give a talk with NO WORD SLIDES, perhaps with the exception of axis labels on graphs. No slides with words for intro, results, or conclusion. Only pictures, or, even better, blank screens. If students say they really need those word slides, encourage them to put the words on paper and use them as notes, or the basis for a script (see number 1, above).
    3) Give a talk with no slides. No graphs, no diagrams, no slides whatsoever.

    I don’t advocate these as prescriptions for good presentations (I think slides are helpful, for example), but rather as exercises to help make them better.

  3. I’ve been teaching presentation skills in a seminar class to graduate students for 12 or 13 years, and you are singing my song here. There seem to be a couple of universal rules: 1) everyone knows a lousy presentation when they sit through one, but almost no one can dissect WHY it was lousy, without training. For people who do analysis professionally, scientists are amazingly slow to analyze and respond to the components of good vs. bad presentations. 2) most scientists are convinced that their data are the most essential part of the presentation, followed closely by demonstrations of their expertise (see Bruce’s remarks about terror, which I think are representative of many scientists’ fears and motivations when constructing a presentation). This is clearly wrong; that the WAY that you present what you have to say is primary should be apparent by the size of the audience for someone like Rush Limbaugh. Our audiences are preselected, but the human brain responds to storytelling, structure and form consistently, no matter which interest group is involved, whether the data are important or trivial.

    I think that presentations never came under formal peer review because they are not, after all, the permanent record of your contribution. Papers have filled that role, and because a paper could not be changed after publication, peer review became the filter to ensure that the printed record was as accurate as possible. (I also think there’s a certain amount of posturing: “I don’t worry about shallow stuff like sounding good — the data are so important that they will win people over”.) In this digital age, where everything is online, everything can be updated, and a video of your presentation is just as likely to circulate as your paper — more likely, if your presentation skills are stellar — the opportunity cost of presenting poorly is high, and getting higher by the minute. Communication skills are the next great professionalization skill — as statistical expertise was for our generation — for scientists.

    Finally, in response to Joshua’s comment: me, too. I cannot stand a talk that sucks all the force out of the conclusions by ending on acknowledgements. I train my students to put acknowledgements in near the BEGINNING of a talk — acknowledge up front that no one does science without help from funders and a cast of colleagues, and then tell us your story.

  4. I’m not sure it’s that simple.

    I train students in seminar all the time. The first day, I ask them what makes a good talk. They generally give me a great list (http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2011/01/zen-of-presentations-part-37-what-makes.html). Yet, when given the chance, they fall back to reading bullets on PowerPoint slides, and not doing any of the stuff that they told me at the start of the class that makes for a good talk.

    I’m sure many people can think of examples of “job training” that left you uninspired to change behaviour (safety training, new software training, etc.).

    There may have to be a deeper, more fundamental cultural shift in what is valued.

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