At the end of last week’s post on giving a talk that everyone remembers I wanted to know what you found most difficult about communicating your research. Leonard was generous enough to share his current sticking point:
I find it hard to speak slowly and deliberately when nervous. So I usually come off as a shy, smiling and nervous projectile of words directed at the audience. I need to learn to pause after each word or point and let stuff sink in before moving on.
You’re not alone, Leonard. Here are three techniques that have helped me get better at this over time.
This essay was first published at the F1000Research blog and has been crossposted here with permission.
The problem with most scientific talks is that they present interesting research as a bunch of unrelated facts sprinkled with bullet points.
Think of isolated facts as bacon. No one goes to a restaurant to consume massive tubs of raw bacon. We want it sprinkled on our salads, lying crisply next to our scrambled eggs, or buried inside our burgers. Likewise, facts need an accompanying story. When served in isolation, they quickly become overwhelming.
I know what you’re thinking:
I would love to tell a good story, but my research is so specific and technical that no one will be able to follow it.
Not a problem. You don’t need to work on a famous earth-shattering project to tell a good story. The only thing you need to figure out is why you like what you’re doing. Then, try to explain it to a past version of yourself. Remember what it was like to be an undergrad, excited about science but lacking all of the technical details. Once you choose this as your target audience, don’t worry about dumbing things down, and focus on making them clear.
Here are two tips to create research stories that people remember. Feel free to use them when you prepare your next talk.
Stories are finished products. They are the end result of a long process to filter out dead ends and to transform awkwardly phrased ideas into clear thoughts. If you’ve never enjoyed writing, it might be because you have unrealistic expectations about what writing should feel like. Telling a good story is hard because it requires picking the right ideas, assessing their relevance, developing them into finer details and presenting them in the right order.
I had to read 30 papers on ebola pathogenesis this week. When I was digging my way through paper number 7, I made a flawed observation: reading papers is boring. Most graduate students would agree with that statement, but I want to convince you that calling papers boring is as pointless as saying rocks are stupid. Boredom comes from the mismatch between the way we would like to consume information and the way it is presented. Understanding this difference can make our presentations more interesting and our stories more engaging.
Look at Figure 3 from Bradfute2010 (it shows two different spleen sections treated with a stain that darkens apoptotic cells):
The Results section describes this figure by saying:
Vav-bcl–2 mice showed nearly complete protection against lymphocyte apoptosis compared with wild-type littermate control mice (Fig. 3).
That’s a fact.
attractive things work better.
I’m going to a conference in a few weeks and I have to give a poster presentation, so I’ve spent these past few days thinking about posters: why we use them, and how to make them more awesome. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a poster or slides, a presentation works when you tell a story that the audience can relate to. The medium is secondary, its only goal is to enhance the story. Having said that, I agree with Mr. Norman that good-looking posters get more attention than ugly ones. Let’s dissect a few of them and extract some useful guidelines.
Seminar and conference organizers ask speakers to submit abstracts before they give a presentation. They do it because abstracts have the potential to convince people who could benefit from attending your talk to actually show up. Unfortunately, most abstracts are only effective at keeping attendees away.
A friend told me this week that she had to give a presentation to a general audience and that she was planning to reuse the slides she previously built back in May. I think there are some situations where it makes sense, but most of the time, reusing slides is a bad idea. I cringe every time I look at my old slides. I can believe I missed all those flaws flailing their arms at me.
Last week, one of my lab’s collaborators came to give a presentation about her work. She started out by explaining her role in the project:
This slide came right after the cover slide. If I hadn’t already known that the topic she was going to talk about was really interesting, it probably wouldn’t have convinced me to pay attention. What’s the problem with this slide?
In May 2014, I hosted a 5-week “Learn How to Give Awesome Scientific Presentations” workshop. This case study is a summary of the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned. I hope that if you’ve thought about putting together a workshop, reading this will encourage you to take the leap.
This past Thursday was the closing ceremony of the Awesome Presentations Workshop, a 5-week get together where we talked about how to give better presentations. The last session served as an opportunity for the people who attended the workshop to show what they had learned during the previous month. William was one of the people who presented, and he has generously agreed to let me showcase his final presentation, along with one he built before the workshop. They couldn’t be more different.