21 April 2014

Sheldon Cooper and Brian Greene are both theoretical physicists focusing on string theory. Besides the fact that Greene is an actual scientist and Sheldon just plays one on TV, they differ in one important aspect: Greene cares about his audience.

Compare Sheldon’s condescending glare with Greene’s radiating intent in the video below.

Greene uses his epic simplifying skills to present a complex bit of Higgs Boson math in less than 3-minutes. It makes you want to stick around for the rest of the lecture. Why does an accomplished scientist care about helping others understand? I’m sure that his ability to be understood by both colleagues and outsiders has had profound implications on his scientific career.

You only need to watch the media coverage of scientific controversies to realize that dumbing down complex topics is easy. The hard part is simplifying them: pinpointing the confusing aspects and coming up with insights that help your audience traverse them. Every time you transform a hairy concept into an intuitive notion, your presentation’s awesome level rachets up.

Speak to the newbies

It doesn’t matter if you’re giving the keynote at a conference or presenting at lab meeting. You always have a choice on who you will tailor your presentation to. Speaking to experts is easier because they share our mental shortcuts, but speaking to newbies gives us an opportunity to uncover the meaning behind our everyday lingo, and forces us to think about our project with a beginner’s mind. Many scientific breakthroughs were born from seeing old problems from new perspectives.

So, next time you have to prepare a presentation, figure out who in your audience will know the least about your topic, and address them.

When you tailor your message to the people in the audience who are the least familiar with it, everybody wins. The newbies win because they’re able to follow along, the experts win because you provide a good setup that helps them appreciate the punch line, and you win because you gain perspective that lets you understand your project more deeply.