10 August 2014

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.

Facts are like bacon Guacamole also works, but it’s harder to draw.

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.

1. Close PowerPoint and open a text editor

You will probably use slides during your talk, but that doesn’t mean you should design your presentation around them. Your audience is not going to remember your slides after a month has passed, but they might remember your story. Instead of focusing on making slides and providing commentary over them, do it backwards: focus on the story, and accompany it with clear visuals. By doing that, you give your audience two parallel tracks: a spoken track that narrates the story, and a visual track that reinforces the most important points.

If you agree that the story should be more important than the slides, you should also agree to spend more time writing than clicking PowerPoint buttons. Some people consider writing to be a stressful, anxiety-inducing activity; if this is you, stop writing, and make a list instead. Bullet points are easier to write than complete paragraphs, and they are the perfect tool to figure out what you want to say. At some point, however, you will have to develop those ideas and find their place in the story. Consider this example outline:

  • UV treatment activated the JNK cascade in human cells.
  • Treating with EGF moderately impacted JNK activation.
  • Combined EGF, IL1 and TNF treatment strongly activates JNK.

There is nothing wrong with these bullet points, but the audience doesn’t need to see them. Writing a list is a way to lay down all of the pieces, and to let your brain connect them in interesting ways. Keep in mind that you don’t need to use every point, and that you’re likely missing some important ones: maybe you can skip talking about the JNK cascade, or maybe you need to make the connection between EGF, IL1 and TNF more explicit, or maybe you need to make a previous section longer, so the current one makes more sense. Here is a possible solution:

I just showed you how cells responded after being exposed to ultraviolet light. We initially thought that treating them with EGF would give similar results, but this is not what we found. As you can see in this plot, without IL1 and TNF, the response is much milder. Notice the magnitude of the effect on the y axis. When we saw this, we wondered if this would also happen under osmotic stress, so we decided to…

The ellipse is there on purpose. This paragraph doesn’t live in isolation—it’s part of a linear narrative connecting ideas that came before to others that will come after. When you’re building slides, it’s easy to change topics by simply pressing the Next button, but when you’re writing, you have to work harder at finding connections between different ideas. It takes longer, but audiences appreciate it when you make their life easier (if you don’t do it for them, it means they have to do it themselves).

2. Notice conventions and challenge them

Here’s a common convention: a presentation is about telling people what you did.

What if the convention was a presentation is about helping people understand and remember what you did? Would you prepare presentations differently?

Conventions can be useful because they offer default ways to solve common problems (“Here is the font you should use”), but they can also be dangerous because they discourage us from finding better solutions (“The font I told you to use can’t be read from the back of the room”). One of the conventions in PowerPoint is to have slides with a center-aligned title and a list of bullet points. Here is a slide from a presenter that embraced this convention:

PowerPoint isn't better at presenting than you

Using PowerPoint (or Keynote, or LaTeX) is not a problem in itself. The problem is assuming that your slide-making software knows how to present your information better than you do. Ignore all conventions that detract from your story. In the previous example, the colorful template steals attention away from the premise of the slide (the fact that viral load is important), the bullet points are perfect for a preliminary outline, but their content could be better summarized out loud, the fact that some treatments increase viral load while others decrease it could be better conveyed visually. Here is a possible makeover:

HIV titers

You can find hundreds of tips like this on books and blogs about presentations:

  • Get rid of all the acronyms in the title of your talk.
  • Use a simple white background instead of a busy template.
  • Replace general headings (“Method A”) with full sentences (“Method A produced a 10% increase in output”).
  • Make sure that your fonts are legible from the back of the room.

These are good tips, but there is a more important lesson behind them: develop the habit of asking why. Why should slides have headings? Why should you use large fonts? Why do we give presentations? The way you answer these questions will shape the way you communicate with your audience, and it will determine how much of your talk they remember.

PS: I would love to know what you think is the most difficult part about communicating your research, and what communication skill you would like to get better at. Hearing back from you would make my day :)