Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Some Tips on How to Present Science

Previously I had written a list of The Do's and Don'ts of a Professional Meeting that went over pretty well. Now, even though I don't plan on rehashing a lot of the material there (although I might someday) I wanted to add to it. The primary purpose of this post is to try and help people become BETTER presenters, or at least point them in the right direction to learn how.

More people should take time out of their busy schedules to become better at communicating. Without communication anything you do is just for yourself (which is fine in some instances). But if you can't communicate what you have done (in science, in your job, in a relationship) things are likely not going to go over well for you.

For Christmas I received 2 things that I hope can help me (and others) be better communicators. The first one is Don't be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson. Randy goes on to talk about the 4 main points of communication hangups for scientists (which were being "cerebral", being literal minded, being a poor storyteller, and being unlikeable). He explains that scientists are bred to be boring and dispel just the facts in their papers, but nobody wants to talk to or listen to such a person.

Being Cerebral:
The book makes several comments on not just communicating with your brain (like in a scientific article). You can do this through various parts of your anatomy: The brain (being cerebral), the heart (talking with passion and getting other people's passions fired up), the guts (feel it in your gut), and the loins (sex sells). Basically if you love what you study, let that come through. Get other people as fired up as you are.

Being Literal Minded:
Try to think a little outside the box as I have always been an advocate for. Don't just say what you mean but be clever.

Being a Poor Storyteller: 

He offers some suggestions on becoming a better communicator but I think the greatest point that he made was:

"Tell a good story"

All of science can be broken down into stories. It is the stories that people remember and it is these that people should be telling. Mix your facts and your numbers into a cohesive story, leaving out all of the ancillary stuff, to make one cohesive story. I told someone just last semester when preparing for his thesis defense: "Get rid of anything that doesn't fit into one story. The other stuff only detracts from it. You don't need to tell the audience everything you ever did for this project. Just the main points."

One of the points that was made in Don't be Such a Scientist was to loose the jargon. Not everyone understands what you are saying and often it just makes you appear pompous. I wish I had saved an email I received long ago when I was a member of the Vert Paleo Mailing List. Some scientist sent out a message that was so over the top with "fancy words" that people spent the next few days posting what they think he was trying to say. That may be an isolated case but it illustrates that scientists have a habit of speaking above people. I am reminded of a quote I heard in Real Genius (love that movie):

"You will rue the day!"
"Rue the day? Who talks like that?"

Randy also mentioned another project he had worked on in the book called "Talking Science: The elusive art of the science talk" (posted below).

 I recommend watching this. It is only 18 minutes and may give you some tips that you didn't realize (I figured out my pacing while I give talks may be a distraction). But I do have some criticisms of the video. My main criticism was that one person said "You can't over practice a presentation". I strongly disagree with this. If you practice too much you are bound to sound robotic as you are presenting. You need to practice enough in order for it to feel natural but also you want to remember the next thing you are going to say. Once you have that down, I recommend stopping and let it feel natural as you give the talk.

Even though I did love the book, one of my main problems with Don't be Such a Scientist was that it often felt like an advertisement for one of his movies Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. The only problem with that is it ISN'T AVAILABLE TO RENT, BUY, or even SEE ANYWHERE (except a couple of campus viewings and by a couple I mean 2). Quite obnoxious.

Being Unlikeable:
My other Christmas gift was one of Randy's other documentaries (which is actually available), Flock of Dodos. This is about the evolution vs. creationism debates of the recent decade.

A fun watch and most informative about just being able to convey your scientific message. What is the best way to get your point across? Maybe being likeable is better than being knowledgeable.

Another way to be liked falls under my Don'ts at a Scientific Meeting. I went to the GSA (Geological Society of America) annual meeting last year (November, 2012) and I took some pictures to emphasize my point while I was presenting my poster.

#1. Know how to freaking use the damn sticky Velcro tabs. If everyone in the place (>500 posters) does it one way, they most likely know what they are doing. The Velcro tabs are meant to stick to the back of your poster and then the Velcro portion sticks to the board. They are not fancy pieces of tape as illustrated by this person:
Velcro sticky tabs used as basic tape
Close up of said sticky tabs
Really, if you don't take the time to learn how to use the Velcro tabs, why would I want to know about your scientific research?

#2. Your poster is not a "hang out" place for your friends. Nobody wants to look at your poster if there are a group of people sitting in front of it. This was literally what I witnessed as a group of at least 6 people gathered around the poster with no interest in the poster, they were only there because the presenter was their professor (or something like that). And they sat there for over an hour. Move on people.
Blocking the whole poster? Why would you say that?

That is all I have this time. I hope I have dispelled some knowledge and maybe made at least one person consider their communication skills and say "Hey, I can do this better".

No comments:

Post a Comment

Due to the large number of spam comment (i.e. pretty much all of them). I have turned off commenting. If you have any constructive comments you would like to make please direct them at my Twitter handle @Jazinator. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.