Friday, July 6, 2007

Public Speaking For Scientists

In my profession as a biotech scientist, good public speaking skills are essential. In fact, having bad public speaking skills, particularly due to shyness, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins for Lab Rats. The last thing you want to do is get up in front of a bunch of scientists and look like a moron, especially if they know as much as you do about areas of your own study, and possibly more. In any given crowd there will be novices and experts. Somehow you have to appeal to them all while giving them at least one good nugget of information they could fine intellectually stimulating. The big thing is for people to overcome their fear and make themselves comfortable standing up in front of (sometimes) dozens or even hundreds of perfect strangers and sounding both knowledgeable and relaxed. Today’s blog from Scott Adams was about that. HERE is a good article on overcoming that fear.

Scientists aren’t shy when it comes to pointing out flaws in your protocols or logic. In fact, it’s what we are trained to do. So much so that when the question and answer period comes at the end (as most are prone to do), you expect critical questions to be asked about why certain choices were made in the experiments and how we made certain assumptions about the data and results, and you have to explain. Sometimes you will gather new insights about your process and can go back to the lab to test them out. That’s the real value of these presentations. If, being a scientist, you give a presentation and there are no questions or comments at the end, then either you’ve blown them away with your incredible genius, or you’ve failed in your mission entirely and wasted a great deal of your time and that of the audience. As much as I would love to think I fall into the genius category, I would have to admit my failure. Luckily, I can’t think of any talks I’ve given lately that were complete failures that way.

Inevitably there will be one older professor in the audience who will glibly point out some crucial mistake you had made that surely could have avoided if you had only read their seminal paper on whatever obscure protein or cellular process they’ve studied for decades. If it’s a good idea, you say so, and get the reference from him later. Probably 90% of the comments are that way. If not, you say “Thanks, I’ll look into that.” That’s usually code for “Thanks for pushing your own interests, dumbass, and abusing your authority to make me look bad in front of my peers. I’ll ignore your comment.”

I’ve taken a couple public speaking courses, but only because I went to a liberal arts college. They were taught by the sociology department. Oddly, science departments don’t seem to include speaking classes. This always perplexed me, given the importance of it. It seems they assume you’ll somehow pick up the skills by watching other (sometimes very bad) speakers during the seminar series. So the classes you learn from are geared more toward speaking from a marketing perspective (“Here’s why my product is a good one”), or a dry information perspective (“Here are the latest sales figures”). Science is at its core an interactive discipline based partly on rational thinking and partly on peer review. The talks have to keep that in mind (“Here’s my data, now tell me where it’s lacking”). Oh, sure, you have to enunciate, make eye contact, not rely on notecards, not stutter and all that sort of thing, too (HERE is a starting place for learning). That much is in common, and scientists by and large are really good about those basics. But here are some additional recommendations that I am vainly going to make to my fellow scientists, even if I am sometimes guilty of not following all of them:

DON’T BE BORING. For crying out loud, reams of data and slide after slide of chemical structures will put your audience to sleep in minutes. Only the worst geeks will stay awake. In every experiment is a story crying to get out. Pretend you’re trying to tell your grandma about the purpose of your experiment. The story you tell will inevitably be reductionist to the point of being interesting. Refer to that story off and on through the talk. Talking about your studies of filamentous actin and its role in G2 states of cellular division is dry. Adding that the protein conjugate you used is highly poisonous and was purified from the Death Cap Mushroom is much more interesting.

HUMOR IS GOLDEN. Scientists love stories of how experiments went wrong but resulted in unforeseen eureka moments, or how they got fed up with someone and wanted to prove them wrong, only to prove them right but then one-up them. Some scientists are so dry in their presentations that you wonder if they’re drugged.

DON’T BE FLASHY. Leave the animated graphics and marketing logos for the sales folks. Scientists just want the facts. Nifty text fly-ins and superfluous decorations from clip art are simply annoying. One example of doing it right was when a guy I work with recently showed a slide of a simple Excel chart on a white background. He said it was the only flashy slide he had with animation then proceeded to grab the cloth screen with his hand and shake it, making the text scintillate.

GET TO THE FRICKIN’ POINT, ALREADY. Scientists love to go on and on about their specialty. Who can blame them? Many have spent half a decade focusing on one obscure metabolic pathway or gene studied by only a handful of other scientists around the world. Chances are, though, most of their audience could care less about most of that work. They really just want the highlights. Know who your audience is and gear it to them.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO TURN OFF THE PROJECTOR. Here's a big one. Nearly every presentation I’ve seen in the last 10 years has been solely a PowerPoint presentation. That’s okay. That’s the best way to get across most of the points. But somewhere along the way it seems most of us scientists have forgotten the fine art of turning up the room lights, raising the screen, and putting away the laser pointers. Draw on a chalkboard. Gesture with your hands. Get out from behind the frickin’ podium and use the space up front. Maybe, in your wildest moments, even produce props to pass around the room, such as chemical models or actual (non-toxic) samples from the lab. It’s so rarely done, I would consider the presentation a novelty worthy of attending even if I otherwise would have no interest in the topic.

So, to my tens of readers, what have you done to make your presentations more interesting?

Image taken from HERE.


Overpriced Designer Man Bag said...

I hate those people who ask questions at the end just to appear well-read. And they only vaguely relate to the topic at hand.

I've seen some awful Powerpoint presentations, though. Bright yellow background? Are you serious?

Tantalus Prime said...

Simplicity. I hate powerpoint presentations with lots of words, especially if the speaker just ends up reading from the slide.

In other news, you have been tagged (follow link). I didn't want to do it either, but if I don't the god I don't believe in might smote me.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the deadly presentation! I get to do one a year, but it is a training course for folks wanting to do what I do (freelance scientific writing). The advantage of this - I'm the "expert" dropping pearls of wisdom with my every word. The disadvantage of this - I better be up on the hottest freelancing concerns and have some clue what these novices should do about them!

Since I've given the course for 4 years, the biggest challenge for me is to NOT think of it as routine, but make it fresh and interesting every time.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post!