Fernando Gonzalez is Colombian/Peruvian scientist living in Seattle, Washington. He also blogs at Science Salsa, a blog about science that is tasty and wonderful and makes your life better.
My presentation wasn’t going well; the audience was full of sleepy eyes and empty stares. Apparently, I wasn’t giving them a good story, and I wrongly assumed they will be able to cope with that. Too many years listening to scientific presentations can fool you to think that way.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of amazing scientific presentations; the problem is those are a minority in a field full of boring presentations that require a titanic effort to follow them. The hard-working audience happily digesting big amounts of jargon is a myth we scientist love to believe. But this time I was inflicting a scientific presentation onto my scientific audience and they were failing miserably on their effort to stay awake. I wish I can blame them, but the fault was only mine: After attending too many poor presentations I believed people in science –myself included– don’t need a story to keep them engaged, only graphs with lots of new data showing you can produce results for publishing. Give your best result near the end of your presentation and reasonable final conclusions and everybody happy, right?
I have not been such a scientist all my life. I did have success engaging scientific audiences in the past, but now my presentations really needed help. Ironically the place I regained this lost knowledge is a seminar that helps graduate students to speak about their research to general audiences. It turns out that scientist are humans too. The lessons learned about what makes a good presentation for general audiences are valid for scientific audiences. I was very lucky to attend the Engage seminar series at University of Washington. The instructors, guest speakers, and students really performed a splendid job, and it was an honor to join them this quarter. Let me tell you some of the things I learned with them.
1) Know your audience: This is often overlooked, but no presentation fits all needs, different audiences need different presentations. Are you presenting in a journal club? Perhaps a department seminar? Open lecture? Science café? Town Hall? Middle school? Only after having a clear idea about your audience you can build your presentation. A common tip is to imagine some people you know that fit the intended audience and make the presentation for them.
2) Respect your audience. Do not underestimate your audience’s intelligence, but do not assume previous knowledge of your jargon. Enough said.
3) What do you want to say? Yes, you need to have content, and you need to decide what the take-home message is.
4) How do you want to say it? This is more about accessibility for the audience and personal style. I used to believe that content is king and style is frivolous, but that is not based on evidence. Good content is lost if is not delivered in a way that reaches the audience. Style matters, a lot.
The first thing I learn at the Engage seminar was the power of storytelling and a personal narrative. As a scientist I tought a strong narrative was a great graph (like the famous Keeling curve) but for most people, that graph is just a meaningless sketch. It takes good storytelling and great visuals to bring that narrative to the general public. The best example is the movie “An Inconvenient Truth”: it made the Keeling curve an essential part of the story, but people watched the movie because of the storytelling, not because of the curve itself–If you want to engage your audience you need a story!
This is also valid for scientific audiences. Most of the amazing scientific presentations I attended were either a detective story; a heroic battle full of obstacles to obtain the holy grail of data; or a tale of effort to understand phenomena that conflicted with previous accepted knowledge. Pure storytelling!
5) Make a storyboard, play with it, and ask for people’s input before starting to make your presentation’s slides.
6) Make your slides, then clean them, distill them, remove the fat, simplify. Simplify again. What is really important? What can go away in this slide? Use analogies, animations, pictures and maps to help the story flow, leave them behind if they are just pretty and don’t help the story. Test your slides and make sure the colors and lines are visible not only in your screen but also when you project them. Slide design needs to take into account that people will be watching the projected image and not your screen. Some venues have all chairs at the same level so you cannot use the lower part of your slide; some projectors kill color and delete lines. Seriously; the projector is your enemy.
7) Another good point was to learn that empty slides are powerful. Let me repeat this because it is important:
The slides are a prop, an aid, a medium, but you (the presenter) are the presentation. What a powerful moment when you have an empty slide in the middle of a presentation; only your voice fills the room, all eyes looking at you, all ears listening, and no distractions. But your voice and slides don’t tell the story alone. All your body is there. Your voice, your arms, your heart pumping fast, all of those are your presentation. We learned a lot about our body language and how it can help or it can damage a presentation, how it can make it accessible to your audience or it can build walls between you and them. There is also a lot to say about how your own love and enthusiasm shows in your presentation.
I think these enthusiastic grad students that took the class and are ready to present their work at Town Hall Seattle are doing something wonderful. They are going outside their comfort zone to show their complex work in simple, jargon-free presentations, but additionally they are showing to the public fascinating, resourceful and tenacious humans that are also scientists. Their science stories, with just the right amounts of craft and soul, are to be re-told with delight at home by members of the audience.
In the age of PowerPoint, it is hard to remember that you are the presentation, not your slides. Please, if you need to bring only one thing to your presentation, bring yourself. Remember it.