Speaker: Melissa Marshall (Pennsylvania State University)Presented by Science Alliance
Reported by Nadine Dalrymple | Posted February 5, 2013
Effective communication is vital for scientists who want to impart their research and ideas to the world. Communication style strongly impacts how the public views scientific work and whether an organization will fund it. Science geared toward the public requires excellent presentation, since the target audience may be unfamiliar with a complex topic. Those who make decisions about science are often not scientists themselves, so it is essential to emphasize what makes the research interesting and important. On Friday December 14, 2012, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted Melissa Marshall in a workshop for young scientists titled Communicating Science to the Public, which outlined how to craft and deliver a scientific presentation for a general audience. Marshall, lead instructor of the Effective Scientific Presentations course for engineering students at Pennsylvania State University, presented examples of compelling science presentations and challenged the audience to develop their own ideas, leading them step-by-step through the different elements.
Marshall began by highlighting three important aspects of a successful presentation—meaningful content, passion, and a strong sense of audience—using examples from world-renowned scientists. A presentation should engage the audience through big, powerful ideas. The presenter should be passionate and enthusiastic about his or her work, bringing it to life through words and physical presence. And the content should be suited to a specific audience and take into account their level of knowledge. Who springs to mind when you think about scientists who embrace these elements when speaking? Many were identified during the workshop, among them Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Hans Rosling, who were described as not only great scientists but great storytellers as well.
To demonstrate effective communication, Marshall played several TED (Technology, Education, and Design) talks and discussed techniques the speakers utilized to captivate their audiences and make their messages "stick." Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and statistician, engaged audiences through his passionate, lively presentation style. Biologist and science writer Janine Benyus provided a simple, inspiring story to explain how her work on biomimicry can be applied to problems in other fields like engineering and architecture. And in one of the most watched TED presentations, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor related her personal family history to connect with her audience on an emotional level and make her work universally relatable.
Marshall explained how to make your science "stick" with the mnemonic SUCCESS, from the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Great presenters convey simple, unexpected, credible stories that capture the audience emotionally. (Image courtesy of Melissa Marshall)
Moving on to discuss more technical elements of a presentation, Marshall explained how to plan its structure. Your talk should tell a story: giving a talk is like leading the audience up a mountain on a carefully chosen path, an analogy first coined by Einstein. The details you choose to share should be tailored to the "fitness" level of the audience—to their background. Marshall emphasized that a good beginning is essential and suggested several ways to immediately draw the audience in. Incorporating a personal anecdote or humor makes the presenter relatable and catches listeners' attention. Using an unexpected or interesting example or a question can motivate the audience to discover the answer, providing a good opening to a talk that is structured like a "journey" to find that answer. The key is to realize that the audience must choose to listen to your talk; the opening motivates them to do so. It is also important to focus on the overall goal—the destination you are leading the audience to—so that you can structure the story to lead to that goal.
Another key element is delivery—your words and actions. General audiences tend to expect a very high-quality delivery because of the high standards we are exposed to every day in the media. Verbal ticks and filler words are distracting and indicate that thoughts are not fully developed. Marshall showed examples of public figures whose word ticks hindered their performance and ability to impart clear messages, demonstrating that it is better to pause for a moment of silence than to use filler words or actions. Marshall suggested videotaping your own presentation and playing it back to better understand which aspects of delivery need fine-tuning. She noted that this may be a painful process, but emphasized that it is a very effective way to pinpoint problems.
Marshall suggested that scientists should take more risks when presenting to a general audience than they would when presenting to other scientists. Scientific presentations can be very formal and detail oriented; talks for a general audience should present the big picture, often the most interesting for those who are unfamiliar with more technical aspects. An enthusiastic delivery that gets you "out from behind the podium" is most engaging. To convey this, Marshall related the advice of Jill Bolte Taylor: Make your presentation eye-catching and relate the ideas to what is going on in the world. Do this quickly and with enthusiasm and know your work thoroughly. Give up shyness and be lively—your audience will respond.
Word choice is another aspect to consider. Scientists should select the right level of detail and eliminate jargon so as not to lose their audience or make it difficult to grasp the salient points. Marshall emphasized that although it can be very challenging, describing a small segment of your research that is most engaging can be more impactful than detailing every step, and thus worth some loss of scientific precision. She suggested that scientists experience a hindrance described by composer Robin Hogarth as the "curse of knowledge": in-depth knowledge of a topic can make it difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who is less informed and to present it in a way that is accessible. Since each experiment is considered relevant and important, scientists may feel the need to present each piece of data, but a broader perspective is easier for a general audience to digest and appreciate. Likewise, analogies, imagery, and vivid language can help to anchor abstract ideas in more familiar concepts. Returning to Einstein's analogy, Marshall said, "when the trail gets a little bit steep ... an analogy can be the thing that keeps an audience holding on."
Finally, interesting visual cues can carry the audience through a presentation. Marshall suggested avoiding traditional slide presentations. Most importantly, skip the words. Text is uninteresting to look at and can quickly cause cognitive overload. Because people can digest only a limited number of words, text on a slide competes for attention with spoken words. A high-quality, colorful image can often convey what words cannot and be more memorable. Marshall recommended full-screen pictures to add drama and limit text. If the slide has a title, it should simply state a general conclusion or a key finding that relates to the image shown. Images primarily function to support the spoken words in the presentation. Marshall reminded participants that visual presentation is not limited to picture slides: Hans Rosling used moving graphic images and Jill Bolte Taylor brought a human brain to her TED talk. Demonstration can sometimes make it easier to convey how a product works than a text-based explanation. Michael Pritchard used a physical demonstration of his product—a water purifier bottle—to illustrate turning dirty bacteria-laden water into sanitary drinking water. It can be helpful, Marshall said, to imagine the presenter as part of a scene in a movie, captivating the audience with performance and speech instead of text.
Marshall encouraged the audience to view TED talks and begin incorporating these techniques and ideas into their own science presentations, be these at a cocktail party or in formal settings. Many resources are available to help young scientists to polish their presentation skills and become successful communicators, able to broadcast their work effectively and impact society.
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Melissa Marshall (Pennsylvania State University)