Tuesday, February 19, 2013

7 ineffective habits of scientists who communicate with public audiences

I wasn't surprised when one scientist decided to pick my brain about his own presentations this weekend, while we were both at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston--that happens a lot when you tell people you're a speaker coach who does a lot of work with scientists. But I was surprised by his question. "I've heard a lot about what I should do," he said. "But what should I stop doing?" he wanted to know. He didn't need to ask me twice: I recognized the rare chance to help a self-aware speaker. I gave him my take on the 7 ineffective habits scientists fall into when presenting to non-scientists, all tactics I hope you'll choose to lose:

  1. Reverting to the default communications style you use with other scientists: While this is the scientist's verbal wheelhouse, it just doesn't work with public or non-technical audiences, which prefer and expect a communications model almost the reverse of what scientists are taught, as shown in the chart above. Flip your familiar model to start, rather than end, with the results, and you'll have our attention faster. And if you're addressing a "mixed" audience with some scientists and some non-scientists, play to the non-technical side of the house.
  2. Assuming your audience needs and wants to be taught: Some researchers at the AAAS meeting stopped bemoaning the public understanding of science to look at whether scientists understand the public. By comparing how scientists view their public audiences with data on what's behind the public view of science, the researchers concluded that "the dominant approach to science communication risks further alienating scientists from the public by placing scientists in the role of teachers." In my experience, non-technical audiences can handle plenty of complexity, so there's no need to "dumb down" your content, nor to lecture. Scientific societies and others in the field have moved from seeking public understanding or appreciation from audiences to public engagement, a process in which the non-scientists also get to speak and share. So leave out the lecture and let them contribute. 
  3. Failing to answer the "so what?" question: That chart, above, includes a key moment for your non-technical audience: The "so what?" question. If you can't tell me why this matters to me, or to people to whom I can relate, you'll lose the chance to connect and really make your points. This is far more important than making sure you have covered everything you know, because it keeps your audience's needs front and center. (At one private foundation, the "so what?" question routinely followed your hour-long presentation. Those who could answer got funded, those who couldn't, didn't.) Without an audience that's willing to listen, you're not communicating--it is a two-way process, after all. What's more, the "so what?" question is a useful tool to help you cut to the chase, getting to your point quickly and briefly. 
  4. Hiding behind the lectern, PowerPoint and your pointer: TED and TEDMED talks have hundreds of examples of scientists who can put across highly complex ideas briefly, flying without slides and without a remote, pointer or lectern in sight, all at the urging of the conference organizers, who give their speakers the TED Commandments and the TEDMED Hippocratic Oath as guidance. As a result, TED and TEDMED scientist speakers do a better job connecting with the audience and are able to get us to think. Telling personal stories is one tactic for being able to speak without notes and slides, and tomorrow in New York City, Spot On has a program on the power of personal stories in science to get you started.
  5. Using your slide deck as an educational takeaway tool: Scientists are taught to show their work, but these days, that seems to happen most often in the gift of a gigantic slide deck, left as a "handout" or takeaway to further enlighten the audience. Before you shove slides into an email attachment, you might want to read these data on whether anyone will read that slide deck: Decks with 20 or fewer slides are read by just 40 percent of the recipients, and the proportion of your audience that will read those slides drops precipitously the more slides you include. So do the seconds they spend per slide.
  6. Wasting our attention at beginning or end with a long list of credits: Your audience attention is highest at the start and the end of your presentation--but many scientists throw it away when they insist on showing or reading a long list of acknowledgements for all the graduate students who worked on a project and the funders who supported it. This happens in media interviews, too, and not to your advantage. I'm not the only observer who thinks you should omit these credit lists, but I will give you alternatives: Mention those graduate students in the context of telling the story of your research, at the points where their help was significant, and tell us what the funding allowed you to do that would not otherwise be possible. Create a team presentation that includes some of those worker-bees, or let them do the talk or interview entirely, a great way to underscore how science is done. Save the start and finish of your presentation for the results (at the start) and the takeaway (at the end).
  7. Reacting, rather than responding, to questions: There's no question science is under attack in many quarters, and scientists do take it personally. But when a provocative question prompts you to react, rather than respond, you lose the argument--and lose the chance to add perspective to the debate. Cultivating the ability to give a non-anxious, non-reactive answer to a wildly provocative question does take practice, a sense of humor, and some distance, but it can be done, as in this great example from Neil Tyson on Real Time with Bill Maher. What does he leave out? Shock, disbelief, and trying to argue an inarguable viewpoint, all in favor of sharing a simple fact as a counter:

It's always fun for me to attend the AAAS meeting, having served as its director of communications and as a consultant and trainer as well. I've trained and coached scientists in all disciplines in effective public communications, presentation and public speaking skills for a wide variety of research organizations, from universities and scientific societies to government agencies and research fellowship programs and the TEDMED conference. My own background in working with thousands of scientists gives me a unique approach to their communications training. Can I customize a training session for scientists at your institution or coach you as an individual? Email me at eloquentwoman[at]gmail[dot]com.

(Photo via George Takei)

I'm offering a new workshop on women and public speaking. Be The Eloquent Woman will take place in Washington, DC, on Feb. 28, and in Oxford, UK, on April 2, 2014. The day-long workshop will help you build confidence and competence as a speaker, and help you subvert the expectations that many women face when they speak. Please join me for these unique professional development sessions!


  1. Well written, Denise. I noticed many of these things happening at the conference and was a tad disappointed by what I thought would be highly innovative discussions. Many of the speakers need a lesson in Power Point 101.

  2. Thanks, Rose. In fact, AAAS has started offering presentation 101 workshops at the conference for just the reason you state. Communicators should keep an eye out for those free opps for training and refer scientists to them...

  3. The "So what" point is my favorite. Even as a scientist I often struggle to understand that when I go to talks outside my field. And I love your suggestion for better ways to include contributors.


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