Science communication is often on my mind, especially when I'm trapped in yet another excruciatingly boring/convoluted/confusing academic seminar. In my experience, poor story-telling and bad presentation is a systemic problem in the scientific community,our passive acceptance of which I find continually frustrating and perplexing. If we cannot effectively communicate amongst ourselves, how can we hope to inform the public? While I do think a shift has begun and more effort is being made to develop communication skills in scientists, particularly graduate students, the shift is slow and mostly aimed at giving better conference talks.
With this in mind, I took my seaweeds talk as an opportunity to improve my own communication skills. Specifically, to improve my design and delivery of a presentation. I was helped greatly in this endeavour by my partner, Stephan, who studies design as a hobby and without whom I would still be ignorant of all the things I don't know about design. Of Stephan's many presentation design books, I found two in particular to be extremely helpful: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. I won't go into their details here except to say that I highly recommend both books; instead I've incorporated the fundamental lessons I found most useful into the list below. I strongly believe the gains you make in adopting these simple practices far outweigh the effort of learning them, and are relevant to and easily adopted by anyone giving a presentation.
However, the books above (and most presentation literature I encountered) are essentially focused on giving better lectures; you talk, the audience listens. In my job I spend a lot of time helping biology faculty make their classes more interactive because we know that active participation (i.e., actually thinking while in class) typically leads to greater learning and retention than pure lecture. And isn't the point of a scientific presentation – whether to your academic colleagues or lay audience – to teach the audience something? I say, when possible and in a useful way, inject some participation into your talk. For the seaweeds talk, I polled the audience several times using hand-held electronic audience response devices called 'clickers' (can easily also do by show of hands), asked them periodically for their experiences with seaweeds and challenged them to identify the number of seaweed species in a picture from the seashore.
Weaving all these ideas together, I've briefly summarized what I found to be incredibly useful in preparing my seaweeds talk:
The (very brief and incomplete) Fundamentals of a Way Cool Presentation
1) Design your talk before you make any slides. Garr Reynolds calls it Planning Analog. You don't even open your laptop; you get pen and paper, decide on your key goals and outline the points you will make and topics you'll cover to achieve those goals. Of course, first you need to know details like, how long your talk will be, who the audience is, etc. Once you have the outline done, Reynolds recommends fleshing out the details to the point of sketching out (storyboarding) what each slide will look like. For me, resisting the urge to finish an outline before making any slides was a real challenge, albeit, extremely helpful. Storyboarding, however, was too much for me and I didn't do it. Drawing is hard.
2) Fit your talk to your audience. I am utterly flummoxed when seasoned academics continue to make this mistake; I see it all the time and it makes me so angry. Is it laziness? Ignorance? Lack of time? Doesn't matter. Spend the 15 minutes before you even open your laptop to consider who's in your audience, what amazing insights you have that you want them to know by the time you're done, and the steps you'll take to bridge that gap. Do not include material simply because it was part of your last talk – you fit the talk to the audience, not the other way around. Example, the goal of my seaweeds talk was to foster appreciation for nature in a general audience, so I consciously stripped scientific jargon and as much text as possible in favour of striking visuals. In other words, I used none of the slides from any of my research talks.
3) When possible and appropriate, replace text with a visual. As a grad student I gave ~15 research presentations over the years, all heavily peppered with bullet-point lists of text. The reasons for this were two-fold: 1. lists of text told me what to say next, and 2. everyone else was doing it. These are not good reasons. My goal was to teach the audience about my research and I could have been more effective, I believe, with more effective use of visuals. The subject deserves it's own post someday so I won't get into the how or what of it here. Garr Reynolds has a great blog post on the topic here.
4) Create unity in your slides through consistent and deliberate design choices. I'm running out of writing steam, so in brief:
- build slides using a grid. Again, good Presentation Zen post here about slide design and the "rule of thirds". My seaweeds talk was built using a 5 x 5 grid, which I've made available as a .ppt file here.
- use a consistent colour pallete and fonts. Using a consistent colour scheme and fonts brings unity and consistency to your presentation.
Whew, ok, I ran out of steam by the end there so there's less detail than I wanted, but so be it. A deadline is a deadline. So how did the seaweeds talk go? I had 55 people attend, 12 of whom were kids. Kids and adults alike enjoyed answering the survey questions, the kids especially loved being able to vote using the clickers. One of my questions – "when was the last time you ate seaweed" – did not wow the audience as I'd hoped, so I still have much to learn in anticipating the audience. I received many comments that people found the seaweed images beautiful and interesting and they learned something new, so I consider the talk to be a success and mostly due to the lessons I've discussed here.
So, to conclude, I find the challenges of communicating science effectively to be a fascinating subject and one I'd love to discuss with people. I realize I barely scratched the surface of creating an effective presentation here, but I hope you find it helpful. Any comments, suggestions or design stories are greatly appreciated!