My Science Talk Rant, Pre-Version

Those who follow me on twitter know I’ve been ranting lately about science presentations.  I’ll put together a longer post on this later, with some thoughts and links to resources, but here’s a quick and dirty short version motivated by a frustration I often experience…and am in the midst of right now.  I’m at a pretty cool meeting today and tomorrow – one bringing together scientists from a broad range of disciplines to focus on how changes in the nitrogen cycle matter to our health, and what the next key steps in this problem might be.   This stuff matters – we’re talking about human lives here.  And the meeting is full of real experts who have a lot to share.

And yet, like many meetings, I see talk quality being a big barrier to progress.  (Lest I seem too high and mighty, for all I know, I suffer the same problem.)  It’s way too common in science, and I think many of us don’t always recognize the deficits in our own talks, and/or put enough time into fixing them.  Most talks are packed with too much text, too much information per slide, too many 3rd order details – and way too little plain ole story-telling.  That, in turn, kills efficient and effective information transfer.  So even in a room where everyone is bought in to the importance of the broader problem, you see people tuning out and struggling to learn.  Meaning they’re a lot less likely to synthesize, integrate, move forward, and have that A-HA! moment that can come when thinking across disciplines.

So what’s the solution?  In a small meeting, sometimes it’s: bag the damn formal presentations altogether and just break up into small groups and talk to each other.   (At the “meta-talk” level, too many meetings rely too much on formal talk after formal talk with not enough time for true interaction).  But better formal talks are not so hard – it just takes a willingness to prioritize the need for them, to open one’s mind about new ways of conveying information, to get comfortable having the audience focus on YOU more than your slides, and to practice.   You don’t have to be a big performer – I’ve seen great talks from all kinds of personalities.  It just takes a clear, compelling message and the discipline and preparation to stick to it without too many visual crutches or distractions.

More systemically, I think it takes meaningful shifts in how scientists are trained from day one (e.g. formal communications training just as important as formal math, chemistry, etc), though progress is happening on that front   I also think social media can and will drive some generational shifts that may result in better overall talk quality – not just because of the information sharing SM platforms allow, but because they often force people to package messages in very short formats.

Maybe before anyone gives a talk at any meeting, they should be forced to summarize it in three tweets.  Can’t do it?  Can’t talk!

Some updates later.  Meanwhile, got thoughts on this?  I’d love to hear them.


2 thoughts on “My Science Talk Rant, Pre-Version

  1. treubold

    Love this post because it’s spot on! Great presentations really do take a lot of time. And I totally agree with this comment: “formal communications training is just as important as formal math, chemistry, etc.” I would love to see every grad student take at least a half-day workshop on the basics of graphic design or how to build better presentations. Perhaps this could also become standard fare at major scientific conferences? I think sessions like this would be highly beneficial to scientists of all ages and experience levels.

  2. Pingback: Science Talk Rant, Part Deux « State Factors

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