Category Archives: Daily musing

Effective Time Management for Science Communication

Having a good sense of time management is more than just being under the allotted time and allowing the audience to ask questions. It is about making sure the flow and meter of what you present connects with the audience. It is also about planning beforehand and making sure that you are covering your topic in an efficient manner. Being good at time management is more than just numbers, it is a formula that will make your presentation successful. In this post we explore some things you can do to improve your use of time while communicating.

Blue alarm clock (1)

The planning phase

In order for your presentation to flow well and make sense to the audience, you need to plan out the important parts ahead of time. Start by considering how much time you want to spend on each part of your presentation. Do this by making a list of all the topics you want to cover in the talk. Chances are there is not enough time to cover all of the things you want to and still be on time during the presentation. The reality is, that you are going to have to cut some of the things on your list and it could be as much as half of the things you wrote down. Consider how long (in minutes) it would take to explain each part and write down those times next to each topic on your list. If you are not sure how long it would take for a topic, get a stopwatch app on your phone and time yourself. Expect that you might speak a little faster on stage (about 10% or so) and add all the times together. This will give you a rough idea of what you are looking at for overall time. Even if you are able to cover everything in time, in context it still may be too much information for the audience. For a 15 minute presentation you should have one central idea with the rest of the material supporting the central idea. Longer presentations can have one maybe two central ideas, but if you are trying fit more than that it is probably too much info.

Your priorities

Next, it is time to consider what are the essential parts of the story that cannot be cut. You may feel that an in depth explanation of your PCR analysis of DNA is something you cannot cut out, however you need to think about the context of your talk. For example, you may not need to bring up the complexities of your methods when speaking to a audience composed of the general public. On the other hand you may want to go through the extensive detail of your methods when you are talking about something new that revolutionizes your field. The key is to be as concise as possible, while still creating an effective story line. Consider how most powerful stories follow and details or information that do not support the arc are not necessary.

Organization

Organizing your talk may seem like something that is already easy and doesn’t need to be examined in detail. However, sometimes the plan we have in our head doesn’t go as we expected when we are on stage. During the organizing step, it is time to take all the priority topics that you have written down and think about what order they should be presented in. Consider how these topics are going to flow from one to another. You don’t want to give the audience any jarring transitions that will cause difficulty to follow along. The trick is that you want you audience to be expectant of the logical progression in your story. For example, if your first attempt at an experiment failed then you want the audience to be thinking “well did you try method X?” right as you talk about the next experiment using method X. Anything that doesn’t fit well in the progression of the story, or add to the arc of your presentation should probably be cut. Only you can make the final decision on what and how you present, but don’t be afraid to rearrange and start over if things are not flowing from one succinct idea to the next.

Refinement

Now is the time to take this presentation for a test ride and see how things go. Practice in front of friends, practice in front of strangers, practice in front of older people and practice in front younger people. Practice, practice, practice. You need data on how your presentation is received. It is time to see who “gets it” without you needing to repeat yourself and what common questions come up during your Q and A. You can imagine that you will probably use different language when you present to different groups, but now is also the time to find out what works and what doesn’t. Take notes or use a short survey to see where things could be clearer and more efficient. Be aware that most people will say nice things when asked directly like “you did great!”  so an anonymous questionnaire can be helpful here. Try to figure out how to address the most common confusion and add it to your presentation. Rework the presentation until it is smooth, well rehearsed, and doesn’t get bogged down by any complex details. Make sure people are getting the “take home message”, and prepare your responses to any difficult questions you can think of.

191 pages

Execution

It’s game day and there is no turning back now. Wake up early well before you go on stage and rehearse what you want to say. Ideally this is done at least a few hours before you speak. You want to prime your brain so that you don’t need to try to remember on stage what you are going to say. You presentation should feel like second nature by this point. Rehearse one more time with an hour to go and then do something to relax so that you are not stressed out just before it is your turn to speak. Once you are on stage try not to think too much about the exact details of what you are presenting but rather make sure you are getting the main points across. If you have prepared well up to this point then you should be on time with no problem. If you get tripped up don’t worry, just try to pickup where you made a mistake and move on, there is no sense in dwelling on something if it didn’t come out right. Stick to your plan and be prepared to answer questions you might not expect. You can use some stalling tactics if you get a question you were not quite ready for, by saying something like “thank you for an excellent question [long pause], I think that….”. Remember to do you best and let the story carry the presentation.

Review

You did it, finally your presentation is over and now you can relax and enjoy the rest of the national meeting, right? Well there is still one more thing that needs to be done in order for you to keep improving at managing you time on stage. Once the presentation is done as soon as you can get to a quiet space, write out your thoughts on how everything went and where you think you could improve. Keep these notes for a few days but don’t look at them immediately. Check back once you have had some time to clear your head from the stress and pressure of needing to be on stage. You will be able to see more clearly then, and come up with ideas of how you can improve or fix problems. Remember, however, you never want to rehash old material for future presentations. Rather use your notes to try to improve the overall story and identify what does not work from this experience. Stay focused when you sit down to do this because it is easy to think “well this presentation is over I don’t need to worry about it anymore”. Keep in mind, that some of the best speakers spend literally hundreds of hours reviewing and refining their material, working out the best way to present. This type of constant refinement makes the presentation more efficient and easy to follow. Good luck! and remember being good at managing your time is a lot more about creating a coherent succinct story than it is about counting the minutes on stage.

The Increasing Need for Science Communication

When I was freshman attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, it was required of me to take a communication class. At the time I was an engineering student and a  communication class was a general education requirement for almost all majors and incoming students. I remember thinking, “why do I have to take that dumb communication class.” I had never taken a communication class in high school, and I understand why I had to learn it now when I wanted to learn engineering. Also, I didn’t like speaking in public in the first place, so shouldn’t I be focusing on the important stuff like math, science, and engineering?

At the time I didn’t understand the importance of communicating with others through public speaking. The importance of communication had, up until this point in my life, never been conveyed to me. Sure I had to do an occasional presentation here and there in high school, but somehow I never got the message. Communication is that one skill that every person and every career will need. Besides the implications for being successful in work, communicating with other humans is immensely important for social interactions, relationships, and communities.1 In fact, the entire notion of social media (an industry with companies worth billions) is built on the idea that we humans; like to share information, tell stories, and captivate audiences. So why is communication class often considered a waste of time in most education systems, and thought of as a major for the football team so they can get good grades in SOMETHING…

It would be outrageous if young people went to school and didn’t learn to read or write. There is no doubt that we value those skills as a society, however, communication between each other, and in a public realm is something that is neglected in education By the time anyone begins to learn the value of public speaking he or she is often already dealing with deep-rooted social fears, anxiety and embarrassment surrounding speaking. In general these problems are related to a lack of skill and experience with communication.

Anna Chao Pai (b. 1935) (6891504099)

Communication in the Scientific World

A problem that occurs and is reinforced in the scientific community is that science communication is considered to be a waste of time. Indeed there is a systematic problem with the higher levels of academia, where new young graduate students are indoctrinated with this line of thinking. The structure for advancement in the scientific and academic world usually follows a linear path from undergrad to professor-hood. For example if a person works their way through a PhD program, they will likely have a mix of scientific skills, including research, subject expertise and writing skills. As they move on in their career, and begin a post doc position they enhance their research skills and gain independence as a scientist. The problem comes when someone begins their career beyond graduate school or post doc. Once a person moves into the academic world as a professor, they need to be a teacher, a mentor, and a community member. Often these requirements are not only in the department  but also in the greater community in the form of outreach. The problem lies not in the requirements of the job as a scientist, but rather in the lack of training and emphasis on these necessary communication skills.

“With some exceptions, most working scientists have little responsibility for dealing directly with the public. An elite group of scientists, however, especially those who publish in journals monitored by the press, are often sought for interviews by media reporters.” 2

The dichotomy between the lack of communication training with the practical need for communication skills, creates a systematic problem within the scientific community. Additionally, it is becoming more and more of an issue as the world continues the march towards a socially connected global community. Unfortunately, the lack of skills in communication is deeply rooted in every department I have been a part of (4 at the time of this writing). There are always a few scientists who do a mediocre job teaching, presenting, and mentoring. Furthermore there is a lack of opportunities for these scientist to improve their skills, and fix their mistakes in a constructive manner. The reality is, not only is communication neglected within the scientific community, but the problem is made much worse by the lack of training.

“Scientists are often reluctant to engage in public dialogue. Fellow scientists may look down on colleagues who go public, believing that science is best shared through peer-reviewed publications. Scientists may also believe that broad-cast media are trivial, that scientists should be humble and dedicated to their work, that scientists should have neither the time nor the inclination to blow their own trumpets, that the rewards of a media career can compromise a scientist’s integrity, that the public may commandeer a story and distort it, and finally that the public may get excited about the wrong side of the story.3

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson

 

The above statement clearly outlines the current way of thinking within scientific communities. However, scientists can no longer stay hide in their own sphere of influence within the laboratory. The global community is in need of scientific expertise now more than ever before. With the ongoing climatic changes the Earth is experiencing, the public will increasingly turn to the scientific community for clarity, explanations, and understanding of the problem at hand. Hopefully that will spur the scientific community to respond by enhancing communication skills and improving opportunities for scientists to learn how to speak to the public.

References

1. Golder, S. A., Wilkinson, D. M., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). Rhythms of social interaction: Messaging within a massive online network. In Communities and technologies 2007 (pp. 41-66). Springer London.

2. Weigold, M. F. (2001). Communicating science A review of the literature. Science communication, 23(2), 164-193.

3. Shortland, M., & Gregory, J. (1991). Communicating science: A handbook. Longman Scientific.

Using the Potential of Anecdotes to Communicate Science

Cicero denouncing Catiline

Story telling by way of anecdotes is a powerful tool that has been used throughout human history. Anecdotes are short, amusing or interesting stories about a real incidents or persons. However, often times scientists are reluctant to use them for fear of losing the audience or sounding unintelligent, particularly when speaking to colleagues. There is a tendency in science communication to revert to the format of the written word, most commonly the format of the generic scientific paper (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion). The problem is, that when using a written document as an outline for spoken communication it does not tell an effective story. Scientific papers are designed to convey information in a manner so the reader can scrutinize the experiment and reproduce the results if needed. Scientific papers do not lead from one succinct thought to the next, pausing now and again to reflect and summarize the story. Papers are a compilation of facts, results and conclusions strewn together to summarize experiments. This is part of the reason they are difficult to read and understand, particularly if you are not familiar with the writing style.

Now some of you reading this may stop and think “why would you want to tell a story when speaking about science? the results and data speak for themselves!” But that line of reasoning is ignoring why people get interested in science in the first place. Scientists, science writers, and educators of science care about the world around them due in large part to CURIOSITY. Curiosity is the reason why anyone would put up with the long hours, low wages, and years of education to pursue a career in science. The fact is, people become involved in science because  they have motivation to ask questions, they want to learn about the world, and they enjoy the understanding of something new. The joy of learning new things and understanding how the universe works around us is the true reward of science. This shouldn’t come a shocking revelation to anyone, throughout history humans have been driven to learn about the environment they exist in to survive. We as humans are inherently driven by a strong sense of curiosity. As a communicator and public speaker not taking advantage of curiosity is a major fault.

But how does story telling play into science communication and public speaking?Communicating your work and getting an audience to retain information, is literally the most important thing you can do as a scientist. It doesn’t matter if you unlocked the key to the question of the universe (42) if no one knows about it or no one can understand it, you really haven’t accomplished anything. Science is a knowledge base built on the work of all the people who came before us, and can only continue if our new scientific contributions are able to be understood and shared. Communicating science is therefore all about getting others curious about your work. Curious people will put in all sorts of effort to try understand and learn about a topic.  Once you have sparked the curiosity of your audience then it is your job to get out-of-the-way of the awesomeness of your work and let the story tell itself!

Following the format of a scientific paper on the other hand, (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) is utter death to the awesomeness of your scientific story. The main reason why it does not work, is that the article is designed to be read not spoken. Journal articles are a manifesto of why you did the work, how you did it, and by what it means. If you try to recite that paper in a talk you are essentially (whether you realize it or not) reading out loud to your audience.  Scientific papers give the reader the ability to stop and ponder your words, study your figures, reread difficult parts, and absorb the material. In the spoken world you have none of these luxuries. Timing and meter is very important  in spoken communication and this is why the anecdote is so good at conveying information. The story of the journey to discover something new in science is what the audience will find interesting, and if done right will get them curious about your research. When you are preparing for your next talk try to remember what got you excited and curious when you first heard the idea, and how excited when you saw the results. These feelings and thoughts need to be intertwined with your presentation so that the audience can follow along and get the same sense of enjoyment.

Let’s Examine an Example of Changing Text into a Anecdote From a Recent Publication in Nature

“The question of whether the AMOC has always controlled or at times only responded to climatic oscillations during the last glacial period still awaits full clarification despite its fundamental role in climatology. During the Holocene epoch deep-water formation has been active in the North Atlantic and North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied a large fraction of the deep Atlantic basin down to ~5,000 m depth (a circulation mode often referred to as the ‘warm’, or ‘interglacial’, circulation mode). However, the existence of different AMOC modes in the past has been proposed, mostly on the basis of nutrient tracers such as stable carbon isotopes. … Here we reconstruct changes in the AMOC based on combined extraction of seawater radiogenic neodymium (Nd) isotopes and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) … from sediments recovered in the deep subtropical northwest Atlantic “

Exracted from: Böhm, E., Lippold, J., Gutjahr, M., Frank, M., Blaser, P., Antz, B., Fohlmeister, J., Frank, N., Andersen, M. B., & Deininger, M. (2015). Strong and deep Atlantic meridional overturning circulation during the last glacial cycle. Nature, 517(7532), 73-76.

There is nothing wrong with the writing of the above paragraph since the reader can spend as much time as they want to reread and understand it. But as spoken word it doesn’t flow or begin a story very well. One way to rephrase this passage as an anecdote could be like this;

It is obvious to even the newest graduate student that  ocean currents like the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC) are important in the Earth’s climate system. But our research team and even many other climate scientists have been struggling to understand how AMOC plays a role in climate through the last glacial cycles. We began to formulate questions about what AMOC was actually doing in the past. For example in the Holocene research has shown that North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied the basin down to at least 5000 meters. This is considered by some to represent “warm or interglacial” modes of circulation. We wondered how reliable the history of these circulation modes were, since they were based on data from nutrient tracers and stable carbon isotopes. We got together and wondered, what if there was another way to get at the history of AMOC. Given our group’s expertise with radiogenic isotopes we hatched a plan to test neodymium and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) of sediments to reconstruct AMOC history. So we mobilized quickly and were soon heading out to the best field site to suit our experiment, in the subtropical northwest Atlantic.

Both passages relate essentially the same thing, but the above paragraph is acceptable for a paper but not a talk. Meanwhile, the below paragraph is good for a presentation but certainly not a paper.

Another Example From a Famous Modern Storyteller, Ira Glass

Finally we can turn to an expert storyteller, Ira Glass. As the host of This American Life (TAL), he gathers an estimated 2.1 million listeners each week. Although not everyone has to love the show to get the point, there is no denying that Ira is good at telling an anecdote. So check out the video below to get some more ideas on how to use anecdotes in your next presentation.

The Science of Public Speaking

Have you ever been told when preparing for a presentation that you shouldn’t have an outline slide or always have an introduction that is one third the length of total talk?  Perhaps a friend said to you “based on he audience you are speaking to you should …”. Or maybe even your boss said “last time I spoke at that meeting I did this … and it went really well”. Often times we are bombarded with these bits of speaking advice which might be the combination of anecdotal ideas passed from one adviser to the student, or one colleague to the next. Through a hodgepodge of trial and error combined with random bits of advice, we tend to develop a speaking style and stick with it. However, developing a voice in this way can lead a speaker into habits that do not actually help us while on stage.

Think about it, would you ever try to learn a potentially dangerous sport such as rock climbing or scuba diving by only using anecdotal advice with trial and error? So why should we be content to do the same thing in a presentation that can potentially harm our career? Why would we intentionally do something that would effect the impact of our presentation without checking what has actually been researched and confirmed to work? One of the main problems with public speaking is that we fall into a trap of confirmation bias. We try something at a our next presentation and if it goes relatively well then we think “oh that went well” and it becomes part of our repertoire. All the while it is unclear if what we did was the most effective way of communicating to our audience or was did it simply work for only part of the audience. If you are not familiar with confirmation bias watch the video below and see if you can guess the number rule, you may be surprised.

In this post we will look at some examples from research and experiments that demonstrate what works and doesn’t when giving a public talk. This is by no means a comprehensive review of all research done on speaking in public, however it may give you some ideas for your next talk or presentation.

The Introduction

The techniques used in public speaking are often a combination of trial and error, anecdotal advice and methods dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks 1. Unfortunately these techniques are unlikely to be the most efficient way of finding out what works for your audience. The problem is that when speaking in public if the audience misses important parts then the presentation becomes difficult to comprehend.  When scientists try to take a written paper and turn it into a talk, they often forget that a reader can re-read a difficult passage, but an audience member can’t stop you mid sentence and ask you to repeat the material (unless you are teaching a class). Therefore, getting the audience’s attention in the beginning of the talk is crucial 1.

There are many ways to begin a talk, but in general research shows that a clear easy to understand introduction will increase audience retention by peaking interest 1. There are several options to use here, but some of the more common ways are; telling an anecdote, posing a question, or simply a calling attention to an important idea (e.g. Forest fires effect not only wild lands but also threaten homes and citizens, our home town is prone to forest fires). If you are starting with an outline slide and using the words “today I will talk about Forest Fires, show our experiment, discuss results, etc” you are damaging the ability of the audience to retain information about your work. Introductions make audiences more willing to listen, think more highly of the speaker, and understand the material better 1. In general if you peak the interest of the audience, they will pay more attention to you and it will increase the retention of the material 2. Your audience will respond differently to different opening techniques but this can be predicted if you plan ahead. Speaking to a crowd of scientist may require one type of introduction while speaking to the general public requires something different. Plan ahead and tailor your talk around not only your material but also your audience. 

Speaking Rhythm, Repetition,  and Body Language

Adding the dramatic pause to your presentations can help the audience retain more information, however it needs to be used in conjunction with other methods 2. For example using the correct body language has been shown to be about as effective as dramatic pauses when speaking 2. Additionally Repeating yourself in a presentation will increase retention among your audience, however don’t overdo it. Research has shown that if you repeat to many times your audience may actually retain information less well over time. The most effective method has been shown to be repetition in the logical places that the audience might expect, like the beginning, middle and end of your talk 2. In general your presentation will benefit from the correct amount of pauses, repetition and gestures.

"Police Line" Tape

Becoming an Authority Figure

There is a distinct advantage when someone is perceived as an authority figure. If you are not already one in your own field, then adding a part where you establish authority over the subject matter will help the audience stay interested. In an experiment setup by 4, an audience that heard a “professor” speak, and showed a significantly greater percentage of change in their opinion toward the “professor’s” thesis than those who heard a “student” speak. When speaking as an authority figure you should try to avoid being biased and only presenting one side of the argument or research question. Acknowledging “both sides” produces significantly higher retention than does only presenting “one side” of the story 4. From the beginning it is in your best interest to try to establish yourself as an authority on the subject and enhance your credibility. This won’t necessarily make people more willing to listen alone but when combined with other techniques such as a solid introduction it is conducive to an audience that comprehends more of your material 1.

Effective Use of Humor

Some people are naturally funny and will likely draw large crowds when they speak. Humor can be used to add to an already fun or interesting topic, or it can take something dull and boring, making it more enjoyable for the audience. Research has shown that if your material is very dry that adding humor to your next presentation may make the audience find the talk more interesting, but may not dramatically increase the audience retention 3. It is probably best to use your own judgement and common sense as to when to inject a joke to lighten the mood during the dry and boring parts. Just remember that humor alone cannot be relied upon to keep the audience completely attentive and retain all the important information from your work.

A Final Consideration

When speaking in public the audience can be brutal in judging the speaker even in the first few minutes. It only takes a short while for the audience to judge if the subject is boring or the speaker is unprofessional, and become less receptive to the overall message 1. Many contemporary scholars believe that science is not communicated effectively to the general public 5. The problem is that understanding who you are speaking to is tricky, and requires that the speaker have take time to also consider the audience composition. When conveying complicated material (in science communication for example) the speaker must be comfortable understanding scientific findings, must be sophisticated in the translation of these findings into simple language, and make it all accessible to the entire audience 5. Communicating science does not necessarily mean transmission of the scientific findings themselves directly, since research has shown that an audience will often fell the need to voluntarily research further into the material presented 6. It is important not to forget that when speaking on stage we become storytellers to the audience. Storytelling plays as significant a role in the future of science communication just as it has done in the past transmitting vast amounts of human knowledge 6.

References:

  1. Andeweg, B. A., de Jong, J. C., & Hoeken, H. (1998). “May I have your attention?”;: Exordial techniques in informative oral presentations. Technical Communication Quarterly, 7(3), 271-284.
  2. Ehrensberger, R. (1945). An experimental study of the relative effectiveness of certain forms of emphasis in public speaking. Communications Monographs, 12(1), 94-111.
  3. Gruner, C. R. (1970). The effect of humor in dull and interesting informative speeches.
  4. Paulson, S. F. (1954). The effects of the prestige of the speaker and acknowledgment of opposing arguments on audience retention and shift of opinion∗. Communications Monographs, 21(4), 267-271.
  5. Treise, D., & Weigold, M. F. (2002). Advancing Science Communication A Survey of Science Communicators. Science Communication, 23(3), 310-322.
  6. Veríssimo, D., & Pais, M. P. (2014). Conservation beyond science: scientists as storytellers. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 6(12), 6529-6533.

Galapagos Thoughts

When I went to the Galapagos I had planned to make multiple videos about the trip, unfortunately I only had time to make one, enjoy.

5 am Thoughts

So I got the smart idea to post a video of myself, explaining myself of why I want to go to Europe and what I expect to learn. I decided that 5 am was as good as a time as any to do it, so enjoy.

On the verge of Adventure

So I’m on the cusp of heading over to Europe for a 3.5 week trip in which I will be the first in my family to go visit the Ukraine. It’s going to be a long trip but of course I am excited, however there is some reservation of going to place never seen before and experiencing life. I hope that the people and cultures I see and meet will be equally interested in me as I in them. Once again it feels distinctly like a step in a new direction, but isn’t that what adventure is? The journey into the unknown with all the hopes and fears that we each carry. Knowing full well that adventure is not always fun or happy, but that in the end you will become a different person as a result of the journey. So perhaps it’s a metaphor for all of life, that we are all on our own adventure, in which we never truly know what lies ahead but we continue to strive for that which inspires, which we are passionate about, and that which we love.

Learning From Other Fields

I’ve been reading a fantastic book, which has a lot of (sound) advice which can be used by anyone in any career.

The Pragmatic Programmer 

Enjoy!