Monday, August 1, 2016

Enthusiasm Goes a Long Way

Earlier today, I watched a scientific speaker drive people out of the seminar room.

Was the person combative? Not at all; a well-respected mid-career chemist at a Top-5 school.
Unprepared? Nope; knew the slides backward and forwards.
Bad material? It was the linchpin talk of the session,
Perhaps haughty, egotistical, or rude? Still no - a model in professional conduct.

The talk was just, in a word...boring.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

However exciting the science, you can't capture the audience if the delivery is dull as dishwater. Literally dozens of posts, listicles, humor attempts, even entire blogs (here, here) have been dedicated to the practice of scientific communication. So why don't these suggestions permeate into the wider community? Why do smart people not consider how their message comes across?

I won't go into the particulars of the talk I saw overmuch. Suffice to say that slumped shoulders, wooden expression, monotone delivery, and stiff arms will have your audience reaching for their smartphones in no time. Ditto: wordy slides, insider jargon, and attempts to somehow mash a 50-minute talk into a 30 minute time slot.

One wonders if, after a certain number of conferences, chemists have become inured to terrible talks. Perhaps we should consider installing a "canary" in the lecture hall "coalmine" - a speaking coach or senior faculty member, placed front and center, that can debrief the overall performance after the session, offer pointers, maybe even solicit feedback from the audience.

Optionally, what about Improv? Many fields - business consultants, customer service, construction, education - have benefited from comedy troupes teaching teams to think on their feet. Anyone have something like that occurring at their lab or university?

I'm not arguing that scientific talks be misconstrued as entertainment, yet I feel I could have learned more if I were actively on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear the next assay result or to see the next structure proof.

Anyone else agree?


  1. Yes.

    In grad school, we never had any of this "alternative" training, though those of us who gave boring talks heard about ways to improve it from our peers. Not as much from the faculty...

    My recommendation: Imagine the talks that you are bored at (most likely because it is in a field you don't care for, aren't interested in, etc.). Think about how you feel. Then understand that, no matter how good your science, it is a near certainty that > 50% of your audience will feel that way towards your talk/field, and that overcoming that boredom barrier requires an appeal to the humanity of the audience.

  2. Yes! We had a scientific communication workshop with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science - 2.5 days that included critiques and even improv exercises. I highly recommend it!

  3. I think some people are just inherently bad/boring speakers...and there's really not a lot you can do about that. This is why I always find asking for "teaching philosophy" statements for academic job applicants so entirely pointless. You can have the best philosophy in the world, be au fait with the education literature and whatever else...but if you're boring, your lectures will still probably suck!

  4. I couldn't agree more. And not only do I feel that there's not enough incentive to do a good presentation but many speakers, particularly more established researchers, really don't seem to mind if their audience is with them or not.

    And even if you want to do something a little bit different, any attempts are nipped in the bud. In my research group, non-standardised presentations were discouraged. The way to make your supervisor happy is to follow the standard (boring) scheme. Of course you can make up for a lot by the way how you present it but if you have to present slide after slide of analogues and optimisation tables, even the best speaker would struggle to make it interesting...sometimes 'more is less' just works better.

  5. I'm constructing a deck of slides at the moment for an upcoming presentation. There is certainly a balance between having a "good narrative" and laying out the science properly. You don't want to bog the audience down in too many tables, but you also don't want to gloss over too many things and have to clarify your whole presentation again in the Q&A ("Yes, I did try that experiment. I didn't show it in the presentation, but we found that...").

    There is only one narrative you can have for a science talk: the linear one. You can't really go for meta or flashback...

    1. I gave a talk once where the science was proprietary, so I had to just tell a story and skip over the details. Turned out to be the best talk I ever gave, and I had some nonscientist spouses, salespeople, managers, etc at the conference complement me for giving the only talk they could follow. I learned an important lesson - the place for the details is a journal article. The talk should focus on getting people interested enough to read your paper, not on proving your conclusions with a blizzard of data!

  6. The talk is an excellent opportunity to make an impression on a large, captive audience. As a result, entertainment/presentation>>>results/data. I don't care about the substrate tables; as long as they remember you, they can always read your papers later.

  7. I'm a professional conference interpreter and what you describe is what I experience practically every time I work at a conference. It's not just scientists, it's virtually everyone. Between power point slides so wordy nobody can read a thing (if I had a dime for every time the speaker said something like "I know you can't read this slide," I'd be a millionaire); speakers who read a pre-prepared speech so quickly not even people listening in their mother tongue can follow; people who just read from their power points (studies have shown that when the audience hears the speaker reading from the slide on the screen, they absorb less than if the speaker had given the information without anything on the screen); people who speak so quickly they trip over their words, never finish a thought, never mind a sentence; and so much more, I have basically thrown my arms up in dismay at the dismal state of public speaking in this day and age.

    I have thought long and hard about the reasons for this abysmal situation. First and foremost, I blame computers: We are now so used to having information appear at the speed of light that many now believe that if they take their time speaking, they will not be taken seriously and people won't listen. Many are convinced that speaking so fast they slur their words is a sign of intelligence. NOT.

    Coming in a distant second is the fact that most people are afraid of public speaking. They want to get it over with as quickly as possible, or avoid it if at all possible. For most people, public speaking is a learned skill and they either have no time to do so or think that it's not important.

    About a year ago, I was working at a conference in a large hotel in downtown Toronto. My conference room was in the basement, along with a number of other rooms, being used by different companies and groups holding their own meetings. There was also an extremely large common space. As I was heading for the washroom during one of the breaks, I saw a group of five or six people in their twenties or early thirties, being coached by a man in his forties. One of them was reading a speech. Her hands were shaking as she speed-read through it. A few hours later, I saw the same group. This time someone else was speed-reading a speech before the group, but their hands weren't shaking. The team leader congratulated the speed-reader on how much they had improved. I really wanted to give them all a piece of my mind. I refrained, but it was tough.

    Over the past almost thirty years, I have seen the quality of public speaking sink ever lower. Am I depressed by this state of affairs? You betcha.

  8. The Iron ChemistAugust 12, 2016 12:10 PM

    You've got to be excited about your own talk if it's got any chance of being a success. If you start off your presentation by heavily sighing, as I've heard countless times, you're telling your audience that the talk is going to be tedious both to give and to hear.

  9. absolutely agree 150%. just because we may be intelligent , & may be discussing an extremely worthwhile topic, does not make whatever we areally saying inherently interesting to the majority of individuals. trying to present content in a more engaging manner does not lessen the integrity of the topic.