let's talk about...

Jul 27 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Science, of course!

I remember the first science talk I gave as a wee graduate student. Oh, the redness of my face. The unsteadiness of my voice. WEEKS of preparation leading up to 10 minutes of pure adrenaline. Good times.

Since that day I have given at least...well, I actually have no idea how many talks I have given. Lots. Really, getting up in front of people to talk about your work is a really important part of being on the tenure track. Most of the time that you talk about science you will be speaking to other scientists. And it is important that you be able to do this. But you already knew that.

You may also have the opportunity to speak to non-scientists about your research. You could be asked to give a pitch to potential donors, trying to convince them to give your lab (or institution) some money. Or maybe you are giving a talk to the general pubic as part of an outreach program. Either way, your goal is the same. You need to distill the essence of what you do down to a perfectly-balanced grappa. Your talk needs to get people excited about your research and make them understand why it is important. These talks can seem difficult, but I think they are actually great fun! And I would argue they are just as important as talking to other scientists. After all, if you are funded by the federal government, then the taxpayers are paying the bills. It is part of our job as scientists to make sure that they understand that what they are buying is important and valuable.

When you are going to talk to an audience of non-scientists, you will want to prepare your talk a little differently than a seminar or talk at a conference. If you are going to sell science to a general audience, the normal formula of AWESOME DATA + MORE AWESOME DATA + FREAKING AWESOME DATA may not be the way to go. Instead, you have to step back and build a compelling case for why what you do is important. And really, can't we all use a little more of this even interspersed amongst all our FREAKING AWESOME DATA?? (I say yes!) This is part of the reason, IMO, that speaking to non-scientists can be a great way to become a better speaker in general and even improve your ability to speak for other scientists.

If you re thinking that maybe you should try this whole "talking to the non-scientist" thing, then I have a  couple of tips for you: First (and most obvious): NO JARGON. This is way harder than it sounds. You may not even realize that you ARE using jargon. The last time I spoke to non-scientists I dropped "tumor suppressor". I was lucky that someone in the audience asked me for a definition. The only way to do this is lots of practice. Try words out on your parents or random people you know that aren't in science. You might be surprised what is jargon! For instance: aliquot. Apparently not part of normal vernacular. Second: use metaphors (that may not be the right word, but dammit I am a freakin' scientist!). They work. For example: here is a version of one of my favorite ways to describe how geneticists and biochemists approach problems. Try to get people in your audience familiar with the concept using a non-threatening example, then make the connection to how that applies to what you are interested in. Third: don't show data slides. Yes, this is sad (and hard). I love data just as much as the next person. But the data can not save you here. You have to be able to say what the important finding is without getting technical. If your data can take the form of a really striking image (and you can refrain from talking about it too much) this can be an exception. Fourth: Have slides with pictures, but not words. Really, they should be like wallpaper behind you. Something cool or interesting to look at but that doesn't distract from what you are saying. Fifth: end your talk early so there is plenty of time for questions. In fact, try to structure your talk so that there are obvious questions to be asked. The goal is to have a conversation between you and the audience. What you say is most important to get everyone comfortable and thinking about the same thing so that you can have a good discussion. Bring the audience along with you, so that they can feel engaged in the discovery process.

I really hope that if you, my fellow scientists, are given an opportunity to talk to non-scientists that you take it. This is the first step to stop some of the ridiculous attacks on science from groups like the TVC or idiots like Coburn. We need to get folks psyched about the awesomeness that is doing science. But we can't do that if we are all sitting in the lab.




h/t to David Kroll, who suggested that I write a post about this when we were chatting a while back 🙂

12 responses so far

  • Why the fucken fucke did that fucken idiot make his Web page white test on a black background? What an asshole.

  • My sister (an architect) demands that all explanations are done with bunny metaphors.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    No gross pictures. I saw a scientist lose the audience completely when he showed photos of necrotic rat gums. If they wanted to see that, your audience would be scientists already.
    Better yet, no PowerPoint. Make the explanation so powerful and artful that folks can understand it without seeing it. How many TED talks use PowerPoint?

    • gerty-z says:

      I actually agree with the No Powerpoint rule, but I find that many scientists are just too uncomfortable with getting up in front of people without any props. Also, I think some audiences really like to have pictures to look at. But no data slides, and NO WORDS!

    • gerty-z says:

      OH and the no gross stuff is an EXCELLENT POINT!!! 🙂

      • Genomic Repairman says:

        I agree with the no Powerpoint, the faculty have stood me up before a large civic group containing potential donors and I've had to walk them through what I do just by verbal communication and analogies. They got it and we got some cash.

        You don't need no stinking powerpoint.

  • A. R. V. says:

    Nice blog post, I enjoyed it. I get to do this sometimes (not presentations, just chatting) with oil/gas exploration, or climate change, and it's not easy. The rule of "no jargon" is imperative, as are the metaphors. I'd be clearer, with examples and data, but I'm drinking now. 🙂

  • alethea says:

    I totally second trying things out on some non-scientist friends! I'm adjuncting a high-school honors bio class this coming school year, and I've been trying out my material on my mom. It's a good thing, because it turns out I'm a walking jargon-bomb, even when I think I've toned it down!

    And aliquot. I totally thought that was a regular word until I told my husband I was going to aliquot the ground beef into ziplocs and he just stared at me.

  • @DrRubidium says:

    ...but can I use Comic Sans? 😀

Leave a Reply