Debbie Knight

Advice to scientists: stop putting your audience to sleep!

In observation on December 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Today, I attended our department’s Grand Rounds (which is a seminar series often geared toward the clinical side of the department). I didn’t actually go because I was interested in the topic – although the title was a bit provocative with words like “flesh-eating bacterium” and “novel.”

The actual title was: “Novel Virulence-Regulating and Virulence-Causing Abilities of Eukaryote-Type Cognate Kinase and Phosphatase of ‘Flesh-Eating Bacterium.’”

I attended this seminar because I suspected attendance would be low and they needed bodies to fill the seats.

The researcher’s findings were interesting (and I think they could be woven into a newsworthy story), but his presentation was anything but interesting. At one point, I dozed off, complete with the head bob and arm jerk that woke me up (I hope no one saw that!).

And when I looked around at the others in attendance, I found I wasn’t alone in my brief snooze — about half the people were at various stages of dozing off as well.

One thing I do to keep myself awake and listening is I doodle. I can tell how tough a time I’m having by the number and intricacy of my doodles. Here is one such doodle I did today. I have no idea what it is supposed to be? Perhaps the enzyme the speaker was discussing, perhaps not.

A doodle I made during the seminar.

I realize that he was talking to other researchers and medical doctors, so he could make the talk pretty technical, but I think he forgot that his audience is pretty diverse. It is a pathology department, after all. There is more to pathology than flesh-eating bacteria (For those who want to know, the flesh-eating part is called necrotizing fasciitis, and the bacteria is a member of the Group A Streptococcus family).

So, for such a diverse audience, a speaker needs to take a little time to set the scene, to give a little background. This speaker made assumptions about his audience and jumped into his complicated research, throwing around bacterial gene names like we should know them and not fully explaining how he got the data he was showing.

This is an intelligent guy. Perhaps he was a little too intelligent which lead him to make assumptions about his audience. I don’t know.

He was not very engaging with his audience. He didn’t look at the group or attempt to make eye contact – he was turned away, looking at the screen so he could accurately point his laser pointer and to read his slides. And his slides – they were busy! They often showed several figures at one time so it was difficult to know where to start looking.

Now, his presentation wasn’t all bad. To give him credit, he did sometimes have a summary statement across the top, which helped the audience to quickly figure out what the slide was about.

However, had he simplified those slides, showing one figure at a time, his talk might have been less daunting to audience members.

And his last data slide? A very provocative thought that his research findings could lead to a new cancer treatment. What?? Why didn’t he mention this earlier? It would have enticed the audience to be more attentive.

There are lessons to be learned here.

So, if there are any scientists reading this blog entry, let me give a few pointers for your next talk – whether your talk is to fellow scientists or a general audience:

  • Focus on one aspect of your research. Don’t tell the entire story – you don’t have time to do it justice in a 55-minute talk.
  • Tell a story. Yes, your data tells a story, but you need to add a humanizing element. Add anecdotes. Tell your audience where you got stumped and how you resolved the problem. Give them insight into the research process.
  • Simplify your slides. Just show one figure at a time. You can build several on a single slide, but reveal one at a time to help your audience focus on what you’re talking about.
  • Engage your audience. This might be as simple as looking them in the eye or showing your enthusiasm for your research or asking them rhetorical questions to get them thinking. If they’re engaged, they’ll pay attention and the eyes will stay open.
  • Summarize each result. Write a one sentence (a short one!) across the top of each slide. This helps your audience understand what the data is saying and, in case they lose focus for a moment, helps them quickly get back up to speed.
  • Don’t assume your audience knows everything you do about your topic. Be sure to give an adequate background and definitions of new terms. The audience will appreciate it.
  • Recap what you said. Briefly summarize your results and put them in proper context at the end of your talk. Yes, your talk just covered all those points, but it really helps the audience understand what they just experienced. A friend of mine who took business classes told me she was taught to: tell them what you’re going to talk about, talk about it, and then tell them what you just talked about.
  • Don’t talk too fast (or too quietly). You want your audience to follow you. They can’t do that if you’re speaking at the speed of sound – they need time to process what you’re saying, especially if they are international folks. Slow down. Take a breath. And have a conversation.

Will these pointers keep your audience from snoozing? Who knows.

But I challenge you to think about the worst speakers and the best speakers you’ve ever heard and think about what made them the worst or the best. The data is there! And much can be learned from those experiences so you too can be placed in the “best” category by your future audience.


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