A powerful narrative

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Scientists should find engaging ways to present information to their target audience, says Yoshimi Rii.

Last summer, I took part in an unfortunate episode on the first day of a teacher workshop. Along with three other scientists, I gave talks to schoolteachers on the use of real-time scientific data in the classroom. Because we didn't want to talk down to our audience, we kept to the standard scientific format for our presentations, with minor adjustments to specific jargon. As the day went on, however, it became apparent that we had missed the mark.

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“Why do scientists' presentations all look the same?” said a teacher to me during the break. “It's like you guys all get the same template.” Her words struck me like a 10-tonne anvil. She was right. Where was the creativity?

Most of us at one time will have attended a talk about what should have been an engaging topic, only to find ourselves being lulled to sleep. Most likely, the speaker was using PowerPoint or Keynote. There are better approaches.

Making the disconnection

The user-friendly nature of software such as PowerPoint allows anyone to make a presentation without much thought. Type in a few talking points, throw in some pictures and voilà! Here's my cookie-cutter talk. Never mind that there's too much information on some slides — they're bulleted, so they must be easy to understand! The plot makes five or six points, but hey, it's colourful and impressive, so that's OK, right? And let's not worry about those bumpy transitions, never mind the lack of a coherent narrative.

Reliance on bullet points and complicated graphs has caused many to become lax at applying important performance skills. Disconnected from the public, scientists often forget to explain what to them is everyday lingo. Last September, at a press conference at the University of Hawaii in Manoa for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I Report, scientists showed modelled rises in sea level from now until 2100. I watched the eyes of the reporters roll backwards in their sockets.

Because slides are easy to recycle from one presentation to another, researchers often give a talk on autopilot using slides that they've shown hundreds of times before. If the presenter is disengaged, how can they expect the audience to listen?

Breaking bad

On the second day of the teacher workshop, we decided to scrap our prepared talks and start afresh. I placed a quote from Moby Dick in the title box and was rewarded with a smile from an English teacher in the audience. I then tossed a microbe-shaped stuffed toy to a teacher in the front row to open up a discussion about bacteria and phytoplankton. We asked them how they wanted to illustrate these concepts to their students. For the remainder of the workshop, the talks became less structured, more interactive and better appreciated. I vowed never to rely on cookie-cutter presentations again.

Last October, I found myself at a foundation symposium with an audience of retired doctors, professors and other distinguished society members who had made donations in support of research at the university. I sat next to one donor, a 90-year-old veteran who was part of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the Second World War. As part of the symposium, senior scientists and I were invited to give talks on exciting research being conducted at our university. I was nervous.

But I found myself breathing a sigh of relief. In the first talk, a scientist studying the history of calendars opened up a star-studded umbrella. Another scientist presented a beautiful slide show of mushroom pictures and riveted the audience with accounts of his hunts in unusual places. At the end of the symposium, the veteran next to me grabbed my hands and said, “I feel great knowing that my money has made all of this possible. Thank you.” We relayed our message that day, and without the aid of a single graph.

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  1. Yoshimi Rii is a graduate student in phytoplankton ecology at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.

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