Science TED Talks

6 speaking tips for scientists and engineers

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Melissa Marshall has a message for scientists and engineers: Contrary to popular belief, the general public is interested in your work and does want to hear the details of your research. The trick is that you must communicate your ideas clearly, because they will start snoring in their seats if you assault them with a slew of jargon and details they’re not prepared to understand.

See, Marshall is a communications teacher. And as she explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012 University, she was asked several years ago to teach a communications class for engineering students. The experience highlighted for her that the ability to speak clearly does not come part and parcel with the ability to do great technical work.

“Our scientists and engineers are the ones tackling our grandest challenges from energy, to environment, to healthcare, among others. But if we don’t know about it and understand it, then the work isn’t done,” says Marshall in her talk. “So scientists and engineers, please talk nerdy to us. … Make sure that we can see your science is sexy and that your engineering is engaging.”

To hear Marshall’s mathematical formula for solving this problem, watch her wonderful 4-minute talk. Below, Marshall gives more detail on six specific strategies that scientists and engineers can use while preparing to share their work outside their field.

Here’s what Marshall had to say:

1.     Be aware of your audience.

To successfully communicate, a scientist or engineer must analyze their audience.  It is critical that you understand the background, knowledge base, interests and biases of your audience so that you can adapt your content to them.  Often, I will hear that the science needs to be “dumbed down.” I think this is a flawed perspective that doesn’t place enough emphasis on the responsibility of the speaker to communicate clearly.  As speakers, we have to respect our audience — we need them on our side!  You can clearly communicate your science without compromising the ideas.

2.     Show the relevance.

It is important to establish early on why your work is relevant to your audience.  If you don’t tell them why it matters to them, it is much harder to maintain their attention.  Look for opportunities where you can create connections from your work to the everyday lives and experiences of your audience.

When crafting the language of your talk, an excellent technique is to anticipate the questions your audience will ask and then use those questions to frame the content you will cover.  This creates an instant connection between you and the audience because the audience perceives you as being invested in their understanding of the talk. When you see points where the audience may scratch their head, verbally acknowledge this with a, “So you might be wondering at this point … .” This makes the audience feel as though you are relating to their needs.

3.     Paint a picture.

Examples, stories and analogies really help an audience to engage with your scientific content. The employment of these strategies can often be the difference between a good presentation and a great one. Examples and stories help technical information to “come alive” for an audience.

Meanwhile, analogies are one of the most powerful speech strategies available to a presenter of science as they anchor a complex technical idea to a concept that the audience already understands. When you use an analogy, you are using the audience’s prior knowledge to explain your concept. This is a much deeper form of learning. The retention of concepts explained with analogies is greater because the listener’s brain already has a place to file that information instead of having to create an entirely new file from scratch. Check out Brian Cox’s TEDTalk on the Large Hadron Collider to see some great analogies in action!

4.     Make numbers meaningful.

There are many occasions in scientific presentations where the speaker must discuss elements of size and amount.  Sometimes an audience might not fully appreciate the significance of a raw number or measurement. Your information can really stand out if you provide context. By making a number relevant to what they already know, you are making that information much more meaningful and, most importantly, memorable.  One great example of this was Robert Ballard’s TEDTalk introduction when he said that the funding received by NASA was enough to fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration for 1600 years.  What a powerful way to communicate that number!

5.     Banish bullet points.

When a speaker uses text-heavy, bulleted slides, it can lead to cognitive overload — otherwise known as Death by PowerPoint. Whether words are spoken or written, they are processed in the same part of the brain. Since a talk itself is composed of words, when a presenter has slides that are primarily text, the audience will often only read the slides or only listen to the presenter. Additionally, bullets do not show connections or relationships between the content being presented. As a result, it is difficult for the audience to determine the most important information on the slide. This issue is magnified in a scientific presentation that contains challenging content.

As a presenter, consider if traditional slide design is in fact the best method. We can do so much better than bullets! One alternative strategy I recommend is called Assertion-Evidence slide design. Research has shown that it is more understandable, memorable and persuasive. Assertion-Evidence slide design is characterized by a concise, complete sentence headline (no longer than 2 lines) that states the main assertion (i.e. what you want the audience to know). The body of the slide then consists of visual evidence for that assertion (charts, graphs, images, equations, etc.).

Some other excellent strategies and resources for presentation and slide design are available from my Penn State collaborator Michael Alley, as well as from Nancy Duarte, Cliff Atkinson and Garr Reynolds.  These resources should be on the bookshelf of every presenter of science.

6.     Deliver dynamically.

Audiences have high expectations when it comes to delivery!  While content is always the most important factor in any scientific presentation, the impact of delivery style is not to be underestimated. Think back to some of the best presentations that you have seen. No doubt that in addition to compelling content, the presentation had other outstanding qualities.  Just think about the amazing delivery of Jill Bolte Taylor’s iconic TEDTalk.

The biggest must: Energy and enthusiasm for what you are presenting. Audiences connect with passionate speakers, so allow that to come through in your delivery.  Hans Rosling is a great example of a presenter with enthusiasm for the data being presented.

Although it is crucial that your delivery is natural for you, that doesn’t mean that you are stuck with whatever currently happens when you step on a stage. It takes practice to develop a natural and effective style. Many presenters feel that because they are so nervous that they can never be “one of those” presenters who seems comfortable in front of an audience. They resign themselves to just surviving their presentations instead of trying to thrive within them. With practice, most presenters, regardless of nervousness, can dramatically improve their delivery style.  Every effective presenter has worked very hard to become that way — encouraging news, because this means that if you are willing to put in the effort, you too can significantly improve. Amy Cuddy’s recent TEDTalk on “power posing” provides some great advice on how to feel more confident before delivering a talk!