Different talks for different people
The key message of this class is the concerns and interests of your audience come first. Regardless of the kind of outreach you are doing, if you don’t frame that outreach in a way that your specific audience will find engaging, you are unlikely to be successful.
So, what does this audience-first approach mean for giving public talks? It means your public talk can’t be a version of your standard academic talk (which will only be of interest to your scientific peers). Instead, your public talk should center on what your audience is likely to find engaging.
Presentation rule 1: Grab their attention right away!
A very common mistake made by presenters, whether they are talking to their scientific peers or to the public, is assuming that their audience will automatically pay attention to their talk. This is a terrible assumption to make. Your audience always has the option of tuning out, checking e-mail on their smartphone, going to sleep, or just walking out the door. And if you don’t give your audience an immediate reason to pay attention at the beginning of your talk, it is almost certain that many of them will check out.
What will capture your audience’s attention? That is entirely dependent on the concerns and interests of your audience. After all, an audience of your scientific peers in your department will be engaged by very different material than an audience of families at your local science museum.
Presentation rule 2: Think carefully about what your audience is likely to already know
Another extremely common mistake is that presenters misjudge the baseline knowledge of their audience. We have all had the unfortunate experience of being trapped in incomprehensible talks, too difficult to comprehend, where half the words were jargon that we were “supposed” to understand. On the other side, we all also have had the experience of being in talks which were much too basic because the presenter underestimated the knowledge of the audience.
What’s the right knowledge level for a talk? This is entirely dependent on the audience you have for your presentation. At one extreme, if you are giving a presentation for your dissertation committee, you can generally expect your audience to already possess a large amount of technical knowledge about your subject. At another kind of extreme, if you are giving a marine biology presentation to an audience of commercial fisherman, you can expect your audience to have deep practical knowledge about the general topic. As a last example, if giving a talk about your topic to an audience of museum goers at your local science museum, you can make very few assumptions about how much knowledge the audience already has.
Presentation rule 3: Make only one main point
It is essential to have only one main point for your public talk. Why? Even for talks that are really interesting, it can often be hard to pay attention for the entire duration of the talk. As a presenter, you can be sure that – even if you are doing everything right – a significant fraction of your audience will be tuned out at any given moment. Since your audience is constantly phasing in and out of your talk, it is critical to repeatedly come back to a single main point that your audience can use to re-engage with you.
TED and Ignite speakers, are excellent at making sure their talk has a single point with a coherent flow. These speakers have no secret formula to delivering such great talks, just the aim of a single message and some practice. You’ll have an opportunity to see some great talks as you go through the material.
Presentation rule 4: Keep your slides simple
This is the easiest rule to remember and the hardest rule to follow. When designing presentations break down each slide into ideas/concepts and use only 1 idea per slide. You may end up with 3 times as many slides in the end, but you’ll go through them faster. If you have an image, don’t put the image on the same slide as a bunch of text. Minimize the text and blow up the picture.
The more information there is on a slide, the less your audience will remember and the less likely your audience is paying attention to what you have to say. Below is an example of two slides that relay the same message: fun things to do in Albuquerque.
The slide on the left is an example of something you’d see very commonly in a scientific presentation. The slide on the right relays the same message but does it succinctly and shows a much larger image. The slide on the right allows the presenter to explain how fun Albuquerque is to visit, rather than force the audience to read it.
You may think that this is more difficult with scientific information. But, the key is to know the information well, which comes with expertise (which you have) and confidence (which comes from practice). When showing data, for instance, simply show a graph of your data and nothing else. After all, no one knows your data like you do, and your audience should get that information directly from you rather than reading it from a bright wall. We’ll have some examples of great scientific slides later on in these instructions.
Clear and simple slides aren’t just easier to follow, they can have real life effects! Here’s an example of how clear communication could have saved lives.
In January of 2003, the space shuttle Columbia took off and a little over a minute into the flight a piece of insulation fell off and hit the wing of the shuttle. Two weeks later Columbia returned from space only to burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry. Everyone on board was killed.
It turns out that Boeing engineers were aware of the liftoff malfunction and were hard at work trying to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, they presented this information to NASA management in an incredibly unclear manner. Take a look at the following terrible slide from their presentation: can you understand the message being presented?
Had they simply presented their message in a clearer manner, a much better decision could have been made. And sadly this level of miscommunication has happened at NASA before. Edward Tufte has fully documented the catastrophic breakdowns in communication that lead to the destruction of Columbia (read his analysis here).
Presentation rule 5: Rehearse
You think Steve Jobs woke up one morning and said, “I think I’ll promote the iPhone today.” Heck no! He picked a date far in advance, prepared a killer presentation, and then rehearsed constantly until show time.
Rehearsal can be many things. In fact, as you put together slides for any talk, you are most likely rehearsing your presentation throughout. At some point though, you should do a “dress” rehearsal in front of or with someone else. This “dress” rehearsal will give you a new perspective on how your message is being perceived. It is essential to get an outside perspective.