In a disturbing trend, biomedical researchers can achieve a degree of career success despite an inability to effectively communicate scientific information, say David Rubenson and Paul Salvaterra.
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
– Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters, 1657
It goes without saying that every biomedical researcher wants to give effective presentations. Or does it? Is a presentation effective if it merely wows the audience with dense data, causes minimal objections, but fails to convey true scientific understanding? While such presentations may provide a degree of career success, they rarely inspire systematic or creative thinking. Scientists are wasting significant time listening to presentations that fail to effectively communicate information.
Successful but ineffective presentations have common traits. The speaker provides a data dump, rather than a reasoned scientific argument. There is no mention of potential sources of error. The audience is silent; either dumfounded, polite, or afraid to display ignorance. Questions are deferred to the end; by which time they’re irrelevant or forgotten.
As presentation coaches we frequently speak to researchers about this issue. Privately, there’s dismay among many scientists, but most see the problems in colleagues’ talks, not their own.
Often, the more senior the scientist, the greater the self-deception. Some experienced faculty confuse a relaxed speaking style with effective presentation design. Some can’t accept a critique that questions years of activity. Some are so busy giving presentations that they don’t have time to make effective ones. Frequent speaking invitations, polite audiences, the addition of an “invited talk” to the CV, and guest-speaker dinners convey success, and this behavior filters down to junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students.
Three paradigm shifts are needed to move from successful talks to effective ones:
Design presentations for the audience — not the speaker.
Slogging through endless slides, speaking faster to cope with time constraints, and using microscopic fonts may feel comprehensive to the speaker, but effectiveness is measured by what the audience learns. An effective presentation provides the audience with new abilities to pose questions and see the links with their own areas of expertise.
Move from data dump to scientific narrative.
An audience will understand a well-told story, but they’re helpless in the face of dozens of rapidly-flipped slides. A well designed presentation focuses only on the critical data needed to support the narrative. The overall objectives are to inspire, stimulate collaborations, and produce interesting discussion. Papers, laboratory visits, round tables, or replication experiments are better formats for detailed data scrutiny.
Include analysis of uncertainties and potential sources of error.
Animal models miss important characteristics of human disease, genome sequencing masks sample heterogeneity, and gene expressions vary in time. An effective presentation provides insights into limitations, and suggests strategies for narrowing them. Effective speakers have pride in their work and humility about its limitations.
Some argue this is a dumb-downed approach. We believe it’s been smartened-up. Relevant content is delivered with greater clarity and less jargon, and with respect for the audience’s time.
Developing effective presentations takes time, and speakers need to develop new skills. Most aren’t used to scrutinizing presentations to ensure that every detail meets audience needs and is consistent with audience expertise. Finding the limits of your approach takes careful thought. And telling a story about data can be a real challenge.
The incentives for change are not in place and most academic leaders are rooted in existing practices. There’s a strong focus on quantity over quality, which encourages researchers to prepare more presentations, more slides, and more opaque data. The most “successful” CVs have the longest lists of publications, invited talks, and committee membership.
But individual scientists should realize that there is not a one-for-one tradeoff between quality and quantity. Most colleagues appreciate well-crafted presentations, even if they can’t see problems in their own. They enjoy interacting rather than reserving questions to the end of a talk. An effective speaker will receive many more speaking invitations. They will receive useful input that advances their research. More altruistically, they’ll push science in a positive direction. But there is a tradeoff. The increased preparation time distracts from the quantitative accomplishments that currently define success.
We hope that scientific leaders will recognize the problem and begin to develop the training programs and reward systems that encourage effective scientific presentations. Just think: you’d never have to write a long letter again.
David Rubenson is director of the scientific communications firm nobadslides.com.
Paul Salvaterra is Professor (Emeritus) of Stem Cell Biology at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope.