Helping Research Cross The Last Mile

Research isn’t finished until it is communicated. Here’s how to ace a science presentation.

AsianScientist (Sep. 28, 2018) – Research, like life, sometimes has a funny way of coming a full circle. An idea sparks discussion, which leads to experimentation and findings, which in turn generates more discussion. The latter—publicizing and communicating one’s results—is an important part of the research process. Yet, many scientists overlook it, believing instead that research at the bench is their biggest role.

But effective and engaging communication can help build your reputation in the field, in addition to furthering scientific discourse. This month, Asian Scientist speaks to leading researchers, seeking their advice on how to be an impactful science communicator.

  1. Think of yourself as a storyteller
  2. “A good presentation, in general, should be about storytelling,” says biostatician Ho Weang Kee from the University of Nottingham Malaysia. “You know what story you want to tell, and you tell it in a way that people can understand.

    It’s also about having a good structure and a story arc, says senior scientist Justin Song from the Institute of High Performance Computing in Singapore.

    “This doesn’t mean you have to have an outline upfront. It’s about having a logical flow of how you present an idea, how you progress from one thing to another,” he says. “I think in any setting, most people are very happy to hear a good story, especially when it’s something they can relate to.”

  3. Know your audience
  4. The next thing to keep in mind as you prepare for a presentation is: who are you speaking to?

    “You must know and understand your audience,” says structural virologist Lok Shee-Mei from Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School. “How much do they know? That’s very important.”

    Lok uses X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy to study the structure and function of viruses. When her lab members attend cryo-EM technical meetings, Lok advises them to “explain in detail” the biological systems they use at the start of the presentation because “there are people who may not know much about our group’s work,” she says.

    So it’s about being aware of your audience. For example, when engaging with the public, be sure to use layman’s terms, says Lok. “When we talk to scientists, we say ‘neutralize the dengue virus.’ But to the public, we say ‘kill the dengue virus.’”

  5. Don’t be lazy in lab meetings
  6. Lab meetings can often be disguised as more informal affairs, especially if you come from a lab with few members. But you can, and should, still make use of these opportunities to polish up your presentation skills.

    A common mistake many make is to think that the PI is their sole audience, rather that the entire lab.

    “Sometimes the PI may catch up with them the day before the lab meeting, so they think they don’t have to do anything and go right to the depths of the discussion,” says Lok. “They don’t tell the other lab members the general concept of why they are doing this experiment, which is very bad.”

    “But a lab meeting is about having everybody involved and sometimes other lab members may give a different idea or opinion that the PI didn’t think of,” says Lok.

    So it’s important to set the scene at the onset of your presentation.

    “It’s always helpful to state: what is my ultimate goal, what is my specific objective, what have I done this past month, what is the conclusion so far, and what’s next,” says Ho. “That helps improve the efficiency of the team meeting.”

  7. Don’t underestimate the power of being prepared
  8. The phrase “practise makes perfect” might be a cliché, but before any presentation, it’s important to rehearse what you are going to say—whether it’s before some trusted colleagues, in front of the mirror, or alone in the shower.

    Prepare in a way that you’re most at ease with. For Lok, that means practising alone at her desk. Song, on the other hand, prefers to do it in front of others, and to include people outside his field.

    “I get people who will tell me to re-do my presentation” and are harsh critics, he says. “There were some painful practice talks…but that’s how I learnt some lessons and some skills.”

    However you prepare, the general advice all our interviewees agreed on was: don’t memorize a script.

    “In the first year of my PhD, I used to know my presentations word for word. But later I realized that was actually pulling me down because I would memorize but get so nervous and forget what to say,” recalls Ho. “My strategy from then on was to have a story and to know the flow of my story.”

    If you memorize anything, it should be the flow, agrees Song.

    “At the end of the day, it’s not the ‘umms’ and the ‘ahhs’ and the stutters that prevent people from understanding you, it’s the logic,” he says.

  9. Don’t disappoint on the delivery
  10. What you say is important, but how you say it is too.

    “Treat a presentation like a job talk,” advises Song. “Everyone listening to you is judging you in a certain way. Say, if you’re at a conference and you don’t explain things well, people don’t want to talk to you after that. But if you do, people will come up to you with questions and maybe even want to collaborate with you. Treat these opportunities as advertisements for yourself.”

    To that end, use visual aids to your benefit, he says.

    “Many people put things on their slides and never talk about it,” he says. “But there’s only so much somebody can concentrate on—a person in the audience is staring at you and the slide, trying to read bits on the slide and trying to understand what you’re saying.”

    “If you want to capture the audience’s attention, you really need to declutter,” Song says.

    Lok adds that it’s also important to pay attention to the little things during your presentation, such as maintaining eye contact and knowing where your microphone is placed so your voice doesn’t cut out at times.

  11. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”
  12. Lying between the end of every talk and a huge sigh of relief is the oft-dreaded Q&A segment. It’s intimidating as it can be hard to predict what might be thrown your way, but the important thing is “to keep calm and listen to the question,” says Lok.

    “A lot of people don’t listen to the question…and they throw one big chunk of something and expect the audience to find their answer in that chunk.”

    But it’s crucial to “try to understand the question and to answer that question,” she says. Don’t be afraid to take some time to consider what is being asked, instead of feeling pressured to answer immediately. Also, it’s equally important to recognize when you don’t have an answer and to admit it.

    “Sometimes when you say ‘I don’t know’ it feels like you’re saying you don’t know much about your work,” says Ho. “But in research, it’s not possible to know everything.”

    Instead of trying to fudge your way through, Ho says it’s better to admit ignorance and take the conversation offline.

    People tend to appreciate that honesty, observes Song. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that “the wonderful thing about giving a presentation is that it’s quite free form,” he says.

    “Some people may think there’s a particular structure for the way you present and answer something, but there isn’t. So use that freedom as much as you can.”

    This article is from a monthly column called Beyond The Bench. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pixabay.
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sandy holds a BSc in life sciences, and masters degrees in both forensic science and journalism.

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