Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Christmas in Antarctica: Presenting science to the general public

I recently had a very interesting, but sobering experience - giving a TedX talk in Mountain View, at a conference sponsored by Intuit (yes, the TurboTax people; they also make accounting software).   The audience was mostly Intuit employees, from diverse backgrounds - sofware engineers, accountants,  HR people, PR people, etc.  There were 15 speakers  (+4 videos of previously presented TedX talks) - me, a geologist, and 13 non-scientists.   Most were excellent, and it was interesting to watch the diverse presentation styles.  I was upstaged by the following speaker - a 10 year old.  She was the world champion in Brazilian ju-jitsu, and spoke eloquently about being a warrior.  Other presenters included a magician, an ex-CNN anchor speaking on money management, a pianist, and a capoeira group.

In discussing my talk, the organizers emphasized a couple of things: tell a good story, and engage with the audience.   These are two basics, but are way too rarely found in scientific presentations.  Our material is important and interesting to us, so we automatically assume that the audience will feel the same way.  This is not true!   I'm as guilty as any other scientist here, and really appreciated being reminded of these basics, both by the organizers beforehand, and while listening to the other speakers.     

Over the past few years, my kids have been studying 5-paragraph essays.  I learned this too: an introduction with hypothesis, 3 arguments (1 paragraph each) and a concluding paragraph.   My kids learned it a bit differently.  The first paragraph must start with a 'grabber:' a sentence to grab the readers attention.    Likewise, the organizers encouraged me to start with a grabber, to engage the audience, by asking about going someplace cold for the holidays.  This led naturally to me to being in Antarctica for the winter holidays, and thence into ARIANNA and neutrino astronomy.   This may be the back door into the science, but times have changed, and it seemed to work well. 

As scientists, we need to remember these lessons when we talk to non-scientists.  Why should the audience care?  Are we speaking to them or at them?  Do we have an engaging presentation, with a good, clear  story line?  Is it at a level that they can follow?

These principles also apply to scientific presentations.  How often have we sat through a seminar without any idea why the material is important to anybody?   Or one filled with incomprehensible jargon or page-long equations relating variables that are not clearly defined?   These are clear ways to avoid having to deal with job offers, etc.  We need to do better. 

So, ... thanks to Intuit, and Kara de Frias and Kimchi Tyler Chen (the lead organizers) for arranging a very interesting and educational day

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