Friday, July 14, 2017

Making conference talks compelling and meaningful

Langin, K. 2017. “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations”. The Condor 119(2):321-326.

Communicating complex ideas that rely on the accumulation of ideas, methods, and data is undeniably hard. Some people are naturals at presenting their work, but for many of us (definitely for me) it is a skill that only improves with lots of practice. With conference season in full swing, Kathryn Langin’s paper on this very topic is timely. She provides excellent advice, particularly on how to overcome the common pitfalls of “unclear questions, too much text, unreadable figures, no overarching storyline”. In particular, the appendix provides step-by-step advice on crafting talks and composing slides that should help both first timers and more experienced presenters. 

Langin notes that we treat scientists differently from other audiences: “Scientists are increasingly trained to distill research findings for audiences that lack a strong background in science (Baron 2010). However, we often fail to put those strategies to work when communicating with other scientists, which is unfortunate because many scientists lack deep knowledge of topics outside their immediate field (Pickett et al. 1991),” and “If we cannot effectively communicate our research to colleagues, then how are we going to communicate it to resource managers, policy makers, the media, and the general public?”

This is a worthy goal. But it’s also true that there isn’t perfect equivalence between these different types of talks, and while the techniques that make for public talks are useful across the board, they aren’t enough on their own. I’ve seen the odd talk where popular science video clips, overly-processed slides, or lengthy quotations took the place of substantive research, and there’s little I find more frustrating. So, to make Langin’s advice even more difficult, good science communication requires recognizing what information, and particularly what depth of information, must be communicated for a particular audience. For scientist audiences, speakers benefit from being able to make complicated ideas seem straightforward while not insulting the listener or glossing over the difficult.

Conference audiences are difficult because they tend to be a mix of different people with varied reasons for attending a particular talk. They could be specialists who sought your talk out based on the abstract, generalists in the broader area of study, or just scientists sitting randomly in the room waiting for the next talk. And while Langin says, “Science is both increasingly collaborative and increasingly specialized; an ability to communicate beyond scientists in your immediate field is important. While it may be tempting to tailor your presentation for the expert that you hope (or fear) will be in attendance (e.g., by packing it with methodological minutiae and mountains of data), such a strategy will come at the expense of communicating clearly to everyone else in the room”, I don’t completely agree. I think the people in the room that you want feedback from are the specialists and the experts. So it’s important to find a balance between losing the general audience and wasting this opportunity to communicate with your peers.

I might be in the minority here, but I would rather sit through a few methods slides that I can’t follow in detail, than to sit in a talk in which the methods are so cursory as to be uninformative. Similarly, utterances like “…and then there was some math here, but don't worry I won’t talk about it” seems counter-productive. Ignoring the anti-math sentiment (which reinforces the idea that math is hard and so should be avoided), if the math or stats are important enough to mention, they are important enough to talk about properly. With care, it is generally possible to find a balance in which you provide details for the informed listener while explaining the general logic of the mathematical approach for the rest of the audience. This is true for complicated methods of all types – all listeners should emerge feeling as though they understand what you did, even if they don’t understand it at the same level.

For new speakers this may sound overwhelming. A few points help all talks. Most importantly, every good talk has a compelling narrative that takes the listener on a journey. Even when that journey is complex or has a few twists, speakers can help by signposting important points and findings. Have important information on each slide be both written and verbalized. Get feedback from someone who is not you. And recognize – as a presenter and as a listener—that as with all things, it takes time to become an expert. And, practice makes perfect.


Dylan Craven said...

Nice post, Caroline. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about how one should evaluate one's performance. Number of questions? People in the session? Shout-outs on Twitter?

Caroline Tucker said...

I try to ask honest friends :) I think questions can be a good sign, both immediately post talk and later. I always worry, for example, if there are no questions. What do you think?

Dylan Craven said...

Honest feedback from colleagues is always a good starting point b/c there are a number of factors beyond one's control (# of people in the audience, cool parallel sessions, time of day ( before coffee / after lunch), etc.). Recently I have had the experience of giving talks in conferences that weren't the best fit in terms of topic, which resulted in little feedback. So I guess my other suggestion is that one needs to be strategic when choosing which conference to increase the chances of getting high-quality feedback.

Dr. Fox said...

When I’m watching a talk on a subject on which I’m an expert, I get impatient when the speaker spends too long going over the methods. I know the methods already–show me the results! It’s when I’m not an expert that I want the speaker to walk me through the methods more slowly.