Communicating Science: From the “Elevator Pitch” to Research Presentations

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend two events on presenting research to broader publics given by Tim Miller of Spoken Science, held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on February 26, 2013. The advice was too useful not to share.

First came “The Elevator Pitch: Selling Your Story in Two Minutes or Less.” According to Miller, you are trying to sell someone on the desire for something. In the case of a researcher, that’s your project, ideas and papers. You need to give your audience (whether one or many) a desire to seek more information about you. And, here are Miller’s tips for doing just that:

Tip #1: This is hard. Your are not going to be good at the elevator speech right away.

Tip #2: Why trumps what. The what is easy but the “why” creates emotional investment. “Why is what we care about,” according to Miller.

Tip #3: Think big. Lead with impact and one sentence starting with “I am _____ and I study ______.”  Give specific examples and talk about yourself in relation to what you study. Lead with “I’m a grad student” if you are talking with someone in academia who can contextualize that information. Use “I” to talk about your research, even in case of joint projects.

Tip #4: Find your (active) verb. What is happening? For example, “seek” or “cure.” You need to have a really good first 10 to 15 seconds in order to get someone to listen to the rest of your pitch.

Tip #5: Seek pull. you want them to ask you for more. engage listener and guide the conversation, ask them questions. It should be a conversation.

Tip #6: Ask questions. open-ended ones.

Tip #7: Stop talking. Learn level of knowledge and familiarity with the topic the person you are speaking with brings to the conversation and tailor your pitch to that.

Tip #8: Manage your (own) expectations. You goal should be that you want to continue conversation and build connections. Not, for example, land a job. No one gets a job in two minutes but you can lose out on a potential one in two minutes.

Tip #9: Practice. Talk to people who know nothing about your work and don’t care, if you can convince them, you’ll do better.

Tip #10. See #1.

Video from the lecture is available from University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center here. The event was sponsored by the School of Medicine and Public Health.

The second event, “Mastering Public Presentations,” was part of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) Weston Roundtable Series. The Weston talks are co-sponsored with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Office of Sustainability. Video of the talk is archived by the College of Engineering here (“SAGE Weston Lecture Series – 02/26/2013 – Miller”).

Miller opened the talk with “Communication is the most important skill we never get in the sciences.” As a communications scholar, naturally I agree. Overall, Miller made an convincing case for the need to improve the public presentation of scientific findings.

Narrative Structure
All presentations should follow a narrative structure, as all good stories across history have, according to Miller. A hero overcomes obstacles to reach a goal. Your audience must know the goal of your research from the start and answering that question should require emotional investment into the goal.

Audience
Miller than moved on to audience. Most importantly, know your audience. Who your audience is matters in how you talk about your work. How you present your work to your Ph.D. advisor is going to be different from how you talk about it with your mom.

Answer the “so what?” question. Why should your audience care? All good presentations will follow a hour glass structure, starting general (big picture implications of your research), then moving on to the specifics and ending back at the broader importance.

Miller’s key tips here:
1. Breathe.
2. Emphasize.
3. Inflect.
4. Tell a story.
5. Know your audience.
6. Structure your talk broad → narrow → broad.

Rules:
1. Stand still.
2. Face the audience.
3. Make eye contact.
4. Speak slowly.
5. Practice beforehand. Practice for people you trust, who don’t directly work with you on the project.
6. Lastly, and most importantly, stick to the plan (even if you feel it’s not going well…).

Mastering Powerpoint
Miller also had good advice for improving the dreaded powerpoint. As he pointed out, the “tools we use to make things affect the things we make” with the causation that tools (can be) designed to hide data, reminding the audience that you can’t just take what the software program gives you. You have to question the effect for design and user-friendliness.

“Information is cheap. Emotion is expensive.”
Some specific tips included:

  • Use pictures.
  • Build emotional investment.
  • Read Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.
  • Put titles inside a graph to make data space as big as possible.
  • Take the time to make graphics and don’t use a legend; put the labels directly on the graphic.
  • Make math look like math, not code.
  • Put light text on a dark background that way you can move into the physical space (walk in front of the screen without casting a shadow.)
  • Use the presenter display function, that way you know what’s coming next.
  • Have the screen over your left shoulder (if you can).
  • No laser pointers; use arrows in the slide.
  • Put outline at the top of the slide. you want to provide a map throughout.
  • Make things big and show one at a time.
  • On answering questions, repeat the question to make sure everyone in the hall hears the question. Most importantly, don’t guess if you don’t know the answer. Ask the questioner, “Does that answer your question?” and tell audience member you can get back to them with more information, if you need to.

Just like in the morning session, Miller impresses on us to “practice, practice, practice, with people who don’t know anything about your work and don’t care.” He reminds the audience to use traditional narrative structure and make an emotional appeal. For example, Al Gore was giving his talk on climate change long before “An Inconvenient Truth” What the producers of the movie were able to do is make it follow a traditional narrative structure.

Miller ended with the apt caution “The slides are not the talk. the talk is the talk.” So, concentrate in the fundamentals and tell a story.

The major take-away? To paraphrase Miller, the cost of information is at an all-time low, while the cost of building emotion and enthusiasm in those you tell about your research has increased. As scholars and researchers we need more than every to give our audiences a reason to care about what we do and the responsibility for connecting the dots in terms of social and policy impacts of our work is on us. It’s time to take up that challenge.

You can follow Spoken Science on Twitter @spokenscience.

 

 

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