Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:
“Don’t be so literal minded”
Olson builds on the first part of his book by describing some of the struggles scientists can have when trying to communicate to those outside of academia. Logical, literal and data based arguments (the head perspective) can be up against an unfair fight when emotional or instinctive arguments (the heart or gut perspectives) are used against them. And who else, besides the scientists themselves, pride themselves on using purely logical, literal and data-based arguments? No-one. Not governments or politicians. And not businesses or industries.
In this loud, information overloaded world – if you as a scientist are attempting to engage anyone outside of academia in the work you have done, it’s not always enough that your work is rigorous or has real-world implications. You will have to promote your work a little… or a lot, to be heard.
Introducing Dr. Randy Olson, a marine biologist who left the world of academia to find out what Hollywood could teach him. He became a writer/director and couldn’t help but see how all his new skills could be applied to science communication.
His book, “Don’t be such a scientist: Talking substance in the age of style” is one of my absolute favourites. It’s a curious combination of scientific convincing and acting class insights. This short book is split into five parts, each of which I will cover in a post.
“Don’t Be So Cerebral”
The first thing Randy Olson introduces us to (besides some crazy snippets of his old acting teacher screaming at him!), is the idea of the four organs of mass communication… the head, the heart, the gut, and the lower organs.
Olson says that people tend to have different driving forces, different places that they’re coming from most of the time. The head thinkers are quite logical. They like thinking things through and getting things to make sense. Not surprisingly, most academics fit in here, but very few other people do. Attempting to communicate from this perspective to a global audience reaches the least amount of people.
What a brilliant interview with Dr Rachael Dunlop – I love the idea of starting by learning to communicate effectively and THEN getting into science. Possible a harder way of doing things but she has made it a success.
This article titled “Communication: Spontaneous Scientists” is from the Naturejobs blog, and it welcomes improvisation to science communication. The article discusses techniques to develop the capacity to adapt during a presentation or a conversation, in addition to how we can even be a little bit theatrical or personable when attempting to communicate. I found this whole idea just so exciting!
During my undergraduate science degree, presentations were always a matter of: making your slides look professional, ensuring you defend your research strongly enough and remaining composed and serious in front of your audience. For many of my classmates at the time, standing up and speaking even just in front of the class was a terrifying, or at the very least, uncomfortable experience.
Now in my PhD research I am still being guided towards keeping my presentations serious, with lots of tables and references. Once I was even told to put more words on my slides, as I was speaking more than what was up on the screen.
I do understand that to be taken seriously by other scientists we need to keep within some traditional boundaries, especially for those of us relatively new to the world of research and publishing scientific journal articles. But I still find it frustrating that your research could be exemplary or ground-breaking, but present that research with too colourful slides or too enthusiastic a manner and you would not be taken seriously.
The article above does refer to presenting research to non-scientific audiences. I guess I am just looking forward to a time when I can push some of these presentation boundaries myself, particularly in an academic setting.
This March Alan Alda was interviewed by Will Grant and Rob Lamberts from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Alan is not a scientist, instead he is simply fascinated by talking to, and questioning all kinds of scientists.
During this interview Alan talks about the power of curiosity – the drive to ask and find out “why?”, and yet he insists that curiosity combined with ignorance is even stronger!
During his life Alan has had the opportunity to interview many, many scientists. Some of these he did without a list of questions, but more as an informal curious conversation. He said that doing so brought out much more of the individual scientist’s personality than usually shown. And he spoke of wishing that scientists could get into that conversational tone all by themselves, without an interviewer to help them.
Alan is a vocal advocator for teaching communication skills to science students as a core part of their university education.
Alan also spoke of the need to not dumb down the science being communicated but to instead to focus on clarity and vividness. He defined being vivid as, “to show how it affects our daily lives, what the stories are that led to these discoveries.”
Some scientists may ask what good communicating their research to the public actually does for them. According to Alan, the scientists who undertook training at the Centre for Communicating Science found that working to refine their research message resulted in them becoming much more focussed and clear about what they were doing and why.
This idea that re-working, re-explaining and re-focusing on the purpose and value of your science can actually lead to better science, is amazing. By attempting to communicate your message to a variety of people, journalists, community groups or organisations you are constantly re-afirming and checking how you describe and explain your work. This sort of reflection can be a powerful process for clearer, more vivid science.
This March, I presented a workshop on composting at WOMADelaide 2016. It was a very big day that began early with dropping off all my props and gear, and finished with a rush of adrenaline in the late afternoon as I realised that it was all done. Nothing went wrong – in fact everything had gone right, and it was so much fun!
My workshop host was Deb Tribe, a fantastic presenter from 891 ABC radio. We met face to face only an hour before the workshop was due to start but she put me at ease straight away. Now, I’m used to presenting in front of a PowerPoint presentation. Usually without props, not much movement and no-one else doing any speaking.
This was very different!
The Speakers Corner stage dedicated to this year’s Planet Talks and workshops had so much infrastructure: couches and comfy chairs, trestle tables, side tables and plants all round the edges. When running through the workshop plan with Deb, she suggested we start sitting down and talking, then move over to the trestle table covered in all the composting examples, and finally move back to the couch to finish. And it wasn’t just me talking. This workshop was a conversation between Deb and I. A back and forth, with her asking questions to clarify things I was doing. To top it off we even had 3 volunteers up on stage to help build an example compost heap right then and there. The young boys that jumped up to volunteer all thought the smelly compost ingredients (like manure) were hilarious!
And it went brilliantly. I had a shock the first time I opened my mouth to talk and looking away from Deb realised that the place was full. It felt wonderful being able to read the audience, to watch their faces, bounce off their reactions and really have fun with it. We covered everything we meant to within the hour and even had time for questions – some of them really curious ones. Later on I was told that the workshop had been filmed and projected up onto a big screen up the hill where even more people had been camped out watching us.
I had the absolute best time and can’t wait for my next experience.
Chatting with Deb Tribe
The beautiful layered compost pile made during the workshop.
The best volunteers – loving getting their handy dirty.
I was recommended as someone who might be interested in running a workshop on compost at this years WOMADelaide festival in Adelaide. When asked I said, “Yeah, sure – why not?” after which I then went home and forgot about it. Two months later I started getting emails from WOMADelaide organisers informing me of fun details that I’d overlooked. Things like: this workshop needs to be interactive, can you write a description of it that we can advertise right now (!), it needs to go for 1 whole hour (!!) and you’ll be presenting on a stage in a tent in front of about 200 people (!!!)…. I could feel my panic levels rising.
So what have I done since then? Well I sat down and thought about how I was going to structure this workshop of mine… (Alright that’s not strictly accurate – first I freaked out and called my Dad, the business trainer, presenter and workshop runner extraordinaire). I explained that the topic was compost but that I had a free rein, except that I had to fill a whole hour.
He very quickly got me to calm down and think about it. Yes, the time slot was 1 hour but what about time for questions? That would take at about 15 minutes. So really I only had to fill 45 minutes. And then what about introductions and people settling in? That would take at least another 5 minutes at the beginning. I concurred. So my actual time span to fill was only 40 minutes. He then said, “40 minutes? Oh that’s easy. That’s just talking about 4 topics or 4 different things for 10 minutes each. You can do that.”
It was that simple. He helped me to see that no matter how long the timespan of a workshop, presentation or speech is meant to be, all you need to do is break it down into its smaller (and much more manageable) parts.
From there it was just a matter of choosing what topics I wanted to cover in those 4 x 10 minute slots. Then to decide what I wanted to show people, what props to use and how to make it interactive. And then lots, and lots and lots of practise.
The workshop is this Sunday at 5pm. At least my compost is prepared and ready. Wish me luck!
I watched this TEDtalk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy a little while ago and the idea of “power posing” has definitely stuck with me.
Before meetings I find myself leaning back in my chair, propping my feet up on my desk and linking my hands behind my head. Okay truthfully I only do this when alone in my shared office – but when I do, it feels like an ultimate expression of confidence.
Before my recent Confirmation of Candidature presentation, I hid in the bathroom beforehand and held the ‘Superman pose’ – feet shoulder width apart, hands on hips, chest pushed out and head held high. This research recommends holding a “power pose” like this for two minutes for full effect. And I have to say… I felt really strong and comfortable and in-control.
So if you need a little extra confidence, watch this brilliant TEDTalk and give a “power pose” a go.
This is a presentation of your research proposal to a panel of academic markers (and hopefully some other interested people) to see whether they also think that your idea is realistic, rigorous and interesting. If all your markers pass you, you become an official PhD student – safe for the rest of your 3.5 years of research.
I was feeling both nervous and confident. Nervous because I was presenting to a panel of academic markers who would judge whether my research proposal was good enough to continue. I was also nervous as I wanted this presentation to contribute to my reputation as someone who is not only good at presenting, but also downright enjoys it. Due to this I had invited more people than strictly necessary to make a bit of a fun event about it.
I was confident for a few reasons. Firstly because I was presenting on a topic I knew – my own research. I also made sure that I knew all the requirements of the presentation: the time limit, and length of question time, all the aspects I had to cover (background, aim and objectives, methods and analysis).
I had practised alot. I knew my slides, all the transitions and animations. I had my speech on palm cards even though I didn’t think I would need them. I had practised with the slide clicker and had presented twice to my supervisors to get their opinions and advice. You can practise in front of anyone, friends, family or peers.
I also went to an effort to make the experience a comfortable one. I got to the room first and set up my slideshow, turned on only some lights so the slides could be seen, and put on some soft friendly music. This way, when people starting coming in they didn’t stand around awkwardly. Instead they relaxed and chatted to others there until it was time to begin.
So how did it go? Really really well. I kept to time, didn’t need my palm cards and was marked highly. I get to continue as an official PhD student of UniSA and study the topic of my own choosing: urban agriculture.
I recently watched a brilliant TED Talk by Melissa Marshall called “Talk Nerdy to Me”. She is a communications teacher and is seriously passionate about encouraging scientists to be able to clearly and effectively communicate their work to people outside of scientific circles.
Her top four tips for scientists, engineers and others were:
1. Tell us why your science is relevant to us and our lives. (This is the big picture stuff, or the day-to-day practicality).
2. When describing your science beware of jargon. Jargon is a barrier to outsiders.
3. Use stories and analogies to engage people. (This one is my favourite – stories are such a good way to connect with people).
4. When presenting – don’t use bullet points. (Now this one is tricky… I confess I love bullet points. I thought they made things simpler. I could have a nice few bullet points up on my slide and then talk and expand over the top of them. But Melissa says – just chat to people).
I think I mostly get excited when I hear science communication being discussed by people who have been both in “science and academia” and have also had interesting careers in fields such as, journalism, or teaching, or movie making, or graphic design. They seem like people who love to combine the best of both, and are thereby able to communicate their work, and the work of others in some really cool ways.