Many who attend my Presentation Magic workshops are often in for a surprise. Some come along hoping to learn more about the mechanics of Keynote or Powerpoint; some to overcome their performance anxiety, and others because they’ve been before and want to know what new goodies I may have to share in an updated workshop.
In truth, I cover a lot of these bases, except the one about the mechanics of Powerpoint, but then again there is no shortage of coaches for getting better at working through all that Powerpoint has to offer.
But as I frequently mention, all that sage Powerpoint advice hasn’t improved the “presentationsphere”, especially in the worlds of science, medicine, engineering and the law.
No, what attendees get is a day of reasoning about why it’s important to change the way we present, to understand to whom we’re presenting, how to best take our complex messages and make them accessible and memorable, and then see first hand how I think through all of the above, with examples I have constructed, or in the case of others’ presentations, deconstructed.
This year, I returned to Macworld/iWorld after a year’s absence to show how my presentations have been affected by the introduction of Keynote 6 on the desktop.
I drew about 50 to the all day workshop, and SRO to the 45 minute quick look I gave a few days later.
It was at the Quick Look session that I momentarily lost my cool. In truth, I tried to pack too much into a brief session, including how to use Keynote with Green Screen or Chroma Key effects, much like you see weather presenters on the TV news.
I wanted to show how understanding where the presentation landscape was moving – to a much more interactive and less linear style – would drive the future use of Keynote, and change how its users thought about presentations in general.
So I was feeling somewhat under the pump, as the saying goes, juggling a variety of Keynote stacks, so I could move swiftly between ideas.
Things did not start well when I played a game of Keynote-based Family Feud, selecting two member so of the audience to guess the top answers to the question,
What are the best new features in Keynote6?
The intention was to use the Keynote 6-based hyperlinked stack of slides to highlight some of its improvements. This is based on an old stack going back to Keynote 3 or so, when hyperlinking was introduced to Keynote. It’s a way to have fun, and show the power of such a feature to “move around” a slide deck with a live audience and bring more engagement to the presentation.
To do it, I use my iPad to mirror the projector data display, and by pressing on its screen, can either produce a “buzz – you’re wrong” sound, or a “bing – you’re correct” sound, with which a numbered panel “cubes” around to reveal the correct answer and how many votes it got.
Unfortunately, the two competitors I chose were not sufficiently familiar with the possible answers, that I had to return them to the audience and turn it into an audience-wide activity. We got to all fiver answers in the end, and I was able to show some of the features. But it was also clear to me that for many in the audience, the switch to Keynote 6 from Keynote 5 was not the Little Shop of Horrors it had been for power users hungry for an update after almost five years.
Indeed, I would hazard a guess that for many, Keynote 6 and its equivalent on the iOS, was their first experience at Apple’s efforts on the presentation front.
This led me to the next part of my brief talk, and that was the justification for why it’s important to understand and use the best tools available to get across complex messages. As in previous workshops, I showed a variety of scenarios where presentations were being employed in unexpected scenarios, such as cruise ship lectures, sermons and of course MOOCS, the online training courses which have traditional universities quaking.
But I also wanted to say that in the world of science, those who endorse the scientific method, with their publications appearing in scholarly journals written in an academic style – devoid of self-reference and emotion – are coming up against opposing camps who do not have to hold to the same level of peer review, scientific endeavour, and who are well-funded.
I had in mind a video to show, one which I have used on various occasions, featuring the television performer, Jenny McCarthy, below, speaking on ABC television about dietary treatments for autism. I wanted to hold her up as a poster child for whom television wishes more of, because she brings “easy on the eye and ear” charm, even though her message(s) are often contradicted by the published data in scholarly journals. In the ABC TV news item, only very brief mention is made of a journal editorial in Pediatrics, the bulk of the time going to McCarthy’s personal experiences, which are contradicted by Pediatrics.
Now, almost everything I say in my workshops has been rehearsed and matched to the slides I show. When I go off-script, I usually render the screen black (the B key on your keyboard or a button on your remote) and have a discussion with the audience.
But in preparing to discuss why presenters need to upskill, and with my arousal levels already high with wanting to get through all material I had prepared (which needed a very tight adherence to allotted times), when it came to my introducing the science vs. anecdotal evidence argument (one characterised by Jenny McCarthy’s interview), I blurted out a phrase which I had thought about in preparations, but had decided was too emotional to actually mention.
What I said was,
“There are Barbarians at the Gate”.
This a two-part reference to firstly, a book and movie of the same name, the story of the leveraged buyout of the R.J. Nabsico company. It stars my favourite actor, James Garner, in a central role as his character orchestrates the aggressive buyout from Nabisco’s shareholders.
The whole movie is available to watch (it being a Made for TV HBO special) on YouTube here:
My use of this film title really is idiosyncratic. My thinking was to use the word “Barbarian” in the way many ancient societies had used it to denote those who did not belong to the mainstream society, whose values were uneducated and callous, and who had a disregard to seeking a society’s higher values and ethics.
The term itself has an incredibly rich history as a reading of Wikipedia will show.
…”at the Gate” is a reference to an imminent takeover. It’s my personal reference to the many threats to the pursuit of evidence as orthodox science best offers, compared to anecdotal evidence, folk lore, and that derived from politics, religious belief and the seeking of power.
It was my emotional recognition that contemporary science is losing the battle for the public mindset in such important endeavours as climate change, vaccination, evolution, and evidence-based health care, such as some US states’ refusal to fluoridate their water supplies. Some would include gun control efforts in health care too.
One of the ways it’s losing that battle is the across-the-board poor presentation skills scientists display as they present to themselves, and seem to have very little idea of how to present complex ideas to the general public.
It’s a lament I continue to mention in my own promotional materials for conference workshops were I say that presenters are expected to describe their research conforming to an evidence-base but usually present to their audiences with a distinctly non-evidence based means, the so-called Death by Powerpoint.
It’s a really serious challenge for scientists who hold themselves to a higher level of evidence, who couch their findings not in certainties but in probabilities, and whose language is replete with unemphatic suggestion. Non-scientists in contrast ignore such niceties and speak publicly far more often in certainties, hyperbole, and misleading statistics. They capitalise on the general public’s poor understanding of science, and its methods.
Others have previously joined the chorus, such as Richard Somerville, a scientist at UCSD, and science communicator, Susan Joy Hassel. Writing in Physics Today, October 2011 (PDF), they declare
It is urgent that climate scientists improve the ways they convey their findings to a poorly informed and often indifferent public.
They set out a number of hypothesis for this declaration as well as ways the indifference of the public can be overcome, especially how science uses language, as seen in this diagram below:
[ASIDE: Thus, I'm certainly not alone in recognising this gap between how science publicly presents itself, and how scientists think when they're off the record. It's why attending conferences is so important for professional development because it's at lunch, or over coffee, or in a low-key networking event that leading scientists will speak more about their hypotheses and opinions - educated ones - and where one can learn so much. As a private practitioner in psychology, I try and abide by the evidence my betters in research provide, but it's usually years behind what I'm discovering from my patients.
So while I allow the research-based evidence to guide my practice, thirty years of working with thousands of patients is not to be sneezed at, especially given the research can't be descriptive of all the permutations and combinations of patient presentations (symptom description) I've seen over the years. As one of my supervisors once remarked, therapists learn the most from their patients, then the supervision of their work with patients, then from workshops and other professional development, and least from the first degrees. Professional knowledge "turns over" so fast one might have to start learning facts again as soon as one's degree course is completed! END OF ASIDE]
There are very few scientists who know now to work the media, understand its games, and respond accurately yet firmly to journalist questions. It’s as if they’re always fearful their Head of Department is watching or the Fellows committee of their professional society is tut-tutting over some effort to explain complex phenomena in lay terms.
So we have few science media stars, or conversely, the few that exist are trotted out like the Usual Suspects such that in time their important message is lost through sheer familiarity.
What this means is that science and its practitioners must deepen the reservoir of talent who can reach out to the public with understandable and actionable message delivery. They must enrich themselves with stories the public can understand, rather than the story telling implicit in writing research-based publication: Introduction, Subjects, Method, Results, Discussion, References.
They must help the public understand in meaningful, visually elegant ways statistical concepts, probability theory, uncertainty, and confidence limits. So rather than being persuaded that 95% is a high level of confidence in one’s hypotheses, only to have an opponent say “but you’re not 100% sure, are you?”, scientists should offer up an understandable metaphor to throw back at their conservative interviewers:
“If you knew an area you wished to cross was 95% covered with land mines, leaving a random 5% free, would you take the risk of crossing; or, if you wished to swim across a river but knew that of the 100 people who tried before you only 5 got across with the rest being taken by crocodiles would you take the risk? Well, that’s how certain we are of…”
All this means the modern skill set of scientists, at a time when conservative governments such as we have here in Australia are diluting the role of science in society, must encompass more than lab-based endeavours. It means starting with giving better presentations to themselves and the community, and seeing presentation skills as an implicit component of being a professional scientist.
Those in the sciences who dismiss these endeavours as not core to scientific endeavours might sooner or later find themselves without funds to carry out applied research, much less basic research.
To invoke another movie, All the President’s Men, scientists would do well to heed the words of Deep Throat to Bob Woodward: “Follow the money” to see how science is currently confronting barbarians who wish nothing more than to dismiss science’s values, methods and endeavours as an intrusion into their “entitlements” to carry on, business as usual.