(Please note: Give this blog entry some time to load as it’s replete with large but necessary picture files, and a movie – Les)
This week in Copenhagen various heads of states, their advisers, and a slew of climate science researchers will be meeting at COP15 for discussions and demonstrations which some have suggested is the best and one of the final opportunities to do something about forestalling man-made changes to Earth’s atmosphere which may end up having profound consequences future generations.
I’ll keep my views on climate change to myself for the sake of the exercise, but as one with a background in science and who likes to think he applies a science to presenting skills – the doing and teaching – I have a few thoughts to share on presenting as a scientist, to scientists, or to lay audiences.
One of the things that informs me of how to do presentations especially presentations to audiences unfamiliar with my material, is the scientific method. By this I mean measurable differences between the effects my presentations have on my audiences, in contrast to the effects other presentations have on their audiences.
So it’s reasonable to say that I’m very aware of the power of science to both inform and confuse, especially when scientific experts appear to use the same factual material yet come to differing conclusions.
How confusing it must be to the general public not versed in science to hear how the same data can be interpreted almost in polar opposite form. Or how scientists are conspiring to manipulate data for their own (unspecified) nefarious ends. The concept of the Mad Scientist with megalomaniac desires to rule the world remains a popular science fiction depiction in the general public’s collective mind.
I want to assert too that Al Gore’s presentation, now movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, which I first saw in part-form as a TED short presentation, ironically may turn out to be more unhelpful to climate change advocates rather than sceptics.
Now this might sound a little odd coming from someone who so advocates the use of Apple’s Keynote to perform memorable presentations, as Gore did and continues to do, although he is conspicuous by his absence in Copenhagen this week.
But stay with me as I explore why I think my assertion holds water, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s to do with how scientists see themselves in their own communities and how they walk a fine line between spending time sharing their data within those communities, and moving outwards to communities whose knowledge of their expert material is far, far less.
How Scientists Teach
You see, while many scientists are also teaching academics as part of their full-time jobs, very few will have received or taken upon themselves, formal training in adult learning. While more and more universities are evaluating student perceptions of their teaching experiences, it still remains important for academics to publish or perish, and for their research to be endowed with grants partially based on the quality of their research and where it is published, the more prestigious the better. It’s almost as if their teaching of students is very much a secondary aspect of their tenure. That’s not to say great scientists can’t also be great teachers, but in my experiences there isn’t much overlap here.
So to begin with scientists who are also academics – that is, there is a teaching component to their tenure – have the need to perform in presentation-like ways in a number of different situations.
The Different Styles of Scientific Presenting
1. Firstly, of course, there is a series of semester long, one hour lectures which nowadays is so often based on PowerPoint slides and minimal student interactivity. This promotes of course a very linear demonstration of information according to a set timetable of events in class and only the most astute lecturer is able to leave their slides and enter into an open discourse with their students in class. I’ve heard it said by many academics that they wish they could do it differently, without the slides, but the paying students demand they be shown slides which they can download and later review at their leisure. My belief is that many academics give in to their students in a folie a dieux of shared laziness and desire for better evaluations.
There is much more to say about academic teaching methods, but this blog entry is not the place right now.
2. The second style of presentation used by scientists I want to refer to is their convention or conference presentation, which like publishing, is expected of them by their faculties. The usual format of conferences is for a group, perhaps from the same university or research institute, to come together in an organised symposium which they present to the conference organisers as something conference goers would pay to see and hear, and raise the status of the conference. There is usually a theme to the symposium, with each speaker building on and extending the work of the other speakers. These presentations usually are somewhat shorter, about 20 minutes, with question time of just a few minutes after each speaker and a more extended period moderated usually by a conference appointed facilitator to lead audience discussion.
My experience is that it’s often junior or early career academics who perform these 20 minute presentations. There is often no room during the presentation of discussion because after all 20 minutes goes very quickly and there is often much material to get through in this relatively short time. I have worked with my fair share of postgraduate students presenting at a conference for the first time and attempting to sum up years of a Masters’ degree or three years of a PhD in one very brief presentation. The temptation to fill up every slide with reams of words and almost impenetrable tables and charts in order to get as much information “out there” is palpable and almost overwhelming.
Combine that with speaking to one’s peers and in some cases one’s betters (in terms of far more experienced academics) can prove to be a rather nerve wracking experience. Not surprising, my suggestion to move away from the lecturn and stand before the audience is met with great trepidation, and word-filled slides become a great comfort and hiding place for neophyte presenters. They allow the slides to be the presentation, while they stand offstage playing second fiddle, hands trembling on the mouse ready advance to the next impenetrable chart, graph or bullet-filled slide.
In another blog entry in the planning, I’ll discuss how I assist novice presenters with this daunting task.
3. The other conference presentation is usually the invited address by a leading academic in his or her field, and is usually 45 minutes in duration, with an allowance of 15 minutes for questions. Again, they are designed to flow uninterrupted by the audience, and so the keynote speaker, usually an expert in the field, has two dual tasks: the conference organisers expect them to provide a state-of-the-art summary of their research in order to justify their selection as a keynote speaker; and secondly, they need to keep their audiences engage non-stop for 45 minutes, now made even more difficult in an age of iPhones, Twitter, and other technogically-based distractions.
Indeed there is perhaps a third and hidden task that meets the requirements of being a good keynote speaker. And that is that many in the audience may have little knowledge of the expert’s field, and so the presenter must walk a fine line between providing a depth and breadth of material to what is likely to be a very mixed audience with respect to prior knowledge of the subject.
Think now about the keynote speaker who spoke for an hour and kept you entranced for all that time, not wishing to even briefly check your e-mail or Twitter account, and what it is they did in order to accomplish this rarest of achievements, public speaking wise.
4.Presenting at conferences can also entail leading workshops of three hours to one day in length and this requires quite a different approach than the first three presentation style I’ve mentioned, since people sign up with an expectation to learn certain things as espoused in the conference manual as workshop objectives. Indeed, at most scientific conferences you can’t get your workshop selected until you offer an hour by hour summary of what will occur including any learning objectives and how they will be achieved (if not measured).
The importance of delivering persuasive messages in Copenhagen
Over the weekend, while preparing my Presentation Magic workbook for MacWorld 2010, I’ve been giving some thought to the presentations I expect would be given in Copenhagen this week. If there was ever a time and situation for our presenters lecture to really count, to make a real difference, and to be memorable and persuasive, Copenhagen is it.
So I decided to research some of the presentations of the leading scientists and academics in the field of climate research. There is plenty of it about, and it won’t take long for the serious researcher, using Google alone, to locate “the names” who are outstanding in this field, simply on the basis that their names keep cropping up in various conferences on climate change. No doubt they will make their appearances at Copenhagen as well this week.
What I wanted to do is look through their presentations and where possible watch them perform them too, not just their slides, so as to see the state of the art of climate science presenting.
Scientists dirty little secrets when it comes to presenting
Let me preface my findings by saying that the conferences and workshops I mainly to go to are designed for psychologists and neuroscientists to keep up to date with current practices and research. It is from these but I have learnt what constitutes the current practices of scientific presenting using slides as constructed in PowerPoint and a much lesser extent keynote. Suffice it to say that there is a curious irony in what I’ve found.
For as much as academics and scientists gain a speaking position in conferences partly based on reputation but more importantly on evidence-based research, the means by which they choose to convey that research to conference attendees is not based on any evidence of how people learn, especially people with very limited knowledge of their field, but is much more based on tradition and social conformity: if everybody uses PowerPoint, who am I to rock the boat?
Indeed I’ve had my fair share of arguments with conference organisers when I insist I won’t use PowerPoint and thus won’t give them a USB drive housing my presentation for them to dump into the intranet server. I understand how this can make the conference organisers job easier and saves much time not waiting for each individual speakers’ laptop to be connected – fingers crossed that it works – especially when we are trying to put four 20 minute speakers into a two-hour session.
The other block to good communication apart from the usual PowerPoint sins such as too many words on the one slide, chintzy clipart, and the much maligned reading of slides, is how scientists seem not to understand that writing a paper for publication and presenting the paper’s main findings at a conference is not one and the same thing.
You see, while some who attend the presentation might be the same populace who reads the scholarly journals, the means by which the same audience takes in the information is considerably different. Each means of transferring knowledge needs to be carefully considered in its own right.
Too often do we see presentations as if the writer has merely taken their Word document, dumped it over several PowerPoint slides, removed the connecting words, and then added the seemingly necessary bullet points to conform to standard scientific Powerpoint. Here’s how I demonstrated this in Keynote at a conference in October where I gave a one day Presentation Magic workshop:
Too often do we see presentations as if the writer has merely taken their Word document, dumped it over several PowerPoint slides, removed the connecting words and grammar, and then added the seemingly necessary bullet points and subheaders.
They then of course take the same graphs and charts as in the published paper version, and then dump them into slides as well, often two graphs per slide as in the example below.
Now it’s not at all uncommon in published papers to see graphs side-by-side on the one page. It’s fairly standard practice as long as the graph or chart conforms to the publisher’s standards, or where the publisher can manipulate the chart to facilitate printing.
The reader has the luxury of both reading the text, viewing the chart or graph, and going back into the text to verify, explore, and make associations with what’s been written, at their leisure. They can do so over a coffee, in their library, or sitting up in bed at the conference hotel. If their ageing eye meets with a very small chart, they can hold it closer or wear magnifying spectacles.
My main point here is that the reader has a great deal of control over their reading experience.
Let’s contrast that with the audience for a presentation which has seen a Word dump into PowerPoint take place. The audience is at the mercy of the presenter’s pace, slide design with respect to the size of the charts or graphs, and the words the presenter has chosen to describe what is on the slide. The audience passively attends to whether those spoken words match what’s on the slide, or in fact they witness an an inconsistency with the slide’s content.
This “split attention” is one of the most fundamental and overlooked aspects of presenting, which can lead to boredom and disengagement on the part of audiences.
It comes about because presenters in their haste to construct their slides and in their prioritising paper publishing over presenting give short shrift to the needs and “humanness” of their audience.
A really important message for scientists
If you gain anything at all from reading my blog it’s that the audience always comes first when you present. Just last week I had to explain to some senior members of my profession to whom I was demonstrating my version of slide construction leading to better professional development workshops that it is the audience to whom one must always attend, rather than how expediently one can construct slides based on written papers.
I wanted to impress upon them that the transition from the written paper to the slide is not a transparent and automatic process, but one that requires considerable thought and creativity. In my amusement at their reaction, I said to them that if you see me stare into space at a conference it’s not because I’m bored or away with the faeries, but I’m probably constructing my next set of slides in my imagination. I’m conceiving of themes, motion builds, visuals, and my intended audience reaction. In fact I must admit that often at conferences I spend a lot of others’ presentation time reworking in my head how I would convey the information the presenter is discussing, and probably missing a great deal of content!
Once more, the problem when scientists present
So the problem with many scientists presenting is the failure to consider not so much what they bring to an audience but what an audience is bringing with them to the presentation.
By dint of their expertness and their selection as a keynote speaker, science presenters already bring a degree of authority and authenticity to the conference before they even get up to speak. It is then their task to confirm the legitimacy of these qualities by how they present, not just what they present.
This will be especially important in Copenhagen when so many of the attendees will have very limited understanding of the science of climate change and may easily be flummoxed by an overwhelming number of confusing data points.
I have an awful apprehension that many scientists believe that their published work alone will get them across in their presentations to an audience of very mixed levels of prior knowledge. If they are to convince the attendees and the world who may be sceptical of their research, and/or any “hidden agendas” some may conspire exists, the scientists must understand much more about human learning and how to convey complex information persuasively.
While the Copenhagen talkfest may have all the trappings of a scientific conference, the norms of presenting at such conferences will not be sufficient nor in fact, useful.
Indeed, my awful apprehension extends to an unpleasant fear that some scientists believe the more monotonic, acronym-dense, and inscrutable chart-laden is their presentation, the more effective and scientific they appear. Unfortunately, that merely plays into the Mad Scientist meme.
This behavioural norm might work fine amongst themselves at conferences where one must appear as objective and unemotional as possible – that is, let the data to tell the story – but in Copenhagen, I believe this norm won’t wash.
Why Al Gore’s proclivity with Keynote may prove unhelpful to the climate change cause
Put another way, it’s as if many of the scientists wish to distance themselves as much as possible from the popularist demonstration of science as exemplified by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” presentation and movie. So while Gore’s presentation de force did much to pull the general public’s attention to climate change (as compared to the 35 mm slides he used to use in his talks), I fear that many scientists with a very legitimate story to tell based on strong data, will not wish to emulate a layman with fancy presentation material, lest they be considered showmen and thus contaminate their status as bona fide scientists and researchers.
Of course, one is reminded of the work of Hans Rosling at TED (left) where he passionately and humorously plays with his data which in paper form might be very unstimulating to an outsider but which is engaging and attention-grabbing in presentation form.
To stay with these traditional means to convey complex data, perhaps pushed even further into obfuscation by all the worst of the cognitive style of Powerpoint so lamented by those who study knowledge transfer such as Stephen Few and Edward Tufte to name two of the more outstanding exponents of data visualisation is just so wrong in 2009.
I can also imagine how many scientists will try to be as unemotional as possible in contrast with the public demonstrations of emotion which surround this controversial subject. It’s a way of saying “I’m a scientist, not given to emotional interpretation of data.”
Which is all fine and good, but one can still give a persuasive, memorable and appeal-to-the-emotions presentation without appearing subjective and unscientific.
The emotions I’m referring to are not the classic anger, jealousy, happy, etc., that most of us think of as human emotions and form the fodder for most patient visits to therapists (as well as attorneys on many occasions!).
How we make decisions
I’m referring to affective, mood or feeling states which help us make sense of the world around us. Without this part of our humanity, we are unlikely to ever make decisions. Left with just our pure logical abilities, as is the case with individuals with damage to midbrain areas, we prevaricate, waiting for ever more information before making a decision. (This should sound familiar to those attending Copenhagen who see this conference as a moment in history to stop prevaricating and take action). It seems we need both our logical, planning and linguistic centres to work in tandem with our emotional centres in order for us to make the best decision at the time.
Those scientists in Copenhagen who wish to be persuasive rather than merely presenting the latest data, need to be cognisant of how the human mind works. This is especially so with complicated information which is being presented to groups of attendees with extremely variable knowledge of the subject.
If the scientists presenting are anything like the group who presented in Copenhagen almost as a dress rehearsal earlier this year in March, without wishing to sound prejudiced or engage in ad hominem attacks, they have their work cut out for them if their intention is to be persuasive rather than merely presenting data.
So, let’s take a closer look at some of those presentations and you can decide, with a little help from me, if the slides make for a persuasive argument.
Remember, I’m not particularly concerned about scientists presenting to colleagues, where they can cut corners in terms of explanations or the use of acronyms and familiar, agreed-upon terms. These presentations rely heavily on a syllabus of what’s called “deep foundational knowledge”, requiring very little in the way of explanation of method, measures and results.
Tables and graphs merely need to be labelled accurately, differences highlighted, and a knowledgeable audience will quickly see the forest for the trees and tune in for the discussion and conclusion, which is where disagreements often are displayed and worked through.
But in Copenhagen, there will be a very mixed audience and presenters will have to more clearly enunciate their results and the meaning they carry to an audience that may well be swayed more by emotion than by data (just like elections!).
Studying climate scientists presentations
The Congress whose presentations I want to look at as a lead up and rehearsal for this week’s convention is called “Climate Change – Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions” and was held March 10-12, 2009. The final report of this conference is to be handed over by the Danish Government to this week’s UN Conference on Climate Change, known as COP 15.
Interestingly, the principal media sponsors for the March conference were Time magazine, Scientific American, and National Geographic. Each of these organisations publishes some of the finest data visualizations you can find, whether on paper or as moving images. As you’ll soon discover, it’s a pity the speakers didn’t spend time watching how established media conveys complex topics.
On the website’s home page, you’ll locate a bullet point listing “presentations” and that’s the source of some of the slides I want to demonstrate to you.
You can see the full list of speakers, and their publications, as well as webcasts (restricted to “Windows Internet Explorer, but downloadable as wmv files also, which Mac users can view using Flipformac or VLC). The videos don’t show the slides, so you have to download the presentation, and follow along the webcast as best you can.
Where better to start than with the Opening Address of the IPCC Chairman, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri.
Here is a small portion of his very well endowed CV:
“Dr Pachauri’s wide-ranging expertise has resulted in his membership of various international and national committees and boards. At the international level, these include his positions as Adviser, International Advisory Board, Toyota Motor Corporation, Japan, April 2006 onwards, Member, Board of the International Solar Energy Society (1991-97); Member, World Resources Institute Council (1992); President and Chairman, International Association for Energy Economics, Washington, D C (1988, 1989-90, respectively); and President, Asian Energy Institute (1992 onwards). He has also joined the board of the Global Humanitarian Forum, recently founded by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.”
And now to the slides (you can download the Powerpoint file here). I’ll select a few to give you a feel for the good and the not so good of his presentation.
Here’s his opening slide, probably showing as he’s being introduced:
Let’s start by saying there’s a lot going on in this first slide. each corner is occupied with a logo or image, and while there is a big, bold header which is intended to tell us what is to come, our eyes scan all over the slide trying to convey meaning from all the images which seem to bear no connection to each other, except that they are on the one slide. This is too much work for the audience at the opening bell.
This is also a good time to speak of research and academic institutes’ marketing departments’ interference in scientists’ presentations by insisting that the organisation’s logo or branding, whether it be small or the slide’s entire background, be used for every slide, even if it produces clutter, confusion or overwhelms the colours in a chart or graph.
Here is my own professional society’s slide background it insists on using (and I continue to strongly reject when I get the chance):
I’m sure the graphic designer ought to be very happy with the effects achieved, but as one looks at more slides in this stack, the visual interference the logo in the background offers is truly astounding. See how a later slide in the same stack has what I will called “interference effects”.
You can download the entire PPT file, in the public domain, here.
Let’s return to Dr. Pachauri’s stack. I like one of his earlier slides very much:
Straight to the point, with big words and legible fonts so even those in the back of the auditorium can read it. The bottom graphic containing the letters “IPCC” as a logo is unnecessary for its chairman to include, and merely clutters the boldness of the slide. This next slide is very appropriate too:
Perhaps he read Garr’s Presentation Zen on the flight to Copenhagen! But I do think the words referring to a million homes lost in Mumbai needs its own graphic illustrating on a separate slide what such devastation looks like. So far, so good, but then…
Here’s an example of a slide that would work well as a double-spread in a magazine or book, but will make an audience work so hard in a presentation because of the very small print and shear quantity of information it contains. Now if the presenter brought in each part in large writing, explained its significance, minimised it then brought in the next section, that would work. But I’m guessing that’s too much work and this graphic, most likely pasted into Powerpoint rather than created in it, would have come up on the screen as is. Such a contrast to the simple but powerful message conveyed by the deluged bicycle rider.
Let’s look at a few more:
Again, the unnecessary IPCC logo continues to be conspicuous. This slide is taking a bet both ways: heaps of text, most likely read to judge by the notes accompanying the slide, but the visual images bear no immediate connection to the main message, and indeed by shoving them into the four corners in some effort at symmetry, only prove to be items of clutter. Certainly they form a boundary for the words, containing them, but in the end, they add nothing to the slide in a meaningful sense. For that reason, they make the audience work harder than they need to…
And now to one of the concluding slides:
Regular Presentation Magic readers and workshop attendees know how I would have reproduced this slide: take the actual report, show it on the slide, blur it into the background then build out the actual section using this quote from report to maintain authenticity; a task that would take about 5 minutes and worth every second of that time.
Here’s how the Rachel Maddow show does it:
From here, with a little finesse, you take the enlarged quote and “swoosh” it in front (using one of Keynote’s builds) so we know where the quote has come from. It’s effective, keeps the audience interest, and adds to the presenter’s authentic use of materials. (I’ll be showing how to do this at Presentation Magic at Macworld, by the way, complete with animations).
Let’s move on to some rather tragic slides that exemplify all I worry about when it comes to scientists basing their talks on evidence but not offering evidence-based presenting:
Here’s some slides from Diana Liverman’s presentation in Copenhagen this past March. From her supplied CV:
“Diana Liverman is Director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and holds a University Chair in Environmental Science in the School of Geography. As Director of ECI, Dr. Liverman co-ordinates the work of 80+ interdisciplinary contract researchers and doctoral students who work primarily in the areas of climate, energy and ecosystems with a strong applied and policy focus. ECI hosts or co-hosts national and international projects that include the UK Climate Impacts Program, the Oxford node of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the U.K. Energy Research Centre and the ICSU/ESSP Global Environmental Change and Food Systems (GECAFS) programme.
“Information and feedback are certainly one key to reducing household carbon emissions. This graphic from AR4 suggests that the introduction of appliance energy labels in Europe shifted the average purchase from a D to an A or B over a relatively short time period as both consumers and producers responded to the labelling programme saving considerable GHG emissions, but counteracted by larger fridges perhaps.”