In my previous post, Using Keynote to train scientists – part 1, I made reference to Nancy Duarte’s Presentation Landscape ideas and lauded them for their usefulness in training presentation skills.
But I also suggested her ideas only went so far in assisting presenters, and in particular, those in the sciences who present to a diversity of audiences.
The challenge for scientists when presenting is that these audiences diverge in their levels of something called Prior Knowledge. Prior to giving you a definition of the term, let me cite an illustration used in a chapter on learning and science from this book:
Reform in Undergraduate Science Teaching for the 21st Century
Dennis W. Sunal, University of Alabama; Emmett L. Wright, Kansas State University; and Jeanelle Bland, Eastern Connecticut State University, Eds., Information Age Publishing Inc., ISBN 1-930608-84-5 Soft cover (2004)
The chapter is entitled, “The importance of prior knowledge in college science instruction” by K. M. Fisher.
Here’s how Fisher begins the chapter:
I was waiting for a bus on a street corner in London when I struck up a conversation with the man standing next to me. I said, “I don’t go anywhere without my Macintosh.” He said enthusiastically, “Neither do I.” Our conversation continued for possibly several minutes before we realized that I was talking about my Macintosh computer (hanging on my right shoulder) while he was talking about his Macintosh rain gear (draped over his left arm). We had a good laugh. This illustrates the nature of prior knowledge and the way it can interfere with communication. Misunderstandings can often be quickly clarified in ordinary conversations. But when they occur in one-way information delivery (as in lectures or books), they can persist for weeks or semesters or quite often indefinitely. Sometimes the misunderstandings are direct as in this case, arising from words that have multiple meanings, where each individual associates a different meaning with the word. Sometimes the influence of prior knowledge is quite indirect.
In 1999, the National Science Foundation published a very important book called “How People Learn”. You can go to the National Academies Press homepage and either buy the hardback, or download it for *free* in pdf format by following the link here.
Within its chapters, you will locate three important factors which will help your understanding of how people learn. Here is the slide I build up in my Presentation Magic workshop which summarises these three aspects of learning:
Essentially, the authors of the publication wanted teachers to acknowledge that students did not come to educational classes tabula rasa but even those naive to the subject already held pre-conceived ideas about the subject gained from life experience, whether that be formal teaching or watching television or sitting in the back yard staring at the clouds! And one of the problems faced by teachers of naive students is that sometimes their ideas or beliefs about a subject can form very early and be held very rigidly.
The idea the authors wanted to share was that prior knowledge needed to be acknowledged by teachers and either capitalised upon (if correct) or disturbed and shaken up if incorrect.
The next concept, Deep Foundational Knowledge, goes to the heart of what should be taught in a subject to allow the student to gain some kind of expertise in the subject, and permit them to move into higher levels having understood the basic and then advanced aspects of their field of study.
Metacognition is knowing about knowing, or more directly, how does a student know they are learning, rather than merely regurgitating facts for an exam. In other words being an expert in a field of endeavour is not just having a profound factual knowledge of the subject matter, but knowing how to go about discovering answers to not yet before asked questions, and being able to monitor one’s progress in learning if the answers are right or wrong.
Metacognition can also include self-awareness of how you best learn, whether by lecture, multimedia, hands-on, self-directed or close supervision, and so on.
Let’s apply this to presentation skills, to show why the Duarte Landscape model is incomplete as it currently stands.
Many scientists have multiple audiences to whom they present. They can range from a within-department colloquium where you’re presenting a briefing paper of your latest research directions; it could be a Grand Round for medical scientists where you’re presenting to hospital staff who work in different environments but who nonetheless have an interest in your applied research; it could a a group of politicians to whom you’re trying to get across an important message seeking change, as in climate change policy making; or it could be a lay group to whom you are speaking about lifestyle changes to prevent chronic disease in later life. Their knowledge of science is perhaps limited to what they learnt in high school, plus TV current affairs programs as well as their personal physician’s medical advice.
In all of these examples, the audiences respectively come to your presentation with wildly diverging levels of both prior knowledge, and foundational knowledge. Is it reasonable to give the same presentation to all of these groups and hope to have the same profound effect? I think not!
Yet so often do I see this occur where an esteemed speaker simply hasn’t bothered to evolve their presentation to take into account his or her invited audience, so that too often you hear the speaker say, “We’ll skip over these slides, they’re not really relevant tonight“, which is code for, “it would take too long to explain these complex ideas to this audience (and I was too lazy to remove them)“.
What makes a great science presenter
Great science presenters have a gift whereby they can take complex ideas and present them in such a way that those with the least foundational knowledge still understand the purpose of the research being presented, the journey required to uncover the facts or hypotheses under discussion, and its relevance to their daily lives, either currently or in the near future.
In order to do this, great science presenters must remind themselves to be mindful of their audience, and what they bring to the presentation. So I now wish to add a third dimension to the Presentation Landscape which asks presenters not just to consider the purpose and means for their presentation, but also the audience’s expected level of foundational knowledge in terms of their awareness of the subject matter.
Here’s how in my Presentation Magic talks, I modify the presentation landscape’s two dimensions to three:
Failing to take into account this dimension can see your presentation go over the top of your audience’s heads, or conversely, you go the other direction and insult your audience by painfully dumbing it down. This is known as the expertise reversal effect (pdf), where the same slide or multimedia example aimed at low level audiences can interfere with the rapidity with which high level audiences assimilate the slide’s message. They get it, but could have got it more quickly if there was less interference from slide clutter due to spelling out unnecessary (for them) details.
So great presenters, as I suggested in Part 1, ask about the expected audience well ahead of time so as to prepare a presentation that best matches an educated guess of the audience’s prior and foundational knowledge, and the expectations of the group or individual who has invited you to speak.
As a for instance: An attendee at my October 2009 Presentation Magic workshop to psychologists soon after invited me to present the same workshop to his group of which he was head of department. While this sounds easy, the real effort here is to once more understand this particular group’s needs, as well as their backgrounds as not all are psychologists. I also need to understand what he expects his group to learn, which might be quiet different from his own expectations at the time he enrolled in the October workshop. So what pleased him enough to invite me might not necessarily be on the money for his own group. This is his agenda and I need to be mindful of what he most liked about what I did, and how it can be extended and even “personalised” for his particular group, who are specialist therapists working with torture survivors in Australia.
A few Presentation Magic rules for science presenters
So, a few rules for the road for me to share with you, whether you’re an undergraduate student presenting to his or her fellow students and professor for the first time, or you’re the same professor presenting your current research in a keynote at an international conference:
1. The more you expect there to be a gulf in prior and foundational knowledge between yourself and your expected audience, the more you need to pull out your bag of tricks to provide an engaging, memorable and influential experience. As much as reputation and status can give you a head start in the authenticity and authority stakes, within a few minutes of your presentation your audience will be making their own assessment of whether their pre-judgement of you (their prior knowledge) has been justified.
So, the more you expect a gulf between you and your audience the more you need to especially focus on bringing these qualities to bear. Those will little prior or deep knowledge will not become rocket scientists at the end of your presentation. But they will remember your qualities as a presenter, your ability to bring to them an understanding of complex ideas in a way that does not belittle their limited knowledge base, but instead respects them because you’ve gone the extra distance by helping them understand and enjoy.
One of my favourite TED talks ever was the first I saw of Barry Schwartz, a social psychologist discussing his book, “The Paradox of Choice”. You can view his TEDtalk below (and then come back if you wish).
While his Powerpoint slides needed much working over (and they subsequently were for a second TED appearance here), the bulk of his talk was illustrated using New Yorker cartoons. Scientists using such humorous appliances with lay audiences I’ve found goes over very well, as long as they butt of the humour is not the audience’s own characteristics (e.g. a talk on lap band surgery to prospective customers which makes fun of their girth challenges).
3. Stories and in particular metaphors are particularly important and useful in conveying complex ideas to groups who do not possess fundemental knowledge of the subject. Each culture, creed and religion has its own stories it tells its generations, from Aesop’s fables through to the Digital Age’s LOST television series (sadly concluded, but satisfyingly so), as well as religious parables. Even science has its stories to tell, from Galileo’s pursuit of testable facts in the face of religious persecution, through the image of the scientist beavering away in pursuit of a “Eureka” moment, when in fact thr truer story is one of a team working together over years to make world changing discoveries, such as Howard Florey and his team’s work with penicillin.
All useful stories help lead us along a pathway to discovery, along the way perhaps mystifying and surprising us, creating tension then resolution. Great science presenters, if presenting to a low prior knowledge audience, will more rely on placing their scientific evidence or discoveries in the form of a story of discovery rather than a vanilla, “here are the facts”. They know that low level audiences don’t know what to make of those facts, while experts can more readily “join the dots” and see how new discoveries not just add to their personal knowledge, but to the field’s accumulated knowledge. They may question methodology or statistical inferences, something low level audiences will not be aware of, but their questioning is centred on issues of data veracity, such that conclusions reached can be considered reliable.
4. One of the other ways, besides storytelling, for science presenters to convey their messages to those with low levels of knowledge (but whose decision making may be crucial to their future scientific endeavours) is the principle of scaffolding.
I remember my first visit to Hong Kong before it was handed over to the Chinese in 1997, where I saw modern high rise constructions with bamboo used as scaffolding, an unusual (for me) mix of the very old with the very new.
As the building grew skywards, the scaffolding would accompany its journey building upon itself.
This is the essence of the metaphor of scaffolding when used in conveying complex ideas to low level audiences. While high level audiences might be given a complex idea directly in a slide, perhaps using an acronym known well by one’s peers, low level audiences must be led through a series of building blocks or “chunks” of information which minimally stretches their knowledge base. From there, more pieces are added in a logical sequence so that the audience is now in possession of a large chunk composed of many smaller chunks, all held together by the presenter’s style of presenting, using spoken words which match any words on the slide, as well as illustrations such as graphics, charts, pictures and diagrams which give picture to the words, and thus appeal to multiple senses.
Often, the building blocks or scaffolds are elements familiar to low level audience, but perhaps not understood in the context the presenters is using. By using pictures and words in appropriate sequences, the audience themselves do the work of putting the ideas and theories of the presenter together, an “uh-huh” moment when they “get it.” So while bamboo may have its agricultural purposes, it can be put to an alternative use to support the construction of large buildings.
Bright audiences attending lectures or presentations in fields other than their own, such as at an international congress or where multiple professions might attend, do well with scaffolding approaches to new learning, as they are so used to their own methods of “joining the dots” as it usually occurs in professions with a body of deep foundational knowledge.
Let’s go the other way for a moment and deal with scientific presentations to peers, where both presenter and audience are likely to share the same depth of foundational knowledge.
In this case, all of these positive features I showed in the slide that lists “engaging… humorous…” etc., can actually be negatives. Scientists like to see themselves as dispassionate, objective, methodic, and curious. Expressions of passion about their research in presentations to peers I’ve observed to be interpreted as “over-invested, emotional, blinkered, and untempered”; not a good thing.
Because they share profound foundational knowledge, peers presenting to each other skip many of the scaffolding and storey telling elements, populating their (usually) Powerpoint slides with busy graphs, bullet points, and the occasional cute animated graphic. The problem is taking these same slides and bringing them to an audience that might be bright but doesn’t possess the same profound knowledge.
Especially when it comes to charts and graphs (I set aside a whole session during Presentation Magic to discuss these elements), science presenters often fall short of the wonderful value these data illustrations can bring to the discussion arena. They too often badly label axes as in the illustration below which asks so much of the audience:
In this slide, notice how the Y-axis is labelled, and see how much work you have to do to decode it – actually just to read it! Why put so many words at right angles to how we normally read? The way it’s usually explained to me is that we read up the Y-axis from the (0,0) postion (where the X and Y axis are each equal to zero). But if that were the reason, why wouldn’t the number then read this way too, instead of being position horizontally like those for the X-axis? It simply means re-arranging the graph layout, but entrenched is this way of constructing graphs that despite the difficulty factor, scientists adhere to this supposedly scientific way of representing data. I think it’s nonsense, and doesn’t conform to what we know about how humans understand complex material.
In part 3 of this minor treatise on scientific presentation skills, I’ll offer some more hints and examples of how to give splendid scientific presentations to a variety of audiences.