Claire Ainsworth gets to the nub of making your work accessible to any audience
In our workshop at the European Molecular Biology Organisation meeting in Vienna earlier this month, we asked participants to list the attributes of good and bad science presentations, both to non-specialists and to specialist colleagues at scientific conferences. You can see the results on our Facebook page here. No doubt you will recognise some of the points, especially those pertaining to bad presentations. So how can you avoid falling into the “bad” category?
Take a look at the “good” list, and you will notice that it is dominated by references to the audience: “Engaging audience”, “Understandable/Accessible”, “Audience awareness”, “Adjusts to audience”. You can distill this down to one word that embodies the key attribute of a great science presenter: empathy.
This doesn’t mean you should come over all emotional and touchy-feely, simply that any good communicator knows their audience and tries to step into their shoes. Try to see the world from your audience’s perspective. What knowledge do they have of your topic? What sorts of things might interest them and so help you pique their curiosity? This will help you pitch your talk at the right level–even when addressing academic colleagues–and to grab and hold their attention.
This may all sound very obvious, but you would be surprised at how many speakers fail to undertake this elementary exercise before preparing their talk. Worse, some compound their sin by recycling PowerPoint slides from talks for different audiences–for example, using slides of results from a specialist conference for a public lecture. 3D graphs or microarray data seem to be particular favourites in that last category, sending polite audience members quietly to sleep and the less deferential ones heading pointedly for the exit.
Deciding what level of knowledge to assume involves treading a fine line between taking too much as given and patronising your listeners. A good rule of thumb is to try and work out when you last shared an education with them. This will depend very much on where you and your audience went to school: here in the UK, for example, students tend to narrow their range of studies at an earlier age than those in other countries.
If a marine ecologist, for example, were presenting to a group of biochemists here in the UK, assuming a first year undergraduate level of ecological knowledge would probably be about right. The same ecologist presenting to some engineers might have to wind back the clock to the last year or two of secondary/ high school (age 17-18). If he or she were giving a public lecture to a general adult audience at, say, a science festival, a good starting point might be assuming the scientific knowledge of someone in their mid-teens (say 14-15 years old).
It is easy to forget just how much specialist knowledge you have. Think back: how much did you know about your subject when you were 16? Probably not a great deal. But you weren’t stupid either, and neither is your audience. They don’t want you to talk down to them or over-simplify your science. They just need you to start at the right level.
Claire Ainsworth is a co-founder and director of SciConnect. She also works as a freelance science journalist.