June 2011

Nine quick fixes for scientific talks

6. Common ground

The best way to achieve an immediate connection with the audience is to address the collective problems that you share with the group: call it the common denominator, the collective puzzle or common ground. It may be tempting to start with definitions or statistics, but they are dry, generalized and bland. Common ground is a more powerful choice because it immediately concentrates on current topics and dilemmas in the field while respecting the audience’s knowledge base.

Ask yourself the following questions:
* What are the most relevant scientific issues that I share with this audience?
* Of these, what issue do I focus on? Why?
* What solutions are the most logical? Why?
* Specifically, what am I looking for?

Including the answers to these questions in the introduction will draw a conceptual link between the daily work of the audience and your own.

7. Brief title

 Identifying the main question and common ground also provides excellent headway for crafting an engaging title. Common ground acknowledges the bigger picture; the main question suggests your contribution. Here is an example of a title: “The Design and Application of Tagging SNPs in Neuronally Expressed Voltage-Gated Sodium Channel Genes to a Cohort of Caucasian Epilepsy Patients.”

In an attempt to be specific, the author has added too many details for a talk. “To a cohort of Caucasian epilepsy patients” implies that the presentation only is relevant to those studying epilepsy among Caucasian patients. “Epilepsy” is important, but the fact that they are Caucasian is not. “The design and application” and “patients” are implicit and can be removed. “Neuronally expressed” might be too detailed; “to a cohort” may be obvious, while the coolest part – tagging SNPs – is diffused by its length. An improved title would be “Tagging SNPs: Voltage-Gated Sodium Channel Genes in Patients with Epilepsy.”

8. Final thought

The final thought is a quick technique to help you end a talk gracefully. A fully memorized sentence can seem canned and overly rehearsed, so I suggest a single trigger word to remind yourself that the final comments should be as strong and well organized as the rest of the talk. For example, the final idea, “Our goal over the next several months is to test this single-chain protein in assays to assess human response. We will also insert this gene into the patients’ own B cells to test whether they are either tumor-specific or idiotype-specific CTL,” could be simply noted to yourself as “idiotype-specific CTL.”

9. Teach

Lastly, I would like to point out that a good scientific talk is not about you but about the education of the audience. These tools are designed to make the process of speaking less about lecturing and more about teaching. Good speakers are like good teachers – they are impressive because they possess knowledge about highly intricate subjects. But they truly are extraordinary when they can make complicated things seem simple.

Scott Morgan (Scott@MorganGp.com) is director of The Morgan Group and co-author of “Speaking about Science.”


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Excellent ideas. Mr. Morgan has used the ideas he expouses in this article. Thank you for having this article.



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