Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Being a Better Speaker

Immediately after saying I probably won't post much, lookit! A post!

I have a really bad habit of leaving tabs open in my browser. Some will stay there for months. I've gotten somewhat better as I've started using Pintrest and just shove a lot of things in there, but sometimes there's tabs that just sit there.

One in particular that I need to close out comes from all the way back in October. The post is from the TED blog, and is on how scientists and engineers can be better speakers. While I don't think it's a bad post, I certainly don't think it's a good one.

First off "Be aware of your audience". Really? I don't think I'd ever heard that before. No. Certainly wasn't something that I've had hammered into my head since elementary school on every topic in which communication was being discussed.

Sarcasm aside, I think it's a fair point to make, but it's also one that should be so obvious that it doesn't need to be said. What needs to be said, is how to find the right level for your audience. And that's not something that can be reduced to a platitude. Fortunately, the author of the post does do some good at that by at least saying that scientists shouldn't "dumb down" the science. This is something I've definitely done in my history as a speaker. In my most popular talk, I've never shied away from bringing out calculus in front of a crowd that's mostly high school students or people that aren't mathematically inclined.

Why? Because sometimes, the details aren't important. One of my focuses as a communicator of science is to remind people that science isn't a collection of facts; it's a process. And even if people don't understand that process, they need to understand it's there. Hiding it away and skipping straight to the conclusions because your audience won't get every detail changes how our culture perceives science. And pseudoscientists play on that. Think of how many times you've heard the Creationist ruse that scientists supposedly engage in circular reasoning when they "date fossils by the rocks and date rocks by the fossils". That's not at all how it works. We don't just make up a paradigm and engage in that sort of specious reasoning. There's a lot more to it. Reminding people of the complexity makes those sort of over simplified strawmen of science be seen for what they really are.

The second point is also a trope. "Show the Relevance". While again, I don't think it's a bad idea, it's really not necessary. Again, pointing to my Anime Mythbusters talk, there is absolutely no relevance to any of it. I can't justify why you need to worry about the UV exposure someone will receive from a fictional Pokemon. Because you really won't need to. And you shouldn't.

Additionally, I think there's a serious issue with the demand that science always be immediately rationalizable. Most of the biggest discoveries, advances, and inventions haven't come because people were out to discover the particular thing they did. To put it another way, science doesn't progress as a series of "Eureka!" moments. It progresses as a series of "WTF?" moments. Stating that science always have a clear purpose with obvious and immediate application betrays the way science works. Ben Franklin was not experimenting with static electricity to power light bulbs.

So what's the take away? Science doesn't need to be relevant. It needs to be interesting. I'm willing to bet that most readers here can think of at least one scientific subject that's wholly boring to them, either because it's just not big enough for them to care about, or they know it so well that hearing it again is sleep inducing. But with the right person telling you about it, their passion becomes infectious. There is beauty in all nature. It just takes a skilled speaker to make people recognize it. But that doesn't mean it's relevant.

The third point is for speakers to "Paint a Picture". This is definitely good advice, but what the author doesn't mention is that it's a double edged sword. While giving a broader picture can help people find those points by which they can connect and apply their prior knowledge, it's also a potential way to lose an audience. It's quite easy to get lost in a picture.

For the past four months, I've been reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms. It's been a pretty awful experience. The author is constantly giving details that do nothing to convey the primary information. It's stories about the hosts he spends time with and then the bus ride to a remote location to look for ancient organisms. The amount of time and detail put into the irrelevant bits swamp the relevant story.

Finally a really smart comment that's all too often overlooked comes in fourth. "Make Numbers Meaningful". Hell. Yes. This is especially important in astronomy where the scales are so large, that the only way to communicate them is with scientific notation. Unfortunately, on scales that large, there's not a lot that you can do. Our human experience doesn't allow any comparisons that are going to be meaningful. But on smaller scales, it's entirely doable. Returning to the example of the UV exposure from a particular Pokemon, the answer ends up being best expressed in scientific notation, but by converting it to a ratio to compare it to typical exposure from the Sun, and then discussing how long it would take a pasty white guy like me to burn, it suddenly coverts a meaningless figure, or worse, a scary figure (since so many people are mathphobic), into something they can appreciate!

Cliches return for the fifth point on "Banishing Bullet Points". It's one that I'm not opposed to but I generally disagree with. The problem isn't bullet points. It's people using them incorrectly. Bad speakers essentially turn an outline into a bulleted Power Point and then use it as a crutch when they present. That's a problem. Rather, the speaker should introduce the information first, and then display the bullet point. As you do this, the audience will realize that what you're putting up isn't new information and as such, they won't tune you out trying to read them.

But if it's not new information, why have them? There's a very good reason. Leaving thoughts on a screen allows you to show they're still relevant. You're hanging on to them because you're going to return to them in a moment. Then, when you're ready, you can point back to a previous point you've left floating there.

Putting them into a bullet list also is a way to organize the information visually, often showing it as a point that falls below a heading which is the general idea. It solidifies the points as being hierarchical in nature. Which is great when you have things that are. And that's a lot in science. For example: Hypothesis, list of evidence. The author even suggests an "Assertion-Evidence" model for slides, but then seems to ignore that not all evidence is presented in the form of "charts, graphs, images, equations, etc". Sometimes your evidence is a list of points.

Another common bullet point mistake is display all of them as once. It's information overload. Instead, as I noted above, each one should be introduced independently and information layered on. When viewed retrospectively it isn't daunting. Especially when each one is introduced verbally.

When should bullets be dumped? If your information isn't linear, you probably don't need them. Flow charts are cool. Consider them. If you're not using it to hang onto a collection of points, you probably don't need them. If it's going to take an excessive amount of time for each one and you don't have anything else interesting going on, you can probably do something else.

A good example of navigating this is my Sexism in Anime talk. During the introduction I introduce 3 categories of a patriarchal society. Under each one I give several specific ways these the general categories are manifest. This is hierarchical information, so bullet points make sense. However, I then want to discuss each of those points in detail as they are exhibited (or not) in a particular series. At that point, I switch over to each individual point as a heading, and examine it with images from the series as my evidence (as shown in the preview image on the above link). When I need to summarize everything, I revive the bullet point and show the information as a collection. It's very effective. While people have a tendency to ignore events because they can't see it all listed in front of them, presenting how badly this particular (and very popular) series fails at representing women as worthwhile characters, it's harder to rationalize the events individually. In that sense, having that bulleted list is entirely appropriate and I wouldn't trade it for any other format.

The last point is very true, but also entirely unhelpful. "Deliver Dynamically". In short, the author says to have an enthusiastic, energetic, but natural style. Easier said than done for many people. So what should speakers concentrate on to pull this off? Hopefully, if you're giving a talk to a more general audience, it's because it's something special. Hopefully, you're not having to report the results of a 10 year study that failed to find any evidence for your hypothesis. That'd be a bummer and hard to find that enthusiasm for. So we'll assume it's something special. Enthusiasm should come naturally.

Similarly, natural shouldn't be a problem. I find it a somewhat annoying that so many people telling people how to speak think being "natural" is an intelligent comment. The reason is that humans are very diverse, even within a single individual. There's times when we're all somber. But there's also times when we're exuberant. Both are "natural" for us. There's very few people I've encountered that I suspect of being dryer than Ben Stein all the time.

But on the off chance that you are one of those people, there's still ways to play it. In particular, being that flat makes even the small variations stand out. One of my professors did have Ben Stein beat for dryness, but every once in awhile, he'd sneak in a joke. They were pretty awful* but they were worth paying attention for.

So in my mind, it's not that doing these things will make you better. You're likely already doing them, but other things are getting in the way. The largest is stage fright. Without realizing it, nervous tendencies will easily take over and pervert or destroy the enthusiasm that would otherwise be apparent. Excited about what you're talking about? Good, says the scumbag brain. Now you're talking too fast without having a dynamic vocal range!

It's hard to get over stage fright. One of the things that I've always reminded myself is that, at almost all of my presentations, I have an audience that's on my side. They're interested in the subject. Otherwise they wouldn't be there. That's something I use to my advantage. Instead of trying to forget the audience is there so I can concentrate on what I'm doing, I try to make sure I'm feeling the audience. Quite early on, I'll always drop something that's going to get a reaction.

In my Anime Mythbusters talk, it's discussing the depressing state of science education that gets disapproving *tsk*s from the audience. I follow that up with a big full slide warning. "This panel contains: Algebra, Graphs, Scientific Notation, Inequalities, Exponents, and Calculus." I say this at a clip of someone reading the fine print on a used car commercial and get cheers for it. I know the audience's energy is behind me, and I take that energy and ride it. Don't be scared of your audience. Use it. Get a good start and it puts you on the right path.

This is a double edged sword of course. If you're reading the audience's emotions and they turn sour, this can take the wind out of your sails and compound the issue. But after all the speaking I've done in the past 5 years, I've yet to have that happen.

I don't know how many of my readers here do much public speaking, but for those that do, I hope this offers something more useful than the cliche advise I've seen so many places.

* - Saturn has a density of 0.687 grams/cc3. This means that if you had a bathtub large enough, it would float. Of course, if you let the water out, it would leave rings.

1 comment:

chris frisbie said...

Planets and stars are created by black holes. all gravity comes from black holes. a star or planet is born based souly on what a black hole consumes as well as the the mass of the black hole. this would explain why the core is so hot for so long, friction and lots of it. but eventualy it will go cold like mars. asteroids are made from exploading planets. the core is where elements are born. if you seek the reall truth hit me up

sincerely the chosen one!