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Scientist, Communicator, Vogon Bass Player!

BornemannDoing good science is important, as is communicating science well!

Stephen, you’re the Associate Head of Biological Chemistry Department at the John Innes Centre and an Honorary Senior Lecturer at University of East Anglia. That means you speak to a lot of people over the course of a year. And, you’re talking about complex science, which is often difficult to explain. You attended my Speak Like a Leader Boot Camp, which I created specifically for Scientists, Engineers and other highly logical types and I’d love to know if it had an impact.

Q Would you begin by telling us about the various types of audiences you address in any given year? I imagine there is a mix of scientists and non scientists whom you must reach, is that correct?

A: Absolutely. There is a need to reach out to fellow research scientists at specialist international meetings, graduate students attending taught courses, journalists from newspapers and broadcasters through to school children as young as five.

Q: What was one of the big takeaways from the Speak Like a Leader Boot Camp for you?

A: There were so many tools the training gave me, it’s hard to choose only one. However, a common denominator in so many of these tools is the need to remember that the audience is the prime focus of all presentations.

Q: Making the audience the focus, that’s excellent. How did you implement that in your presentations? How did you put the focus on the audience and keep it on them?

A: Talks I’ve given in the past started with ‘My name is X, I work at institution Y and I’m interested in Z.’ This is very much the default for so many of us in science, technology, engineering and maths. It is a familiar and safe way to start. What I now realise is that the audience already knows these things because such details are in the programme. Furthermore, it’s all about me and says nothing particularly interesting to the audience. So, I now use a variety of ways to get the audience interested and make them the prime focus right from the start. This sets the tone, which pervades the rest of the presentation.

For one graduate lecture, I started with a sort of ‘pick a card’ trick that works on slides that every individual in the audience could take part in. The cards predict the grade they will get at the end of the course. Because it is a trick, they all end up with the cards I reveal last, which have the highest grades. I then say ‘I bet you want to know the secret of your success? You turned up to my lectures, you made notes, you read around the topic and made connections between the lectures’ etc. They were the focus and they got a positive and constructive message at the same time.

More recently, I needed to describe my research in a three minute flash presentation to a research science audience. I do research on molecules in the context of disease and nutrition. How could I convey this without it seeming abstract and focussed on me? I had the courage to try something different. I said ‘you are a molecule…’ to the individuals in the audience and described what happened to them as if they were the molecule going on a journey through plants and microbes and what impact they had on humans. This way, I was able to describe the scientific challenges from a different perspective, why the challenges were important and directly involve the audience, all in one go.

Another approach I now use is to ask the audience valid questions about their backgrounds to allow me to emphasise the parts of the talk that are more relevant to them on that occasion. Stand-up comedians do this all of the time because it works for them. Scientists rarely do this, so it’s not only useful in many circumstances but also a bit different.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the focus was always on me in the past. I once gave a light hearted talk about the history of the John Innes Centre to about three hundred staff during the institute’s centenary year. At the end, I revealed the secret of its success in research. It was encapsulated in an image in a wooden frame that was initially obscured by a cloth. When I revealed the image, the audience saw their own reflection in what turned out to be a mirror. After a split-second of silence, there was an audible gasp. I now know such moments should not be the exception, they should be the rule.

Q: That gave me goosebumps. I love it. I imagine the difference it would make if all science professors and teachers took this on in all their lectures! In our email after the boot camp you mentioned that you used the power of story to capture the essence of discovery and get the audience’s attention. Will you tell us the story?

A: Sure, but it’s worth making something clear at the outset. Scientists like myself sometimes confuse a story with the scientific narrative of ‘I had a hypothesis, carried out an experiment’, etc. You taught me what a real story is.

‘It’s a summer’s day and I can see blue sky out of the laboratory window. I’m chatting to Jacqui, a summer student, about her research with the hum of laboratory equipment in the background and the faint smell of bacterial cultures hanging in the air. Abdul comes in the lab and I catch him say something about Patrick sending some amazing images in an email. I finish my conversation with Jacqui and I think for a moment. Abdul, the most understated researcher I’ve ever worked with, used the word amazing? I went straight to my office and opened the email. A few minutes later the entire research group had their eyes glued to the computer screen.’  This is a true and recent story about one of the very best moments I’ve experience in my career. What amazes me is how the emotion wells up in me no matter how many times I relate this story and how efficiently this emotion gets transmitted to the listener. After giving the context of the research and an appropriate level of detail, the amazing images are revealed at the very end of my presentation of course! Everyone has their own story and if they tell it as it was, they too will connect with their audience.

Some of my work relates to tuberculosis. I’ve never come close to shedding a tear reading a scientific article about the statistics of this devastating global disease. On the other hand, watching a documentary about individuals with the disease earlier this year was utterly harrowing. From now on, I’ll relate this story rather than rely purely on tables of cold statistics on a slide.

Q: There was a spin off of that which you took to your webpage, isn’t that right? Will you point us at the webpage and tell us that story? I think it’s great that you took it across mediums!

A: All scientist share that wow feeling when they see or understand something that no one else have ever seen or thought about before. However, we all have a passion for very different areas of science. Therefore, the best way of reaching out to a broad audience is to describe the human side to research and not just the detail. Sharing those moments are particularly rewarding when they also have a socioeconomic impact, whether immediate or potentially down the line. After thinking about the words ’sharing curiosity with impact’, I saw a pattern emerging and ended up with ‘Sharing Curiosity to make an Impact and Exploring Nature in a Creative Endeavour’. This is now my strap line on my web page. This also prompted me to redesign the rest of the page to reflect this strap line and make it more accessible to a broad scientific audience than it was before. Here is the page:

Q: Making the audience the focus, using the power of story, is there one more big takeaway you got and are using? If so, will you tell us what you did and what happened?

A: Another major change that I’ve implemented is the removal of bullet points. With some scientific talks details matter. I admit that I used to use bullet points as a proxy for a script when I was not confident to remember every key point. What I now realise is that it is possible to turn 99% of bullet points into a graphic of some sort or another. What surprised me is that it does not require much effort to generate slides in this way. Most important of all, I found I was more enthusiastic and the audience was much more engaged both during and after the talk. By the way, when I say graphic, I now realise that this doesn’t necessarily mean a scientific table or plot of the type that scientists use in peer reviewed publications. These belong in publications and not in talks. If I have to show data, I now realise it’s best to turn what is being measured into a graphic that relates to the subject. If it’s a series of diameters that are being measured, numbers and bar charts can be replaced by circles of different sizes, for example. When putting together slides, I now think about graphics fit for National Geographic rather than for a specialist scientific journal.

Q: Stephen, I hope it’s OK if I quote you from now on! That’s wonderful and I’m happy that you find both yourself and your audiences more enthusiastic and engaged once you ditch the bullet points, after all, as I say, bullets are for the enemy! Don’t make the audience the enemy! Here’s my next question: If you had to say something like: How it used to be was X and how it is now is Y, what would you say?

A: My presentations used to be restrained and now they have come to life.

Q: Has this made a difference in how your presentations are received? Both by scientists and non-scientists?

A: Absolutely. Not only do I make more eye contact with the audience rather than my old bullet points, but they also make more eye contact with me. The more they listen, the more enthusiasm I have to tell them more. It’s a positive feedback loop. Such engagement also leads to more conversations after a presentation.

Q: Why does it matter to you to connect with audiences? I know some scientists who have an attitude I’d describe as: “The science is all that matters, the audience be damned! If they don’t get it, it’s their problem.”

A: The moment of discovery is an unforgettable one. However, a discovery is not just a cold data set. The potential value of the discovery is so much greater when the person who made it shares that moment. Think of your favourite piece of music by your favourite artist. What if the artist only shared the sheet music, denying the opportunity for their performance to touch others. That would be tragic, wouldn’t it? The same is true for scientific discoveries. The more effectively one shares moments of discovery with others, the more value those discoveries have.

That reminds me. I use analogies much more now. They are particularly important when presenting science to children. Relating new concepts to ones they are already familiar with helps them make sense of the world.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your experience so far to people who might be reading this, perhaps especially other scientists, engineers and highly logical types?

A: Take courage. It’s ok to bring a little humanity into scientific talks. Sure, keep the technical detail in if that’s what a particular audience wants to hear, but they are more likely to pay attention to the detail if a connection is made with them on a human level too. If no enthusiasm is shown by the discoverer, the audience won’t show any enthusiasm either.

Q: As I understand it, math, science and music are all highly related skills. I know that Adam Steltzner, the lead engineer of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity rover EDL phase who bounced that rover down onto Mars recently, played bass in a band before his science career. Didn’t you also play bass? Would you be willing to share the video with us and maybe explain what you saw that has changed about your attitude towards performances?

A: Ah! I used to play live gigs with various bands but it was all a long time ago. Some of my former band members are still playing live and they have one thing in common. You guess: is it an interest in music, the amount of formal training received, musical ability or the breadth of musical interests? No. It is their understanding that their role is to entertain an audience rather than to show off how well they can play. When an audience is engaged, the musician gets a reward and then rewards the audience further. I was totally focussed on getting complicated Marcus Miller bass lines correct. I completely forgot the audience was there and in that old video, I turned my back on them before they finished applauding the band. Neither the audience nor I got much of a reward for being there that day. How embarrassing! Vogon playing Run for Cover live at the Coventry Jazz Festival:

I’ve come a long way since then and your boot camp has made a huge step change in my understanding of how to reach out with my presentations and in communicating in general. Thank you! I’m not alone, because there were scores of my colleagues who also attended the boot camp and I’ve heard nothing but excellent feedback.

Stephen, first off, you do play bass quite well and what a name! Vogon! I love it! And, thank you very much for taking the time to discuss this with me! I’m struck by several things: your generosity both in talking with me and in creating presentations that connect with your audiences, your commitment to communicating well and by your willingness to have fun, be coachable and play full out. It’s a pleasure to know you. You’re the kind of person that makes my work so tremendously fulfilling and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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