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10 Wince-Inducing Mistakes That Undermine Science Presentations
This first part of a three-part series covers common problems that can weaken presentations.!--h2>
“That was ... interesting … but I didn’t understand her hypothesis,” a statistician comments, making his way to the meeting room door.
“That’s because she didn’t have a hypothesis,” a biologist replies, “just lots of data, not very believable or persuasive.”
“I couldn’t even understand her data,” a chemist adds. “And we certainly didn’t discuss it; there wasn’t enough time. Same as always.”
“Still, it wasn’t a bad presentation,” they all agree, “one of the best this year.”
We can and should expect much more of science presentations. We depend on presentations to carry out the organization’s core business, develop ideas, test hypotheses, and explore alternatives. Yet we accept levels of presentation effectiveness we wouldn’t begin to tolerate in the other, technical aspects of our work.
Of course it’s difficult to present science topics. Presenters must explain complex concepts, draw on sophisticated analyses, illustrate cumbersome theories, master advanced audiovisual tools, and convince skeptical audiences. Yet as our technical organizations strive to improve their ability to both innovate and earn profits, it’s essential that we significantly improve presentations.
We’ve lost sight of the role they should be playing in advancing inquiry. Presentations provide the major the forum, the key medium where ideas get tested, developed, refined, and perfected. If presentations are not highly effective, the process of inquiry suffers. And it’s quite possible to significantly improve presentations. With modest effort, presenters at all levels can improve their skills and impact.
10 Wince-Inducing Presentation Mistakes
Before the presentation, as participants get seated:
Two deeper, interrelated problems underlie ineffective presentations and drive the limited results too many presentations achieve: limited expectations and the one-way information flow that occurs in too many science presentations. These feed off and increase each other, triggering a cycle of increasing problems.
One-Way Information Flow
The word “presentation” itself is problematic, implying that the scientist’s job is simply to clearly describe his or her work. That alone poses significant challenges, as the work is often complex and not clear at all.
However, a larger problem lies beyond the challenges of clearly describing the work. In the vast majority of science “presentations,” clearly describing the work is only half the scientist’s job. The other equally, if not more important, task of the scientist is to manage a productive discussion of the concepts. Scientists’ neglect and lack of skill facilitating robust, productive discussion derails many worthy concepts and provides the foundation for many of the ten problems listed above. Why provide pre-work, engage participants, and plan thoughtful questions if the responses are not particularly relevant?
Few technical professionals do justice to their ideas in their presentations, but who can blame them? If we expect little of presentations, technical professionals will continue to neglect their presentation skills. If we recognize what presentations can accomplish—if we make it clear that explaining one’s ideas is as important as developing the ideas—technical professionals will work to improve their presentation skills. If we view presentations more as a key forum for advancing ideas, technical professionals will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful group discussion.
Improving Presentations: Next Steps
Though the problems we describe here are significant and deeply rooted in the culture of science organizations, it’s quite possible for scientists to significantly improve their presentation skills with modest effort. We will describe specific steps for improving presentations in two upcoming blog posts:
Director of the Biotech Leadership Institute and president of Gathering Pace Consulting William Ronco, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), consults on leadership, communications, team, and partnering performance in pharmaceutical, biotech, and science organizations.
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