7 ways to illustrate your work to broaden its impact

The effective visualisation of your results and ideas improves the discoverability, accessibility and impact of your work.

As visual culture and science historian Geoffrey Belknap concluded in an essay for Nature last year: “The visual continues to work as a foundation for making sense of data. The tools, as we have seen, have radically changed. The power of images has not.” (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03306-9).

Condensing your key findings into simple, visually appealing illustrations and infographics allows you to share your work on more diverse platforms and with more diverse audiences, increasing the reach and impact of your science.

Whether you work in collaboration with a graphic designer, or whether you apply key principles of design to your communication yourself, the following aspects are important for the effective and compelling visual presentation of data and ideas.

1. Tell a story through design

Humans seem almost programmed to connect with stories on both an intellectual and emotional level. As such, stories are powerful tools for communication. When creating an illustration or infographic, think about what story you want to tell and how it will engage your audience: What ‘characters’ (in this context, usually: genes, cells, pathways, diseases etc.) should be the focus of the story? Who is the story for and what interests them? Can you connect your story to their interests? What emotions do you want them to feel? The answers to these questions will help you focus on the aspects of your discovery that need to be prioritised and how to visualise them.

2. As complex as necessary, as simple as possible

If you are creating an infographic for specialists in your own field, then you can use specialist language and make assumptions about the prior knowledge of your audience. The further away your audience is in terms of expertise or experience from your peers, the more background and context you will need to provide, and the simpler your language and the concepts you illustrate will need to be.

3. Conceptualising is exploring, so draw sketches first

Just as you might conduct exploratory experiments before committing to a research approach, explore your storyline from different angles to see what works for you, your message and your audience. This is done most effectively by sketching ideas by hand in black and white. Experience shows that using software for this exploration can be distracting, either because the tools are not intuitive, or because the colours and options available in software steal focus from the goal: to find the compelling visual idea.

4. Loop the loop to refine your ideas

Think of the design process as moving forward in loops, rather than as a straight line. When you feel like you have a good idea, revisit it and ask yourself: Are all the elements shown key to the story, or can I leave some out? Simplifying means that you will communicate more clearly and that your audience will more quickly understand what is presented.

5. Design tools: use them effectively by using them sparingly

Once you are happy with your concept sketch, it is time to draw the final artwork. In your concept sketch, you laid out all the elements and probably already made some decisions about sizes and composition. You will now make additional choices about fonts and colours. As tempting as the numerous options might be, try to be restrained in your choices to ensure the graphic is clear and legible: One font with four font faces (regular, italic, bold, bold italic) and two or three colours initially are often sufficient to distinguish elements. You can always add more colour later if necessary, and starting out simple helps you to not clutter your illustration. Revisiting your artwork frequently helps you to keep it as simple as possible and as complex as necessary.

6. Plan your media strategy ahead

A lot of time will go in developing the idea for your graphic and drawing the actual artwork. Spend some time early on to think about how you can best use the same artwork across multiple communication channels. Different media require different sizes and file formats. To cater for this variety, draw you artwork using vector-based software like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape. Vector-based illustrations, unlike pixel-based illustrations, can be scaled up or down without any quality-loss.

7. Attention is a limited resource

Thousands of articles, ideas and information are communicated daily, so people browse content quickly. If your graphic is eye-catching and easy to understand at a glance, it will both draw your reader’s interest to know more, and give them the key message about your findings in only a few seconds.

Sandra Krahl runs a course for EMBO Solutions on Applying Design Principles to Schematic Figures for scientists – for more information and to register, visit http://lab-management.embo.org/dates/design

Original video with Tabea Rauscher, Design Team Lead at EMBL, and Sandra Krahl, EMBO Alumna and Senior Graphic Designer and Illustrator

How to become a better scientific presenter

Presenting your work to your colleagues and peers is an integral part of being a scientist. However, sometimes presentation nerves can get the better of you. Never fear – you are not alone! 9 out of 10 people suffer from presentation nerves. If you’re in this majority, read on for some tips to help you become a better scientific presenter.

  1. Breathe

To overcome nerves, the best thing you can do is breathe. Breathe in to a slow count of 5, and then out to the same slow count of 6, and you will feel your pulse gentling, you’ll feel yourself getting calmer and the world will seem a better place.

  1. Pay attention to your audience

Don’t worry about yourself. If things go wrong – which they may do – just make it okay for the audience. As long as they’re sitting there thinking, ‘well that happened to me last Thursday’, you haven’t got a problem. If they’re sitting there worrying about you, then you do have a problem.

  1. Don’t be predictable

At the beginning of a presentation it’s best not to give your audience a boring and predictable introduction. If, for example, you get a set of results and you try and hit them with a whole bunch of data, they won’t remember it. If you tell them about the moment you got those results and how they thrilled or frustrated you, let them share your excitement or frustration. Then they’ll remember.

  1. Give them the shiny bits

Audiences are like magpies – they like shiny things. Any kind of bling is good. Those are the bits that get taken back to their nests. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you bombard your audience with mountains of data and expect them to remember it, they won’t. Give them little shiny polished messages, stories, analogies, anecdotes, case histories, specific examples, powerful pictures – those are the shiny bits that will go back to their nests.

  1. Look forward

There are so many presenters who seem to think the audience wants to see the back of their head, or possibly their right ear because they’re pointing or talking to the screen behind them. Big mistake. You want to be talking to your audience. Look forward, make eye contact (or at least appear to do so) with all your audience (not the one smiling, nodding person in the front row)!

  1. You have a face – use it

If you smile, the audience can hear it. If you are surprised, your eyebrows go up and your voice goes up with it. If you’re in despair, everything sags and your voice goes down with it. Facial expressions and voice work as one, so use them to your advantage.

  1. Don’t over-practice

One of the biggest mistakes is over-practicing. If you’re writing a script and trying to stick to it slavishly, you put yourself in a kind of straightjacket. If you do use notes that’s fine – but be obvious about it – don’t pretend you’re not using them!

  1. Keep it simple

With an academic paper people can read it as many times as they like over as many cups of coffee as they need.  Over time they’ll get it. With a presentation you have to get them on the first pass – they have to understand it straight away. So keep it really, really simple, even to the point it might mildly offend you – it won’t offend them!

  1. Three bullets

If you must use bullet points, three is the magic number. Never use more than three per slide – we’re pre-programmed to remember things in threes. If you are doing bullet points keep them tight and really short. Better still give them bullets (see shiny bits above).

  1. Avoid using a pointer

If you need to use a pointer there’s something wrong with the slide – it’s too busy. You can pre-select what you want the audience to see – circle things, draw boxes around them, highlight them. If you’re waving your pointer around manically – which happens a lot of the time – the audience may or may not bother to look at where you’re pointing. If you tell them where to look, they’ll look there.

  1. Finish with a bang

If you can leave the audience with a big idea – something to take home – that’s a good thing, but please don’t tell them “this is your take-home message”. It makes your audience very grumpy and makes them determined to take home any message except the one you’ve told them to.

  1. Have fun

Above all, enjoy yourself. If you enjoy yourself, the audience will have enjoyed your talk.

Original video with Media and Presentation Trainer Ali Sargent, UK

 

Storytelling in science: How to (remotely) wow an audience

By Adam Gristwood, EMBL and EMBO alumnus, now freelance science writer and communications trainer

When I was 10 years old, I landed the role of Romeo in my school’s play. We had a fantastic cast, rehearsals ran smoothly, and the auditorium was a complete sellout. In my mind, we were not kids in an assembly hall, but an all-star cast at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. An amazing rush of adrenalin pulsed through my body as I walked out on stage.

Romeo and Juliet is a gripping story, full of battles, romance, deception, persistence, and tragedy. After being banished from Verona, Romeo sneaks to Juliet’s apartment in the middle of the night to declare his love. Onstage, as I waited impatiently beneath Juliet’s balcony, I caught a glimpse of my proud parents in the crowd. I felt ecstatic.

In our version of the play, however, Romeo never got to reveal his true feelings for Juliet. Suddenly, the lights in the auditorium went out. I panicked and searched for my mum and dad, but their faces were ablur. I looked across to my classmates, but they too had faded away. As the room was enveloped by darkness, I heard an intense ringing. I tried to call out for help, but my words were silent, as if I were shouting them in deep space.

Before I could get my head around what was happening, the light came flooding back. As objects slowly came back into focus, I saw blue sky and billowing clouds. Oak trees swayed gently in the breeze. I could feel the warmth of the sun on the palms of my hands. Someone was standing over me clutching a wet towel. Blood was trickling down my face. My sense of panic came roaring back. I had fainted. There were no understudies. The show had not carried on.

Maybe I would forever be remembered as ‘that kid who ruined the play’. Our teachers destroyed the recording that the children were meant to take home as a keepsake. I felt a deep sense of guilt and shame. I no longer wanted to become a West End superstar. Instead, I pursued a role that would keep me as far from public view as possible – a writer tucked away in a garden shed, perhaps. Or a scientist hidden behind a lab bench. Why not combine them somehow for maximum effect?

Serendipitously, the cowardice of my younger self paved a way back into the spotlight. Science communication is, in reality, an immensely interactive and rewarding field. My work involves writing about issues that lie on the intersect of science and society. I have also been thrust back on stage as a science communication trainer. I help researchers to communicate with audiences though storytelling.

The aim is to improve connections with public, media, policymakers, managers, colleagues, editors, funders, and many others. And the way you tell stories really matters.

In-person training is very rightly on hold as the world deals with the coronavirus crisis. But the downtime got me thinking about how my storytelling workshop activities could be taken on remotely, without direct supervision. So here is a little experiment of my own. Below are five exercises that I hope will boost your storytelling skills. Feel free to pick and choose depending on their relevance. And please let me know how you get on!

Personal stories

Activity length: 45 minutes 

Personal stories matter because you are invested in them. Therefore, when you tell them, your audience is more likely to feel they matter as well. Write a personal story (around 300 words) related to your life as a scientist for a non-specialist public audience.

You might reflect on adversities, adversaries, inspirations, friendships, hardships, or simply share what is on your mind. The story might be a commentary (like mine above), blog, script, comic, poem, or piece of creative writing.

The piece should be informative and entertaining. Send your story to friends or family for feedback. Integrate constructive criticism and publish on social media, a blog, or just keep in mind for future use.

Tips

  • Find three articles that you particularly enjoyed reading. Take a close look at how paragraphs are linked, characters introduced, and situations described.
  • Use a narrative arc: start high and end low, or vice versa.
  • If you are short of ideas, take a conceptual theme and use it to develop a story. I was reminded of my experience, above, when reflection on failure. Other examples of themes: failure, love, curiosity, systems, deep, the unknown, black and white, codes.
  • Avoid jargon but maintain detail. Provide enough description for the audience to follow, but do not overwhelm. Be clear, accurate, and succinct.
  • Edit your work at least three times. If a sentence is not part of the story cut it. Listen to feedback, but also trust your gut. Trim at least 10% in the final draft.

Interviews

Time: 1 hour

Telling someone else’s story can also bring new perspective to how you tell your own. Arrange a 15-minute video call with a colleague, friend, or family member. Conduct a friendly interview (you could ask them to interview you as well, in return). Briefly report five unique facts you learned about your interviewee.

Examples:

Kath is one of the world’s leading data scientists, despite growing up in an era where girls were discouraged from becoming researchers.   

Kath plays card games to relax and has won a national bridge championship.  

Kath wants to cycle from Lisbon to Istanbul to raise money for research into a rare disease her sister suffers from. 

Now choose one of the facts you have written and expand it into a 200-word story. Write it in the first person from the interviewee’s perspective – like an extended quote. You may need to do a follow up interview. For inspiration, see here. With your interviewee’s permission, share your story on social media.

Tips

  • Do some background research and write out your questions. If you’re stuck, some good generic questions are: what’s on your mind? What are your hobbies? Can you recall a time that you’ve failed? Where do you do your most creative thinking? What’s your greatest achievement? If you could go to dinner with anyone who would it be? What do you feel most grateful for? What’s your most treasured memory?
  • Put your interviewee at ease. Tell them what you want from the interview. Suggest they make themselves a brew before you start. Make yourself one, too.
  • If recording the interview, check the person is OK with it before pressing the button. Recording can help you to be fully engaged in the interview. Do a test as recorders and computer speakers don’t always mix well.
  • Try to allow the interview to flow but be prepared to guide the interviewee back to the point if they go off track. If it gets technical, try to repeat back to them what you heard in your own words to ensure that you understood what they said.
  • Edit your write up carefully – aim to be concise without losing meaning. Send the piece to your interviewee and ask them for feedback.

Analogies

Time: 30 minutes

Analogies and metaphors play a crucial role in aspects such as memory, perception, argumentation, emotion, creativity, and communication – as detailed in this wonderful book. When talking about research, they can also act as a bridge for people to better understand complex ideas and concepts. Develop an analogy that could be used to describe your work or an aspect of your work.

An Example:

“Think of gravity like a magnet, and everything in space has it. The bigger the object, the stronger the magnet. The sun is really big – big enough to attract the Earth, and the Earth attracts the moon, and because of gravity, they’re all attracted to each other. It’s like they all want to hug and be close. But they can’t, so they send out little waves instead.” – Fulvio Melia, University of Arizona

Create a social media group and invite some colleagues. Share analogies and give critical feedback. Ask: Does it improve my understanding? Is it accurate? Do I want to know more? Vote on your favourite analogue – the winner should then explain the thinking behind their analogy.

Tips

  • For more inspiration check our Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, a great analogy that gives context to the history of life on our planet.
  • Take a couple of long-form science features and highlight every sentence where you spot an analogy or metaphor being used.
  • Scribe your favourite analogies in a notebook.
  • If it is outside your field of expertise, send the analogy to an expert. If they reply with more than one exclamation mark, then ask them politely how it could be improved.
  • Heed the warning of journalist Jacob Aron: “Analogies in science writing are like forklift trucks – when used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll quickly drive them into a wall of laboured metaphors and cause some major damage.”

Speaking to school kids  

Time: 45 minutes

Write a 3-minute presentation about your life as a scientist. Your target audience is a 15-year old student who is debating whether to take up science in her ‘A’ levels. You might consider: your research; the bigger picture; a typical day/week; why you became a scientist; and advice for becoming a researcher. Build in as many analogies as possible. The more colourful, the better.

Get feedback from friends or family. When you are satisfied with your presentation, offer to chat science over a video chat with children of friends. Share your offer on social media. Join an initiative such as Skype-a-scientist. Or film your presentation and share wherever you can.

Tips

  • Ditch jargon, but do not shy away from complicated topics. Break them down to their components. Look at how others do it.
  • Use analogies wherever possible.
  • Use props, share slides, provide links to relevant articles, draw diagrams, write out summaries of your work.
  • Make a point of getting feedback: ask your audience what they learned, thought interesting, or found difficult to understand.
  • Be engaging and enthusiastic!

Write an entertaining presentation

Time: 45 minutes

Write, rehearse, and record an entertaining 3-minute presentation for an online competition. Your target audience is a general public, who are interested in science. There are just two rules: stick to time and make it enjoyable! You could tell a story, recite a poem, sing, rap, dance, act, mime, run an experiment, or anything else you can think of. Balance your phone on a window ledge. Press record. Send your video to friends. Get feedback. Re-record if need be. If you get a good response share it on social media. Don’t forget to keep a look out for online competitions, where your hidden talents might finally be discovered!

Tips

  • Shows such as science slams or initiatives such as the Story Collider provide platforms to talk about your work in an inventive and memorable way. Study use of words, eye contact, humour, and body language. Be as creative as you can when writing your presentation.
  • Remove jargon, excavate the important details.
  • Write it out. Recite it in the shower, on the balcony, and in the kitchen. When you think you have it nailed, practice it thrice more.
  • When in front of the camera: smile, never turn your back, speak loudly and clearly.
  • Finally, have fun – and don`t faint whilst the camera’s on.

Requests, questions, suggestions: adamgristwood@gmail.com, @gristwood

Meet the EMBL Events Team: Emily Pomeroy

Meet Emily Pomeroy, who has recently joined the EMBL-EBI Events Team in the role of Events and Marketing Officer for the EMBL-EBI Industry Programme.

PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy

At EMBL since: February 2020

Number of organised conferences/courses:

I am looking forward to helping on my first event for the Industry Programme in May this year.

 The EMBL-EBI Industry Programme is a subscription-based programme for global companies that make significant use of the data and resources provided by EMBL-EBI as a core part of their R&D. The programme is unique, providing regular quarterly strategy meetings, expert-level workshops on topics prioritised by the members, webinars and other activities.

Favourite place in Hinxton area:

Royston Heath, not too far from Hinxton. A lovely place on a warm sunny afternoon for walking, exploring the woodland with the children and a glass of wine afterwards on the lawn outside the Heath Café Bar.

If you weren’t an events and marketing officer, what would you be?

A travel photographer

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened in an event you have organised?

In a previous job, my colleagues and I all had to dress up as clowns for a circus themed dinner, then walk through Leeds city centre to add to the embarrassment.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?

The power to make my children listen to me!

Favorite food/book/TV show/film.

Thai food is my favourite, I have watched Notting Hill more times than I can count and love reading a good travel journal.

The EMBL ATC celebrates its 10th anniversary

The EMBL Advanced Training Centre (ATC) turned 10 on 9 March! This astonishing building has been an ideal venue to train scientists, foster networking events and has been the starting place for many fruitful collaborations.

The ATC’s architecture is inspired by the DNA’s double helix, and as soon as you step inside, you’ll want to snap a few shots (#EMBLatc #justsaying 😉). Finding your way around the building can be a bit tricky! — to be honest after two years I still get lost sometimes. The easiest way to get to your destination is to walk up and down the helices, where the poster sessions of our events are usually held.

Photo from a lower passage way facing upwards to the ceiling of the ATC. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL
ATC’s double helix. PHOTO: KARLHUBERFOTODESIGN
Poster Session at the EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Non-Coding Genome Symposium. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL

If you feel like relaxing with a coffee and a great view, the ATC Rooftop Lounge is the answer with the beautiful scenery of the Rhine Valley. You may even get lucky and enjoy an evening up there with jazz and drinks— the night lights make for an incredibly chill atmosphere.

Rooftop lounge Biology and Art event at the EMBO Workshop: Visualizing Biological Data. PHOTO: EMBL Events
ATC at night. PHOTO: KARLHUBERFOTODESIGN

We are happy to celebrate this 10th Anniversary with you and thought we’d share some cool facts from our events from 2010-2019.

52,003: The total number of attendees at EMBL courses and conferences

474: Number of EMBL courses and conferences

2,130: The number of Corporate Partnership Program Fellowships. These have been granted to delegates with 91 different nationalities and 82 countries attending 348 different conferences and courses

764: Additional fellowships provided through EMBO, Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds and various societies. These were given to delegates from 73 nationalities and 64 countries to attend 185 courses and conferences.

In case you are feeling curious, here are a few more facts about the ATC.