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

 

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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

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7 tips to successfully deliver wet-lab-based training courses

Are you planning a wet-lab-based training course but don’t know where to start? There are so many things that could go wrong! After 6 years as a training lab manager at EMBL,  I have seen it all. Here are some tips that could save you time, nerves and wasted lab consumables.

Our final meeting with the organisers and trainers of the EMBO Practical Course: Humanized Mice, to go over the finishing touches of the lab practicals. PHOTO: EMBL Events

1. Identify your main contacts

Whilst the course organisers are the experts with regards to subject and course content, they are often very busy and trying to get hold of them can be a difficult task. Most of the time they will appoint an experienced colleague in their lab to help with the more practical and logistical aspects of organising the course. These people are the key players for my job – it is generally with them that I organise the practical set-up, because they know exactly what is needed, and when.

2. Timing is everything

Trainers are always surprised by how much longer people need in the lab for things they are doing for the first time. From my experience participants need twice as long in the lab as people who do the experiment regularly. So have this in mind when planning the schedule for a course. If possible, perform dry runs to get a better feeling of how long some experiments really take, and then double that time.

3. Back up, Back up, Back up

Not every experiment that we run during a course will be successful, but it is not the end of the world if you have prepared some back-up samples. The course days are already long enough – nobody wants to miss dinner to repeat a failed experiment, and troubleshooting is also a valuable lesson for the participants.

4. Everything clear?

Giving clear, coherent instructions is one of those things that sounds easy to do but in real life can actually be more complex, especially in a course setting. Some trainers don´t feel comfortable raising their voices to get everyone’s attention, meaning they have to repeat every single thing over and over again, which can cost valuable time.

5. Having good relationships to the main lab

You can plan a practical down to the smallest detail, but someone might still forget to tell you things like, “Oh, your incubator is actually too small to fit the instrument in there!” or “Oops! All my cells died over the weekend!”

In these situations it is key to have a good knowledge about who is doing what in the main lab and is willing and able to help out. Luckily my cheerful personality and baking skills have saved the one or other practical!

6. P p p poker face, p p poker face

As much as I love to have everything planned ahead of time, often this is not the reality when planning courses. Instructors often travel from abroad, and by the time they have arrived on-site, there are so many things that could go wrong. I refer to the first couple of days before the course starts as the “headless chicken mode”. But thanks to the experience and skill of our trainers, we always manage to overcome any difficulties that arise and are able to deliver our courses professionally – and the participants aren’t affected in the slightest!

7. Always be prepared for the unexpected

“It was working fine until this morning!”- This is one of the sentences nobody wants to hear during a course, but that is just how it is in the lab sometimes, and the training lab is no exception. You need to be a flexible thinker and be able to find a solution so the course can go on. Find a replacement instrument, shift the schedule around until the problem is solved. If there is no quick fix come up with another activity and cover the topic theoretically.

But to be honest in these cases I am so happy that I am doing this job at EMBL— because the EMBL people never let you down.

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Mindfulness in Science? That’s MENTAL!

(Yes it is, indeed: Happy Mental Health Day, everyone!)

Mindfulness and stress management trainer Sonja Noss, PHOTO: Sonja Noss

Can you believe it? What’s mindfulness got to do with a scientific conference? I am here to discuss excellent science, not to sit there cross-legged in front of a scented candle, to chant mantras or hug my colleagues”.

Fair point, because what you are talking about is not mindfulness. And yet, as a professional mindfulness facilitator working in a scientific high-performance environment, I encounter this type of statement fairly frequently. It used to upset me, now I usually respond with a smile: “Oh that’s not all. When you come in we will shave your head, put you in a yellow robe and hang a handmade flower garland around your neck”. (Which usually kicks off a more reasonable discussion).

Mindfulness? What is that exactly?!

Mindfulness, to me and in a nutshell, is shutting out the background noise of everyday life and focusing on what you would like to focus on – and being fully aware of what you are doing. Put bluntly, the practice of mindfulness entails a lot of sitting on your bottom / lying on your back / walking around and simply “shutting up”. Without being distracted. In fact, it’s very simple, and yet, not at all easy – otherwise it would not be called a PRACTICE.

Why is this relevant in a scientific surrounding?

In my opinion it is essential, since being able to pay and hold your attention on a certain matter practically equals having a superpower at work – or at a conference for that matter, for example during the last session at 8pm, in a lecture room with no natural light. Many would argue that time is the most limited resource in our working days, but I would argue that it is attention – which a myriad of beeping devices, colleagues, social media, new publications, methods and technological developments, as well as the publication of the daily lunch menu are constantly competing for.

In addition to that, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Health Services (UK) mindfulness can also have a variety of other positive effects on practitioners’ mental health, as the below figure shows.

Figure by Sonja Noss

 

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in science, with increasingly frequent articles in magazines like Nature and Science slowly starting to deconstruct the stereotype: the myth of the “Demi-God in White” doesn’t leave much room for suffering an anxiety attack before your PhD defence, for fear of speaking in public (hello, conference presenters!), for depression caused by glum career perspectives, or any other mental-health challenge. Mindfulness, and especially programmes like the well-studied MBSR programme, can make an important contribution to keeping sane in the pressure cooker that modern science has become. I see them as one pillar in mental health prevention, alongside other aspects such as physical exercise, getting enough sleep, a balanced diet, nourishing social interactions/feeling connected, a sense of purpose, as well as personal interests and hobbies (i.e. having FUN!).

Some simple (mindful) examples of what you could start trying to do in the workplace or at conferences if it is all getting a bit much:

  • In general: learn what your personal stress reactions are. How do you even know you are stressed? What are your personal stress symptoms? Do you get easily agitated or frustrated? Do you tend to suffer from headaches more when you are stressed? Do you suffer from insomnia? Attention to these details is the first step – and that’s already mindfulness.
  • As soon as you notice these symptoms – if you can- take a break. This does not have to be a long break. There are fantastic quick focusing and grounding practices such as this one from Prof. Mark Williams (Oxford Mindfulness Center). See if that makes a difference.
  • Move! Get up and take a walk around the block, if only for five minutes! Any wild animal just having sprinted for its life in the jungle will have broken down the stress hormones floating around its body by the physical exercise. As would the creature which has just fought for their lives. What do humans do? We go and sit down at our desks or stand at the bench… Get enough movement, fresh air, light (not in that lecture room, I guess!), and oxygen.
  • Establish a regular mindfulness practice. The easiest way to do this is with the help of an experienced teacher. Maybe you can contact your organisation’s HR Department or the Staff Association and ask for support in having a training on site?
  • If you have been feeling unwell for a long time (weather vs. climate), please seek professional help. Many organisations have options for coaching or therapeutic interventions available. If not, speak to a person you trust and ask them for help in finding a private coach or therapist. Asking for help is often the hardest thing – and you want to be a tough guy/gal/…, right?

I have been teaching mindfulness and stress management at EMBL for over 3 years, and the initiative has been a great success. Once set up and piloted with the support of the Administrative Director and other departments, the 8-week programme quickly made a great entrance into EMBL General Training Programme. It has become one of the organisation’s most popular courses, with sessions running in parallel to meet the demand.

If you are interested in my Coaching services or would like to bring mindfulness to your organisation, get in touch via www.sonjanoss.com.

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How to use Twitter at a scientific event

PHOTO: Massimo del Prete/EMBL

Mariana R. P. Alves, 3rd year PhD Student in the Crocker Lab, Developmental Biology, EMBL Twitter @Mariana_RPAlves

When I was a 19-year old biochemistry undergrad, I had heard of Twitter but it was Facebook and Instagram that dominated my social media usage at the time. When I attended my first international conference, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2014, I noticed everyone was using Twitter and – not wanting to be left out- I created my account. Never would I have imagined that 5 years later it would be the only social media account I still have active, and that I would use it so much for work. This article is about my personal experience on the benefits of being active on Twitter,      particularly during scientific events, as well as some tips on how best to use Twitter to your (scientific) advantage!

Spread the knowledge

Sharing is caring! And scientists should share. Being at a conference is truly a privilege for scientific exchange. Some scientists might not be able to attend the event you are in because of personal commitments, lack of funding, or even to reduce their carbon footprint. I’m sure almost everyone has taken notes of talks to share with their lab colleagues – now you can share what you learn with a bigger scientific community! If you share the highlights of the event you are attending, you are making the new exciting information available to those who would otherwise not have access to it. Isn’t this a good enough reason to start your Twitter account?

Minimise missed opportunities

Conferences can be overwhelming and you want to maximise your networking and scientific exchange. If you tweet about the scientific event and use its hashtag, other people in the conference can find you and you might find people with common interests that you wouldn’t have bumped into in the crowd. It was on Twitter also that I found people inside and outside my institute who wrote interesting things – you can always DM them for a coffee, and you might find a new friend!

Exposure

This is again about networking. Not only do you minimise the missed matches you could have with scientific minds at an event, but you also maximise your exposure and that can bring you unexpected opportunities. Opportunities could be someone advertising a job directly to you, a journal editor becoming interested in your paper, or someone from the press at that event wanting to feature you.

Fun

It can be super fun to act as a reporter of a conference. In 2018, the Social Media Manager of the time at EMBL gave me the challenge of taking over EMBL’s official Twitter account to post about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. It was a wild ride, I was super scared at the beginning but it was a lot of fun, and definitely fulfilled the 3 previous benefits I wrote. It also caught the eye of the conference organisers, who thought it was really cool of EMBL to do this.

-> Check out the social media report from my Lindau EMBL Twitter Takeover!

Win prizes

If the sensible reasons above are not enough to convince you, maybe you will be interested to know that some scientific conferences and courses have competitions over Twitter where you can win prizes. I once won a brand-new multi-dispenser pipette in a CamBioScience Course in Cambridge, because I had the most likes on my Twitter posts. Moreover, I did not even have that many likes, but there was not much competition around. Now I am very proud of my pipette and brought it with me from the UK to Germany. With EMBL Events, you can also win prizes – see more in the how-to bullet points below.

10 Tips on how to use Twitter

These are just some tips I have written down from the top of my head, but you can find a lot of useful info online, and on Twitter itself. In addition, several institutes have guidelines on their intranets about how to use social media for work. Finally, get advice from your institute’s Social Media Manager or Communications Department – they are the experts!

  1. Check the hashtag and handle of the scientific event you are attending and use it to check other people’s posts and always include it in your tweets.
  2. Follow the scientists and institutes you are interested in and admire.
  3. Don’t know what to tweet about? You can start by the highlights of your favourite talks.
  4. Make sure you follow a diverse group of tweeters, this way your timeline will definitely be richer.
  5. You do not need to tweet just about data and new scientific findings, you can share interesting anecdotes from the conference, highlight some conference features that should be replicated such as accessibility logistics, diversity or environmentally friendly upgrades.
  6. Debates and discussions are also very good content for live-tweeting.
  7. You can group several tweets about the same subject in what is called a “thread”. You just need to make your first tweet and write the others as comments below it. Frequently people indicate how many tweets will be in the thread by adding something like “1/5” at the end of the tweet.
  8. If your institute is open to it, you can propose to them that you take over their Twitter account for that conference – it could be a very interesting experience for all!
  9. Do not start a tweet with a handle because it will not show on your timeline. You can add a dot before it. For example, instead of “@emblevents I had an amazing time” you can write “. @emblevents…”.
  10. Have you attended an @emblevents conference or course? Don’t forget to post a picture of the EMBL or EMBO bag in any location around the world using the hashtag #EMBLbag and @emblevents to enter the competition

Furthermore, Twitter can be a great tool to find new papers, share your new paper, ask questions (it would be interesting to compare the effectiveness of asking on Twitter vs ResearchGate), learn about other conferences and about scientific community topics – from struggles to healthy changes (great hashtag for that is #eLifeAmbassador) – support other scientists, find job ads, and more…

So, what are you waiting for?!

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