This past week I had the opportunity to go hiking in the Sandias, and the views from these mountains east of Albuquerque are spectacular.

picturesque-mountains
View from one of the Sandia trails.

One of the main attractions of the Sandias, is the Sandia Crest, two miles high. As a lowlander, moving around two miles up is significantly more strenuous, but totally worth it.

crestview
View from the Sandia Crest.

There is also a small trail that leads to a stone cabin on top of the crest, and even more spectacular views.

The forests on the Sandias smell of cedar, and it is really cool to see active forest management – they use thinning and controlled burning to prevent wildfires and control insect outbreaks.

And of course, an adventure isn’t an adventure without having your tour guide’s vehicle breakdown at the top of the mountain! But we managed to get home safely after a long tow through winding mountain roads.

But let’s move on to a more academic subject.

Public speaking. Graphic design. Storytelling.

What do they have in common? They are all useful skills for a scientist.

As a scientist, it is important to be able to communicate your research, and while the primary outlet is through publications, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to verbally communicate your research in an engaging way – not only to other scientists, but also to everyone else. My philosophy is this: if you are being funded by someone’s tax contributions, it is your responsibility to answer any questions they may have your research (barring legal issues such as nondisclosure agreements, security clearances, etc.).

This past week, I had an opportunity to present my research at the weekly ‘brown bag’ seminar for the University of New Mexico’s Biology Department.

When giving a seminar or conference presentation, there are many elements that make a presentation good or bad, and whether those elements are good or bad can also be a matter of someone’s personal preference. But preferences aside, your audience should be able to follow your presentation, and remember, at the very least, what you did and what your conclusions were. So this week, I’m going to talk about a couple of the lessons I’ve learned over my (relatively short) scientific career so far.

Visuals: these need to be easy to understand, or at the very least, you need to bring them into your presentation in a way that your audience can understand. Generally, simple graphics are better, although I’ve seen a couple presentations where the speaker had a very complex graphic, but brought it in in a piecemeal way to make it very easy to understand. If you do have to use a complex graphic, incorporate it into your presentation as though you are an artist doing a live painting: sketch an outline, fill in the broad details, then spend time adding in the finer elements that really make your point.

The story: this needs to be engaging, and constructed in a logical way so that your audience can follow what you are saying. Ideally, by the end of the introductory section, your audience should be able to predict what your questions are – if they can’t, then you need a better intro. As for how the experiments are carried out, unless the methods are the focal point of your work, you only need to have enough information so that your audience knows what kind of data to expect – if they have any questions, there is usually time at the end to discuss this. A thoughtful, concise section on methodology should prime your audience for absorbing the results of your study. As for the results, this falls mostly under the advice for visuals above, but keep in mind that the data should flow in a logical way. I personally like to include recaps of each cohesive section of data (e.g. if I talk about a lot of photosynthesis data, I’ll recap those findings before moving onto growth data). The recaps serve two purposes: they re-engage any audience members whose attention has been lost, and they reinforce your take home messages. This repetition will help the audience to remember the conclusions for your presentation when you state them at the end, as at that point, they will have heard the conclusions at least twice.

Again, I need to stress that presentations are a matter of personal preference, but hopefully the above advice can help you develop more effectively seminar presentations!

Stay safe and stay informed,
-Joe

 

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