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09 Sep / This Gentleman talks Science

Darcy Gentleman of DJG Communications started out in science, but soon realized it was the story telling of science that most interested him. His goal is to help scientists and others communicate better. As someone who has worked with scientists, policy wonks and lawyers for most of my life, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in this Gentleman.

“The goal of any talk should be to start conversations in rooms the speaker has not entered”

As all good communicators know, the audience comes first. Darcy says the best presentations are the beginnings of a conversation. Ultimately, it’s the conversations that occur among the audience when the speaker leaves that are the most important. “The goal of any talk should be to start conversations in rooms the speaker has not entered.”  If a speaker’s thoughts and ideas don’t continue after s/he leaves the room, then the presentation failed. The speaker should be motivating people to do something, believe in something or buy something.

In order to achieve this goal, you need to really know your audience.  If you are a scientist or an expert in your field, your presentation style and content choices should be dictated by your audience. Is your audience made up of other experts? If so, then jargon is probably appropriate. Darcy says groups, like social clicks, develop their own “dialect,” so jargon can be very important with peers.  For example, if you are a pharmaceutical researcher, and your goal is to reach other pharmaceutical researchers, you should absolutely use the same pharma-researcher-dialect. But using that same dialect outside of your community can be a barrier to others understanding you. Then, it’s important to use words that are more commonly understood.

When my father worked at NASA as a physicist, he would sometimes be interviewed by a reporter from a mainstream media outlet about one of his projects.  In those situations, he would call me in advance and we would talk through the project. I would keep asking him questions until he could verbalize why I should care about the topic at hand.  Once he could explain it to the point that I cared and was interested, we both knew we were on to some good talking points. Not being a scientist, I was a good focus group for him to test his messages.   

Darcy says it’s important that scientists build awareness of words and terminology that might not be familiar to an audience of non-experts. When working with scientists preparing for that situation, he recommends they check out YouTube and find a channel that talks about the topic in layperson’s terms to see how it is broached. Or look up stories about the issue in the science section of newspapers to see how it has been covered.  These outlets might provide tips on how to fashion your language in a style that is more commonly understood. 

Visuals can frequently be an important element to any talk. But many scientists forget that graphs are not useful communications tools outside of a niche audience.  Darcy recalls that a scientist once said: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a graph is worth a thousand pictures.”  Yes, a graph can have thousands of datapoints, but if you don’t know the context, it is just a picture, that’s it; and a picture you don’t get.  In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina, a neuroscientist at Stanford says when you are looking at something you are not familiar with, if you cannot grasp a related meaning within the visual you will not remember it clearly (if at all).  If you are looking at a graph and unfamiliar with the context, whether you admit it or not, you are paying attention to the color or perhaps the font – aesthetic elements, not meanings – and you will never reach the level of knowledge that the person who created the graph had unless you are in that field.

A graph can have thousands of data points, but if you don’t know the context, it is just a picture, that’s it; and a picture you don’t get.

On occasions when Darcy has helped scientists prepare talks for non-scientists, he told the speakers that the only reason they should use a graph in a presentation is to make a joke!!

Steve Jobs was one of the best presenters ever, according to Darcy. When he was marketing a new iphone, he did not focus on the weight, the size or the speed.  Instead, he said the phone will give you the life you want.  Wow!  As with everything, you need to reach people’s hearts and minds. That rule applies to phones, legislation, religion, sports, everything!

Darcy thinks three of the toughest issues in the science world to communicate are climate change, vaccinations and GMOs. How climate change works, how cancer works, what GMOs are, only interest some. So, you need to focus on the human-interest angle. Instead of graphs and reports, show the severity of storms and the impact of climate change on communities; introduce the impact of cancer on one family; or interview a traditional farmer who changed to organic farming due to health fears for him and his family.

Albert Einstein is probably the best known scientist.

He loves how NASA promotes their missions, engaging people in the personal stories behind the astronaut and promoting the launch as an adventure. While some scientists lament that no one can recognize a famous scientist, except maybe Albert Einstein, he reminds them that polls show that people have great respect and trust for scientists.  Better that then name recognition, right? 

So next time you are giving a presentation, take some inspiration from Bonnie Raitt and “Let’s Give ‘em Something Talk About” when your presentation is over.   

Originally published on Medium by Cindy Hoffman

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