Is a good science talk really a bad science talk?

One of the mantras drilled into the heads of graduate students as they prepare their oral meeting presentations is “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  The point being to make sure that the audience knows what you think is important.  And at a meeting, this can be pretty significant as folks wander in and out of a room or are distracted.  That first part tells them what they should really look for (and it helps to remind the student what they are emphasizing), the last is to reaffirm that the desired goal was in fact met.

But this is probably a lousy format for a colloquium talk and even lousier for a public talk.  Think of the storytellers out there and how their stories go.  Does Hans Christian Anderson tell you what happens to the Little Mermaid at the start of the tale?  Would Grimm’s Fairy Tales be the same if they started with the fate of the children lost in the woods? Or even a regular joke–is it better knowing the punchline at the start? [Occasionally yes; the best of Steven Colbert’s The Wørd segments worked that way]. Basically, the farther you run from a specialist audience, the more you want your presentation to evolve like a story, one where there is some suspense and some reward.  Instead, many science talks start with certainty, wander through observation, experimentation, and inference to come to a conclusion that all too frequently dissolves into a mist of “more research is needed.”

Basically you want some kind of plot line that makes sense, you want easily recognized key points and you want a climax.  This is a far cry from normal science communication, yet most of the time such an arc is well known to the speaker, for the science was not found the way it is usually presented. Oftentimes there was some barrier that had to be breached, one whose breaching in the final paper is some “by the way” paragraph instead of the emotional milestone it was in the process of doing the work. A moment of epiphany is reduced to a logical result in a paper.  These highlights of the process of doing science can be engaging elements of a talk even as their presence in a scientific paper would be a distraction.

Interestingly, one has to wonder if this might also be good advice for classroom lectures (which, despite the generally low opinion in which “sage on the stage” is held these days, is the most popular form of university teaching).  GG has seen some of the best instructors work to have lectures that have an arc, that are stories, that are as much performances as lectures and not mere recitations of theories and facts, and admires the result (in contrast, GG is a failure at making such lectures).  It is pretty hard work.

Anyways, something to chew on the next time you fall asleep in a science talk.  What would have made that talk sing?



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