Op-Ed: Lessons On Science Communication From The UCSD Grad SLAM Finals

Yesterday evening, I had the pleasure of listening to the top ten finalists in the UCSD Grad SLAM competition. Each student had three minutes to communicate their research projects to a general audience with the help of a PowerPoint presentation in a TED-style talk. All of the talks were exceptional and served as excellent examples of good science communication, but a few things stood out to make the best talks even better. Here were some of my take-aways that I hope to include in my own science communication going forward.

  1. Talk slowly. Three minutes to a speaker feels like a very short amount of time. But as an audience member, I experienced each talk as being just long enough to keep my attention. Part of that was because each speaker spoke at a conversational pace that didn’t seem rushed and left natural breaks. When you speak with the audience’s attention in mind, above the need to pack everything into a short period of time, you are able to hook your audience into your topic with ease.
  2. Don’t be afraid to move. One of my favorite presentations, and the 3rd place winner, was from an MFA Dance student. She used the entirety of the stage in her presentation, making gestures to demonstrate her point. The movements she made were just as important as the images she put on the screen. But even the more science-focused students who used their bodies gave more engaging presentations. It is important to remember that body language is one of the fundamental ways we communicate with each other and it is to our advantage to use that when communicating our research.
  3. Focus on the big picture. I was very surprised to see that most of the talks were not data driven. In fact, only a few students included graphs in their PowerPoints. Instead, the really good talks focused on the broader context of their research in a way that was more relevant to the general audience. As scientists, it is very common for us to get sucked into the nitty-gritty of our individual experiments. But that is not what is important to our audience. Don’t be afraid to zoom out a bit and engage your audience in the bigger picture of the field you work in.
  4. Use vivid analogies. Every single one of the presentations included a great analogy at some point in the talk. Some even included multiple. Analogies are a great way to make complex, unfamiliar concepts tenable for your audience. The point of the analogy is not to be an exact representation of the concept at hand, but a general overview that lets your audience share a common image with you. By giving your audience something more tangible to hold onto, you can better draw them into the importance of your topic.
  5. Use simple images. Most of the images that accompanied these talks were representational. None of them looked like figures you might find in an academic paper. In fact, most of the PowerPoints would not have made much sense without the speaker giving the presentation in front of them. The images were all there to help demonstrate a point, but not stand alone. This helps the audience focus on you instead of getting distracted by unnecessary information. Use simple images to help guide your audience’s attention to the most important points.
  6. Just keep going. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the 2nd place winner said to me afterwards that she stumbled over some of her points and messed up a few phrases—but no one in the audience could tell. That’s because even in the face of mistakes, the best presenters just keep going. Don’t get caught up in the small details and keep your attention focused on the larger goal, which is sharing your research with the audience.
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