Presenting Science Concisely, Bruce Kirchoff and Jon Wagner CABI 2021

After about 30 years of research and editing, I am still always puzzled by the poor communication skills of most scientists. This is most likely due to the complicated scientific brain which is unable to translate specialised facts into simple words, the absence of systematic lectures on communication in universities, and, as a consequence, a learning process that favours reproduction of bad habits. Another major challenge is that the scientific community is too gentle in some ways because nobody will really tell you that your presentation is bad. Therefore, in a system without ‘quality control’, you will have few chances to improve. Here, the book of Bruce Kirchoff, nicely illustrated by Jon Wagner, presents advanced techniques to communicate better, with focus on lightning talks.

I really enjoyed the first chapter where authors explain the importance of storytelling in science in a post-truth world where social media is used to manipulate beliefs. Observing that the scientific process has the same structure as a story, and that doing science resembles playing music, they recommend that scientists should integrate their analytical and artistic sides because presentations should be simple, surprising, simple and emotional. Telling good stories would in particular help to fight skepticism such as the attacks on climate science.

Chapter 2 is about transforming a boring data-like presentation into a thrilling Star Wars story, which is feasible because all research is surprising. For that, authors detail the three-act, the five-act and the And-But-Therefore structures, for talks ranging from 90 seconds to 15 minutes, with exercises in genetics, ecology and archaeology. The need to engage the audience is highlighted in three minutes presentations in chapter 3. Authors also explain why slides must be simplified using two clear examples. Chapter 4 presents 15-90 seconds elevator pitches for building collaborations, attracting funding, competing or taking to friends about your research. Here, the key is adapting pitches to your audience and being very concise with tips such ‘strong verbs, short sentences’ and ‘the fewer words you use, the better’.

The application of previous narrative techniques to longer, 15-20 minutes presentations are explained in chapter 5. Here, authors emphasize the importance of the ‘BUT’ transition, corresponding to the conflicting evidence and hypothesis, in the And-But-Therefore structuration of the discourse. Chapter 6 and 7 provide advice on poster presentations, which should be both concise and detailed enough to stand on their own. Authors explain how to write a good title and how to structure the poster content, with examples of good designs. Adapting presentation to the audience is detailed in chapter 8, because, as scientists, we rarely consider our audience when we plan presentations. I found many useful tips here such as being enthusiastic and, if, like most scientists, you work on something that is not in the news, you will have to find a way to convince the audience to listen to you. The book concludes with five rules of behaviour to speak with enthusiasm. Overall, I highly recommend reading this book full of golden nuggets.

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Recommended on behalf of EASE by Eric Lichtfouse

Written by: Eric Lichtfouse