Art of presenting science

This post is a follow-up of Noeska Smit’s post on what you learn in the Art of Presenting Science course, given at TU Delft. In this post I explain a bit about HOW you learn it, and why everybody should follow this course :). Let’s start from the course objectives:

  • To organize presentation content as to make it intriguing for an audience.
  • To be able to present science with flair and authenticity, using theatre techniques, thereby increasing the impact of scientific communication.
Note that it’s not about “presentation structure” or “explaining research clearly”, which are objectives of another presentation course I once followed. Somehow I assumed that being able to produce a structured presentation while still using your own words and illustrative examples already was sufficient for a good presentation. It’s not! At most, it says that you have an idea about your topic, and that you do not panic in front of the audience. However, it does NOT tell people how awesome your research is, or give them something to remember you by (granted, a very bad presentation might be memorable as well, but probably not something you should aim for).
AoPS is done in a small group of (at least in my case) mostly PhD students from different faculties. Each student has a short presentation about his or her research topic. The setup of the course means that the others are probably not familiar with your research topic at all, but probably intelligent enough to understand what it is that you are doing. Still, this makes you reevaluate your idea of what “explaining your research clearly” means.
The two main ingredients for your presentation during the course are:
  • story line
  • pitfall exercises.

The story line is an outline of the presentation, but not a traditional outline with “Introduction”, “Method” and so forth. It is more of a real story, that contains conflicts (challenges in your research field) and turning points (contributions of other researchers and yourself). The story line contains key sentences that bring you from one part to the next – the start of a conflict could be something like “unfortunately, labeling the data manually is too unreliable and expensive”. Your presentation style should reflect whatever it is you want the message to be. Too unreliable and expensive labels is a very, very sad situation, and should be presented accordingly, with a sad face and voice :(. It might seem stupid to do this, but it is really not as bad as you think.

The next part is doing the pitfall exercises. Pitfalls are things you do not do well, as evidenced by the recordings that are made during the course. One of my personal pitfalls had to do with intonation (or too little of it). A pitfall exercise is then to practice speaking a few sentences with a particular feeling (very sad, very happy, etc), even if the feeling does not fit the sentence. This creates such a mismatch for your brain, that being openly sad about unreliable and expensive labels seems quite normal again.
Note that your slides is not an “essential ingredient” for your presentation. The idea is that the way you tell your story should be interesting and clear enough by itself!
With all these ingredients, the setup is quite simple: do your presentation, listen to the comments, do the exercises, rinse, repeat! As I already mentioned, the sessions are recorded, so you can have the very awkward experience of watching yourself present. Also when watching the other students, the progress that everybody’s making is quite clear. Although by end of the course you are listening to a talk for the 10th time, it is actually much more interesting than when you heard the same talk the first time.
I can’t really say following the course will ensure that all your presentations are as good as the one that you give in the end of the course. There are many things to prepare and to practice, and I’m afraid I do not do all of them for each of the talks I give. However, there are a few things that the course teaches you to keep in mind (to tell your presentation as a story, avoid pitfalls and exaggerate more than you feel is normal) that, with a bit of effort, can help in making your average presentation an awesome one 🙂

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