Let’s bury the Powerpoint Murder Mystery

Jean-Luc Doumont has described some research presentations as mystery stories: The presenter has a result they want to share, but they don’t want to spoil it by telling the audience up front. After a brief introduction to the topic, most of the presentation is spent on methods, experimental details, and data. Finally at the end, they surprise the audience with the results, and wait for the expressions of awe. Consistently, this is never as intriguing as the speaker hoped. While there is growing awareness that scientists need to communicate better, the research presentation is remarkably resistant to change. I’d like to report that among many scientists, the Powerpoint Murder Mystery is alive and well.

Scientific research is sometimes compared to product development. If the research and results are the product, then science communication is the marketing of that product. Scientists often struggle with this concept, because there is the notion that good results speak for themselves. That is an attitude that needs to change. Apple doesn’t build beautiful phones then leave them stacked up at the factory waiting for people to come find them, and good research does not explain itself to other people. So if we accept that science communication is important, then the research presentation is the scientist’s most powerful tool to communicate their work. Why? Because unlike a journal article or a tweet, the presentation is a chance for a researcher to use narration, visual data, and images to engage a captive audience.

The prevalence of the mystery presentation is due to misguided perspective. It is very hard to distance yourself from the time and effort you’ve put into getting your results – but to the audience, your time and effort have no role to play in the story you are telling.* The early versions of my Ph.D. thesis seminar looked a lot like the iconic Powerpoint Murder Mystery, represented in Figure A. After a brief intro where I explained my challenge was to make fluorescent polymers for detecting sugars, the bulk of the talk was an account of all my lab activities for the past three years. The story was all about experiments, with attention to experimental details proportional to the amount of time spent on them. I had to dedicate at least three slides to different polymerization methods, because I spent three months on failed polymerization methods. The problem was that the only person who cared about the experimental details was myself. If a research presentation is a story, then the struggle of a researcher to get data is the wrong story to tell.

My actual exit seminar looked very different, due to a fortunate coincidence: My thesis was already submitted, and I had friends and family coming to the seminar – I chose to give a talk most of the audience could understand. My wife, a non-scientist, helped give feedback until the final presentation was closer in format to what can be called a Narrative Research Presentation, illustrated in Figure B. I was pleasantly surprised when many people of different disciplines told me they understood more than they expected.

In the Narrative Research Presentation, the main character is the research problem. The presentation can be divided into three parts. The first part of the presentation is not only an introduction, but an analysis of that problem: what are the properties that make these polymers useful? What approaches have been tried in order to make them? What is my approach, what assumptions did I make, and how did I go about testing them? If the audience is interested in the problem, they will care about the next section, which is the data that tests the assumptions laid out in the intro. The last part puts the problem into context, given the data just shown. Were the assumptions correct? What new questions were raised? What are the new areas of research that are yet to be explored? The key is to keep the level of meaning for the audience as high as possible throughout the presentation.

Scientists who are effective communicators know how to tell stories appropriate to their audience. This is not to be confused with “dumbing down” your research. In the case of my exit seminar, the audience was a mix of non-scientists and interdisciplinary scientists. Because of that, the story and the graphic content was aimed at a high level – meaning more attention to context and framing the problem, and less emphasis on experimental detail. That doesn’t mean that those details are not important. If I were addressing a group of scientists with similar expertise, the detail would increase appropriately. But the structure of the story would not change – the research problem remains the main character.

Five years later, the experimental details of my graduate research are getting hazier – but I can still state clearly what the problem was, how I addressed it, and what I learned. In the many times I’ve presented my research to people of very different backgrounds, that is all anyone really cares about.

In academia, there are many benefits to giving effective research presentations. Colleagues will remember and understand the problem you’re working on, making it easier to find and engage collaborators. If you are seen as a good communicator, it opens doors to opportunities like giving lectures, scientific writing, and other “beyond-the-bench” activities. Finally, while the Powerpoint murder mystery is often tolerated in academia, it is a liability in industry. People want to know what they are getting for their money – and they won’t sit through a catalog of inconclusive experiments to find out. The better you are at delivering the take-home message, the more value you will bring to a team. Your ability to tell a compelling story will also help you in getting what you need – whether resources, time, or a job.

*There is of course a great story to be told of the personal & scientific challenges that go into solving a research problem – lots of popular science writing delves into this area. But don’t confuse that with a research presentation, which is a data-driven story.

Resources:

High Impact: How the story of research can be told better. Vicki Thomson, The Conversation, June 5, 2012.

Trees, Maps, and Theorems, by Jean-Luc Doumont, Principiae Publishing. Buy it, read it, live it.

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