OF THE BIOLOGICAL
QUESTION THAT HAS
YOU CANNOT EVEN
IN THE PROBLEM AT
this space, I frequently hold forth about the importance of attending
lectures at NIH to keep abreast of current developments in a field and
to broaden ones scientific perspective.
Afternoon Lectures and the Friday noon NIH Directors
Seminar Series were developed to expose a general audienceNIH
trainees and scientiststo the best and most interesting aspects
of current biomedical research.
Most of these
lectures live up to our expectations, but more than occasionally, a
speaker has difficulty explaining the importance of his or her work
or fails to convey the most basic concepts underlying the research.
A recent complaint
from an NIH scientist about the obscure nature of some of our lectures
(see "Catalytic Reactions")
prompted this essay on clarity in speaking about science.
You should never
assume that a general audience knows the nature of the biological phenomenon
or question that has captivated you. You cannot even assume the audience
has any special interest in the problem at hand.
So in the first
few minutes of the talk, or in the first few slides, explain in simple
terms the issue of interest and why you found it so engaging and important.
For example, there might be some clinical relevance worth mentioning,
or perhaps an important underlying biological principle is at stake.
The intent of
your introduction should be to intrigue the audience and discourage
them from falling asleep before youve even gotten to the data.
Make sure a logical
thread flows throughout your narrative. The best talks tell a story.
The story may unfold historically or sequentially; it may weave together
what at first appear to be diverse facts or fields; or it may be a who-done-it
or how-we-done-it showing how you solved a long-standing mystery or
problem presented in the introduction.
out a series of disconnected slides and showing them is bound to result
in audience confusion.
The story line
of your talk can never be too simple. Even the brightest people appreciate
clear explanations and rationales.
On the other hand,
you should not insult an audience by leaving out complex experiments
that are important to your argument. Omitting these from a talk leaves
a logical gap that the intelligent listener cannot fill. By all means,
discuss the complex experimentsbut describe them in the simplest
Visual aids in
your presentationusually slides, overheads, or moviesshould
be relevant to the talk and free of extraneous information.
When a slide comes
up, the audience begins to scan it, and the talk that accompanies each
slide should aid the audience in understanding the data or pictures
on the slide.
All too often,
slides are cluttered with complex, extraneous information that confounds
rather than enlightens the listener.
Clear slides are
especially important if you are not a native speaker of your audiences
language. The principle that "simple is better" holds for
the audience will not absorb everything you say during the talk. Do
not be afraid to repeat a conclusion or important point during a talk.
And always have a set of conclusions that the audience can take home.
In keeping with
the final principle, heres my take-home lesson: Think of yourself
as a member of the audience who has not had a lifetime of experience
working on your subject and speak to that person.