Beware of boffins with stage fright

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The Independent Culture
Your heart is ricocheting against your chest wall; your mouth is filled with sand and your stomach is housing a force 10 storm. Your palms are slithering with sweat and you know that if you try to stand, you will, for certain, fall down. Any aspiring thespian or politician has only themselves to blame for electing to follow a career path where such sensations are daily fare: no one tells us scientists, however, that we too are going to have to get used to public speaking and at least be competent.

In biomedical research, for example, there is a particularly imaginative form of duress that comes with giving a 10-minute presentation to the Physiological Society of Great Britain. This august body imposes terrifying time-keeping by traffic-light. For the first nine minutes all is fine as the light stays on green. However, as the final 60 seconds approaches, the light switches to amber, and to red as soon as the time is up. All that is missing is a trap door then opening and allowing any garrulous presenter to pass to some physiology inferno below. In any event, the diary of most research scientists is generally peppered with invitations to visit other departments and universities where it is the custom to give a one-hour talk on your latest findings.

In addition, there are formal conferences with their subtle and somewhat mystifying sub-divisions of workshops, symposia and colloquia. These sessions are not as diverse as their vivid labels imply. You stand up and give a talk using slides, in all cases: the only variation is in the size of the audience and length of talk. In any event, it takes a strange combination of guts and madness to stand up in front of a sea of grey suits and sell your experiments as of fundamental importance and immediate relevance. Unlike actors, and arguably politicians, you are not relaying other people's ideas or words, but your own.

If the common coinage of scientific research is publication, personal presentation must rank as a very robust credit note. In fact, one established scientist was even overheard remarking: "I don't really trust what someone's published until I've heard them talk." The idea that scientific reputations can be enhanced or demolished on a stage, is alarming, since there is the terrible possibility that someone with a smooth tongue might effect a scientific con trick. Conversely, someone with poor presentation skills might so bore the audience that the impact of a genuinely wonderful discovery is lost.

Sadly, poor presentation skills tend to prevail. For some, even an almost inverted snobbery holds whereby 30 yellowing slides shown in 20 minutes accompanied by a fragmented mumble or a text read rapidly in a monotone, amounts to some sort of high academic and intellectual absent-minded-professor purism. An alternative danger is that some veer away from the lofty boffin stance to embrace such a flashy approach that one cannot discern the scientific wood for the hi-tech trees.

A current favourite, for instance, is to have dual projection, where two slides are shown simultaneously. The audience ends up emulating a crowd at Wimbledon, flicking their gaze from left to right. Beyond the questionable prestige emanating from the possession of two slide projectors, the merits of distracting the audience with two points of focus, are surely arguable.

Scientists on the whole are not particularly flamboyant, articulate or witty: we need all the help we can get at conveying the excitement of what we do. What sort of training is needed? A one-day course, such as at least one research council has now instituted for its graduate scholars, is a start. The real trick lies with scientists believing that it is important to make every effort to work at giving the best presentations possible. I have often thought that it would be marvellous to have instruction from our more charismatic counterparts in the theatre and politics. After all, it might prove to be a happy arrangement for all since those two professions are among the very few that have probably a higher incidence of "resting" than even in science.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physics, London.