Visualizing Science in Public Presentations

How do you incorporate anecdotes, slides, or videos to enhance, not distract from, your message?

  • Verbal Tools: Verbal tools, such as examples, stories, and analogies, often more clearly illustrate your key messages than technical information. Identify stories or examples that fit with the audience's experience – not necessarily your own. Test your analogies and stories with non-scientists, perhaps family or friends, in advance of using them.
  • Use Slides Sparingly: The popular visual tool of slides can be an effective enhancer as long as you are conscious of what will work best given the situation and audience. Slides can be a distraction, especially when text-heavy. If you're preparing a public talk, consider if traditional text-based slides suits the audience's needs or if an alternative visual (or no slides at all) would be better.

Don't feel obligated to use slides just because you always have or your colleagues do. If you anticipate a conversation with a smaller group or other setting where slides could be too formal, just go without.

  • Beyond the Bullet Points: Keep in mind that outline-based, bullet point slides are not the only option when it comes to visuals. You can enhance the audience's interest by choosing a handful of images that reflect your message and display them in the background. Take care to not use too many or change them too quickly. Even image-based slides can be distracting.

Consider also that "visual" can mean video clips. Video can be tricky to use since it means taking a break in your presentation, but it can be useful when relevant and intriguing.

For inspiration, consider looking into the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. Each year, the journal Science and the National Science Foundation recognize science visualization achievements. Take a look at past winners, award categories, and evaluation criteria for ideas on how to better represent your research visually.

The video below highlights some suggestions from a panel speaking about best practices for visualizing science at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting. The panel in its entirety is also available to watch for free.

  • Low-Tech Options: While technology allows us to draw upon an impressive array of images, video and text, do not forget the tangible options! Many audiences might benefit from hands-on examples and non-technical props that provide a visual to the scientific work you are verbally describing. Watch the video below for an example.