by Saarah Kuzay
When it comes to sharing information about myself or my research, my biggest mental challenge is saying something I think is relevant or important. I know what I love about my research and how I got to that point, but who I am to judge what someone else is interested in? Why should people listen to me in the first place?
Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s just a question of feeling confident, getting more practice, trying some new teaching methods that are more engaging. Maybe she needs to find the right audience or crowd that resonates with her and what she does.”.
If you were thinking this, you are a very kind person and I thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt. However, I have already taken this advice to heart … and it hasn’t helped me. Over the last four years, I have given about 100 formal and semi-formal presentations about my research projects. My audiences and communication methods were extremely diverse. I have used hands-on activities for K-12 students, “cool facts” demonstrations to college-town families, applied science talks for farmers and industry representatives, formal teaching of genetics concepts to undergraduate classes, and more technical and advanced presentations to professors and fellow graduate students. I even made educational videos and a few pieces for the local radio station. And, yet, over this multitude [GP1] of work, I can only recall six outreach presentations where I felt like I “nailed it.” By that, I mean my audience was genuinely engaged and interested in what I had to say and my words sounded inspired, succinct and meaningful.
While I can bask in the memory of those few occasions, that’s a pitiful success rate of 5%. The other 95% of my presentations were either mediocre or downright terrible. My audience members were glassy-eyed, bored, annoyed, engrossed in their phones, or embarrassed on my behalf, and no one approached me for questions. In the worst cases, less than 10 people (mostly loyal friends) showed up for my presentation in a room with over a hundred seats. There are some obvious areas for improvement when I reflect on these not-so-great presentations. In my anxiety, my voice and body language lacked emotion and excitement. I would use too much jargon, over-explain concepts and lose my train of thought. Or, I would become over-excited and string together an impressive set of facts that didn’t communicate a central message. In short, during my worst presentations, the audience witnessed a strange mad-scientist monologue of loosely connected facts accompanied by some nice pictures.
Recently, however, I discovered a new science communication strategy that helped me overcome most of these quirks. At Cornell’s Speaking Science workshop, I attended the Story Collider sessions for science communication. While there, I learned how to “tell stories” about science instead of just communicating scientific facts. And most importantly, I learned that effective stories--scientific or otherwise-- are dramatic, imbue emotion and give meaning to a set of facts. Yes, that means telling a story with personal, emotional content in front a large group of people. A scary concept for most people, myself included.
The first story I crafted was about almost getting kicked out of graduate school. Despite my hard work, my major professor was extremely unhappy with my progress after the first three months of my Ph.D. program. That frightening meeting was the abrupt wake-up call that made me more proactive in my research and learning. In the process of telling this story, I was weaving in analogies and facts about my research into the plot without stumbling over them. Galvanized by my own story, I didn’t have to develop scripted, simplified phrases, which can come across as belittling, “dumbed down” science to the audience. Finally, recounting this story also meant reliving that horrible day. While exhausting, that meant my story was much more relatable and memorable – I spoke with true emotion and subtly but effectively conveyed the significance and urgency of my work.
Transforming research into a personal story is powerful and creative art. And while it is not practical to use a personal story in every science outreach opportunity, real stories have the potential to engage any audience, regardless of his/her prior knowledge or misconceptions.
Saarah Kuzay is a PhD candidate at the Dubcovsky Lab of University of California Davis, where she focuses on understanding the genetic basis of the number of spikelets per spike (SPS) in wheat.
Have questions or comments about this post? Please reach out to Saarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.