So I had an opportunity to go see a free, open-to-the-public talk by Dr. Michael Mann, one of the lead authors for the IPCC, the person most associated with the “hockey stick” graph of temperature, and a faculty member at Penn State University.

His topic: “Global Climate Change: Past and Present.”

A review:

All in all, a disappointment. It was almost like an advertisement for Edward Tufte’s pamphlet about how PowerPoint fails us.

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Mann, one of the brains behind, is a giant, one of the most important people in the world of climate history, climate modeling, and projections. A fair number of people came to this talk, including a lot of teens with their parents, eager to hear him speak on global climate change.

After the talk, not so much.

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Now, in terms of content, I’m not worthy of cleaning, much less carrying, Mann’s briefcase. But I have enjoyed some good training on public speaking and presentations and have done a fair amount of teaching and presenting. So I would like to thank Mann by offering some tips for scientists who are asked to to out and talk to the “civilians” — a lay audience — about their professional work.

Please consider these ideas, so that your all-too-brief time with the audience is as valuable as it can be. You came a long way to speak; invest some time in making it pay. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the A/V geeks at your college or company and take 30 minutes to learn something about how to use microphones: you’re a scientist; experiment.

    When you do, you’ll find there are only a few kinds of mics, and each one should be held and used differently.

    The one you’ll most likely get when you are on the road is the kind that requires you to put your face almost onto the windscreen. Hold these mics as if they were ice-cream cones, not snakes.

    If you insist on leaving the mic in the stand and not holding it close to your mouth, then plan to plant your feet and stay right there, facing the mic. That means you have to stop talking if you’re going to keep turning your head to look at the screen; you cause aural seasickness as your voice gets louder-softer-louder-softer-louder-softer throughout your talk. If you need a mic at all, then you need the mic for every word you say, not just every other sentence.

  2. Get a Mac laptop if you’re going to try to keep up with Al in the whizzo slide show department. The long pauses while your assistant battles with Windoze are real drags on your presentation. Ideally, you use a Mac laptop and you operate it from the podium so you can see what is being displayed and control the pace. Talking for awhile and then looking up and saying, “Oh, wrong slide,” because your assistant went ahead or didn’t keep up is a real distraction.
  3. Each talk must have a theme. You must state the theme in the first 30 seconds, and clearly identify it as the theme, even by name if you wish. It’s fine to say, “My theme tonight is … ” or, “If you only take one idea away tonight, I’d like it to be …” Refer to the theme whenever you change subtopics; explain how each topic you selected advances the story.

    Keep in mind always that your audience is a bunch of lay people who haven’t heard this talk many times and don’t know where it goes, and therefore do not listen as attentively. The more time they spend trying to figure out why a slide is up there and how it connects to the prior ones, the less time they spend listening to your message.

  4. Better one slide discussed in depth than 25 slides rushed through. Really.
  5. Stop talking and start the Q&A at the announced time. If this means you have to practice your presentation beforehand, to time it and adjust the content to fit, that’s even better. Do not look at your watch, say something about running out of time, and then just keep right on going.
  6. Put the punch line first — just like your written reports contain executive summaries, your presentations should as well. Give away the whole mystery, right up front. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to start your talk with the last slide, the one where you sum everything up and hammer home the big-picture message. Why hide this from the audience?

    Moreover, even if you ramble on too long and don’t get to everything, at least you put the most important stuff up there first.

  7. For any technical graph, remember the rules from grade school — KISS and don’t assume, because you … So keep the graphs as plain and simple as possible, and don’t assume your audience can read that tiny lettering, don’t assume that they know that CH4 is natural gas, don’t assume that they know what PPBV means.

    If this is all too much to go through for your slides, you have too many slides for your talk.

    Oh, and don’t forget to look at the projected slides and especially the color choices during your rehearsals. All the invisible green and yellow lines don’t help you at all, and boy, that prominent red line that really stands out — is that something you meant to emphasize or was that just random? Because that’s the only line the audience can really see clearly. As far as they are concerned, that is the graph.

  8. Don’t bother having the computer do a graphical time-compressed display of longitudinal data (such as global temperature deviation plot for 100 or 1000 years), and for sure don’t expect that anyone in the audience to get anything out of it if you do. It’s just a blob of flashing colors whizzing by. Far better to show the beginning plot (static), representative plots from any intermediate periods (again, static), and then the present (static). If they fit onto one slide to facilitate comparison or show trends, fine.
  9. Generally, rather than taking questions from the mob, it’s better to pass out 3×5 cards and ask that people submit questions by passing them up to an aide in the aisle. This gives you a chance to make sure that the best questions get time, rather than just the first questions lobbed by the first questioners — and it lets you cut out the rambling speeches disguised as questions.

    And while you’re selecting the best questions on the 3×5 cards, the hosts can make all those rambling announcements and acknowledgments that they made at the beginning of your talk, back when peoples’ attention was most focused and they were most eager to hear you (and not the rambling announcements and acknowledgments from the host group). Start on time, in other words.

    Don’t let the hosts steal your golden moments of maximum audience interest and enthusiasm by grabbing them to do anything other than introduce you. Tell your hosts that you plan to start promptly, and that they can do all the routine matter between your timely conclusion and before the Q&A starts.

  10. The nice thing about using a Mac and then working the laptop yourself is that this makes it easy to use the on-screen cursor as a pointer that gets displayed up on the screen for the audience and sits still. This is much better than the annoying laser pointer that makes it appear that you have either been up for three days, drinking, or are suffering from a bad case of palsy. A wobbly red dot zipping around the screen is not actually a good way to get the audience to see what you want to emphasize.