Brian McCarthy

“Not all the things that are important to you are important for your audience”

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This is an interview with me recently published by the Barcelona Institute for Research in Biomedicine (and reproduced here with their kind permission) about my course "How to Improve Your Scientific Presentations". The original interview can be found here.

Improve your ‘soft skills.’ Raise your hand if you are a scientist and you have not heard this mantra before. IRB Barcelona takes this skill set very seriously. In collaboration with the Dr. Antoni Esteve Foundation, every year it organises workshops such as How to improve your scientific presentations and Scientific Communication: Getting Started.

Brian McCarthy, Irish theatre director and acting teacher, philosopher and writer, is one of the coaches of these courses. His goal is to “help people get their greatest work into the world and turn their big ideas into reality,” he explains. In vivo met him after the last session of “How to improve your scientific presentations”, which was held in April.

“You could do the best research in the world and have the best ideas, but if you are not able to talk about it, no one is ever going to know about it,” he warns. “This is why you need to be a good communicator.  Another reason is leadership. To be a good team leader you also need to be a good communicator.”

Can you give us some examples of the most typical hurdles scientists in Spain have to overcome in order to communicate more effectively?

I work all over the world and I don’t see many differences between Spanish scientists and those from other countries. Scientists from the US are different though because there they take communication very seriously. But elsewhere, in South America, Europe and Africa—where I have experience—little or no training in communication is provided to scientists.

Regarding the obstacles. English is not a problem any more in Spain, particularly with young scientists, who have an extraordinary level of English. I think the biggest problem is that scientists don’t fully understand the difference between writing about their work and speaking about it. Writing is for sharing data, information and results. But speaking should be about solving problems and persuading people you have the right answer, and not so much about sharing results.

What’s the usual feedback you receive from your students?

They are often surprised about the emphasis I place on the role of the audience in presentations. The audience is the most important thing to think about, not you or what you want to say. That is kind of new for a lot of people. People usually also really enjoy what we teach about body language. Very few people receive training on body language and voice. And it’s useful for everything, from science presentations to flirting in the bar.

Let’s begin with the audience. How do you focus on it?

A presentation is different from a publication. If I’m reading a publication and I am not enjoying it, or if I read the title and it’s not interesting to me, I just put it down. I don’t have to read it. And even if I am interested in reading it, I can read it when I want and where I want. With a written document, you are also free to jump around the sections; with a presentation you have to follow the speaker.

A presentation is also difficult to leave when it’s boring. To treat your audience well, first you should speak about something that is important for them. Of course it should be important for you, but it should be important for them too. You have to find that link between your work and their concerns and make it the focus of your talk. This changes everything about your presentation. It changes how you structure it, it changes what you put in—it’s very difficult to choose what to say if you are limited to 15 minutes. But if your limitation is “what your audience needs to know,” this gives you greater scope and allows you to choose the material to include wisely.

Audience plays a big role also in the Questions & Answers section.

In terms of your whole presentation, the most important part is the Questions and Answers section. That’s what makes a presentation a presentation. If there is no interaction, there is no difference with a YouTube video. If you don’t get any questions, it could be for a number of reasons. In the worst case it is because you have just presented a lot of material that is important for you and not for the audience. But often it is because you have to break the ice—nobody wants to be first. A good trick for that is to have a question ready and ask the audience that question yourself at the end of the presentation to get the ball rolling.

Can you give us a couple of practical pieces of advice?

One of the easiest things to do is to get some index cards. Write down what you want to say on them and take them with you to the presentation. Hold them if you need to, or just put them in your pocket, but have them on hand because they are really useful. First of all, the mere act of preparing the cards helps you remember what you want to say. Secondly, they give you psychological support: having them in your pocket or in your hands while you are speaking supports you because you know that if you go blank, you can just look down at your cards to remember what you want to say. Another great advantage of the cards is that by putting everything you want to say on them, you don’t have to put it in the PowerPoint presentation. Most people use PowerPoint to remind themselves what they want to say, not to help the audience. That’s why PowerPoints are often full of text. It’s like a script that is visible to everybody, but it’s really for the speakers to remember what to say.

What about a couple of other tips you give in your course.

One very simple thing is at the very beginning of the presentation. Don’t speak and say Hello, and start talking while you are walking, as most people do. Usually you will be sitting down before beginning your talk. When you are going to stand up to speak, someone is going to introduce you. You’ll stand up and  walk towards the centre of the room to begin. Try not to talk, get to the centre, in silence look at the audience, pause, and then speak. That creates a great sense of expectation, it makes you look very confident, and it’s a nice way to begin.

Another simple tip. Use a video when rehearsing. Record yourself on camera. Then watch yourself. It’s the best way to improve. When you watch it the first time, watch it with no sound, it helps you focus on your body language and gestures. When you watch it with sound, just think: does this person look and sound like me? And if you look like an alien, or that you have been taken over by a demon, that’s not you, you need to work more on your body language.

What’s the most important take-home message for people who come to your courses?

First and foremost, as we explained, make the audience the focal point of your presentation. That means thinking about them from the beginning. Consider their needs and then think about matching what you want to say to those needs. Secondly, for scientists in particular, be aware and think about the differences between reading or writing your publication and watching a presentation, or delivering it as a speech. If you want to know more about how to do that, come to my next course.