Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why Don´t Scientists Teach Their Children How To Speak?

You have worked, and after that, you have worked some more. You have worked through hours which before you became a graduate student/postdoc/professor/combinations of the foregoing you didn´t know existed except at parties.

You have honed your results, and more than that, you have refined, distilled, cossetted, chivvied and wrenched those results from the darkness of diffuse contradiction and into the light of coherence. From a morass of gels, measurements, heiroglyphs, lowerglyphs, radiographs, micrographs and just plain old-fashioned graphs, you have forged a Story.

You work some more, and after yet more ages of the world, firkins of coffee, relationship break-ups and moves across countries and continents, you get a paper in press in a suitable journal.

Et finalement, as the Apotheosis of your Zenith, you go to a conference to present your results - wrought as they have been over years from your sinews and lifeblood and your very heart - to an audience of your peers.

You prepare for this big occasion as you have never prepared before. You create a presentation in your favourite presentation software, making sure you have summary slides to set out your stall and pull it all together, incorporating snazzy animations, the requisite acknowledgements and a few jokes as counterpoint to the sere data.

You rehearse, and after that, you rehearse some more, until you have it word perfect, and no longer stumble over difficult words such as 1,4-delta tetrahydrocannabinol, Paracyclotosaurus or buttered-toast.

You check the presentation in the conference ready-room. Everything works. Everything is as it should be.

The session moderator introduces you, and you step up on to the podium. The first slide comes up, and you start to speak.

Only nobody can hear you, because you are not speaking into the microphone.

Why Oh Why Oh Why? Why go to all that effort simply to fall at the final hurdle?

Perhaps I have been to too many conferences lately - yet I am forever shocked at how little preparation scientists giving presentations seem to devote to projecting their voices, or if their voices are too weak or the rooms too big, learning how to use a microphone with the same care that they would learn to use the scientific equipment they´ve used to gather their data in the first place.

When presented with a microphone, many scientists seem to react as if they´ve been propositioned by a flasher, and do all they can to stay away from the offending phallic object.

Other scientists will be quite happy using the microphone, but will move towards it and away from it, unaware that microphones, even if switched on, have very specific response characteristics.

Others will tote the microphone quite handily, unaware that it´s not been switched on at all.

Yet others will overcompensate by speaking far too closely to the microphone, almost swallowing it, making noises such as might be made by a cormorant trying to regurgitate a bicycle pedal.

Others will stoop painfully to reach the microphone, or contort themselves into other awkward angles, unaware that microphone stands are fully adjustable.

The audience will get bored. Will fidget. Will walk out. Yours was the Kingdom - but you lost it, all because you forgot to nail the horsehoe properly to the horse, or some other medieval metaphor of like fashion.
What, then, is to be done? The obvious solution is to use tie-clip radio mics and belt packs, but these aren´t always available.

In the end, it all comes down to training. If you are a professor with graduate students and postdocs, make sure that your charges get training in proper microphone technique. Like anything else, there is an art to it, and it takes practice. If you are a graduate student or a postdoc, demand such training.

Me? I was lucky. I got some training during a stint I spent working for the BBC. But most of the training I acquired by accident, in my mis-spent youth (and middle-age), playing in rock bands. Because of that, I now have a good appreciation of platform presentations as performance, and I know how to use a microphone. Perhaps my youth (and middle-age) weren´t so misspent after all.

Perhaps my greatest contribution to the effective dissemination of science will not, in the end, be my books, nor my innumerable articles and blog posts, nor even my long service at your favourite professional science magazine beginning with N, but in teaching people how to use a microphone properly. My rates will be reasonable. though commensurate to the importance you attach to such training, given that you´ll have asked me to help you in the first place.

If you want me. I´ll be in the lobby, waiting for the limo.


  1. Great Post! I should re-read it before giving a presentation just to remind myself to use the microphone properly :)

    Pet peeve of mine is when the speaker asks the crowd, in a sort-of yell, if we can him/her alright, cause he/she doesn't like to use a microphone? Why?! Murmurs of yes and no are heard, and the speaker proceeds to give the talk, sans microphone, no matter how the audience responded.

  2. Hi Henry (My first comment on this blog, about time too)
    Did you see this suggestion? (Probably not, so here it is)
    Peer Reviewing for Oral Presentations

    Hat tip here together with some discussion.

  3. @Elizabeth ' how true!

    @Erika ' welcome! Thanks for the links. Peer review for oral presentations is a nice idea but I can´t imagine that it would be popular with chairs of program committees.

  4. Hi Sir Henry Geen, I'm from Brazil and occasionally read your blog. I was a little surprised to see sitações in their brochure "The Origin of Life" recently released by Jehovah's Witnesses. It's sad what this group is to discredit the science, and unfortunately his name is associated with this goal in this publication. I greatly admire your work!

  5. @Notlav - thanks. I'm afraid I'm not responsible for the adverts that occasionally pop up on this site. That's just life, I'm afraid!