6 MARCH 2015 • VOL 347 ISSUE 6226 1047
Scientists frequently lament the scarcity of effec- tive scientific communicators—those who can explain complex concepts to the public, present scientifically sound alternatives to policy-mak- ers, and make cogent arguments for the value of science to society. A few stellar programs are designed to select and train elite articulators,
but some simple steps can improve the communication
skills of all scientists. Most
researchers learn how to
talk about science at meetings. If scientists cannot explain their work clearly and
succinctly to their peers, it
is highly unlikely that they
can explain it effectively to
nonspecialists. I recently
helped to judge student
papers at a large scientific
meeting, an experience that
brought to my attention the
importance of such communication early in one’s
career. I offer a few tips on
how to make the most of
this invaluable training.
I encourage students to
request a poster presentation at a large meeting.
This format can be less
stressful than speaking in
front of a large audience.
Furthermore, the student
personally converses with
members of the scientific
community who share an interest in his or her research.
The back-and-forth is good training and a reminder to
students that discussing their research with experts or
nonexperts should be a two-way conversation. Another
advantage of presenting a poster is that the student can
tailor the narrative to the interests of whoever stops by,
in a Q&A exchange. I recall years ago when a graduate
student was disappointed that her research would be
described “only” in this format, until one of the giants
in her field spent considerable time at her poster to discuss the work. As he left, he said, “I wish I had thought
of that.” She was later hired into his department.
To be effective, posters need to be eye-catching as
well as informative. In a convention hall lined with
poster boards, scientists will bypass those with large
blocks of texts and tables of impenetrable numbers.
A cartoon that summarizes the model or findings, attractive displays of data, and photos that illustrate the
experiment are good ways to grab attention. Creative
ways to display pertinent information are a definite
plus. I personally like posters that begin with the motivation for the work and end with the findings, areas
for follow up, and broader implications of the results.
A 10-minute talk at a major conference is more difficult to organize and effectively deliver than an
hour-long seminar. Mistakes that students often
commit in preparing slides
for a brief presentation are
to show the same intricate
multipart figures that they
used in a research paper,
have too much text (and
in a font size too small),
choose colors with insufficient contrast against the
background, and use blurry
images copied from the Internet. The delivery is also
critical. Enthusiasm is one
of the very best elements of
any talk. Students should
never merely recite from
their slides and should
never ever go over time.
Recognizing who the audience is and pitching the talk
appropriately are essential.
Many years ago, if a scientist used unfamiliar jargon
and aimed the presentation over the heads of the audience, the speaker might just have been considered
smart. No longer. Today, such a speaker is viewed as a
Training the next generation of scientists to communicate well should be a priority. Departments could arrange for students to hold mock presentations for other
faculty, researchers, and students in advance of their presentations at conferences—a dress rehearsal before the
main event. And researchers attending meetings should
take some time to judge a few student papers, visit student posters, or attend student talks. This feedback to
young scientists is invaluable, and the great communicators that will emerge may well trace their sharpened
skills back to a moment at their poster or at the podium.
– Marcia McNutt
It starts with a poster
“Training the next generation of
scientists to communicate well
should be a priority.”