What makes a good communicator?

By Siouxsie Wiles 19/12/2012 12

Over the last month or so I’ve been to a lot of talks and its started me really thinking about what makes a good communicator. First it was the Maurice Wilkins Centre (MWC) for Molecular Biodiscovery‘s annual symposium (New ways to image the body – from macro to nano) followed by the New Zealand Microbiology Society‘s annual conference in Dunedin.

The MWC symposium was an exhausting day – 22 speakers with most of the slots just 15 minutes long. The speakers were given quite clear instructions – to do an introductory talk on their imaging technique in 12 minutes, leaving 3 minutes for questions. I know this because I was one of them. What was astonishing to me was that almost every speaker went over time. Most spoke for about 20 minutes. One spoke for almost 30! I’m becoming less and less tolerant of this kind of behaviour. In my mind it shows an immense lack of respect for the audience, the other speakers and the organisors. The other thing that struck me was that quite a few speakers pitched their material to a much more advanced audience than they actually had. Was this because they didn’t know who their audience was? And the jargon! Wow. I’m also becoming really aware of how data is visually presented. Busy slides with loads of different graphs are a nightmare. I think the most I’ve encountered was a single slide with 3 bar charts, 2 line graphs, a table and a pie chart. Where am I supposed to be looking?! Another classic mistake is for the speaker to point to a bit of their slide and telling the audience to ignore it as its irrelevant. What?? Then remove it!

So what makes a good communicator? Well, someone who sticks to time and correctly pitches the talk to the audience for a start. I’m pretty sure these are things we are told when we give our first talk, so why do we all forget them? Something we are not really taught to do is ditch the jargon. Or at least explain it properly first. I think this is important if you are going to speaking at an event with a broad audience. Both meetings I went to recently covered a lot of subject areas. No one is an expert in all of them, so not using hideous acronyms without explaining them first is essential if you don’t want people nodding off. I also think relatively simple, clean slides with good headings help.

So how am I doing? I’ve started setting an alarm to make sure I don’t go over time. And I’m trying to turn all my talks into more of a story with less emphasis on minute details as I’ve decided they really aren’t going to be of interest to the majority of the audience. I’m also trying to make my slides clearer and easier to follow. One thing I would like to do is have a play with the awesome looking presentation tool Prezi, but that will have to wait till I have some spare time. But I think what I most need to work on is speaking more slowly. I’m finding this really hard though as when I’m nervous or excited my mouth just zooms off! Hopefully practice will make perfect.

So, what do you think of my list? Is there anything that I missed?

12 Responses to “What makes a good communicator?”

  • I agree with you about the running over time – I think it’s extremely careless/rude. But given the number of speakers who will do this as think it is up to conference organisers to make sure someone is present to keep things moving along.
    I think your emphasis on telling a story is important. It’s taken me a few years to understand this, but if you look at all the best science communicators this is what they do.
    One tip that I picked up a while ago is not to “I” too much in a talk if you can at least occasionally use the term “we” in a way that includes the audience they will feel more involved.

  • Thanks Michael. I’m always astonished by bad moderation. I think it was Grant that suggested we use something like the little girl they have on the IgNobel’s. I’m sure a very loud “I’m bored” or something to that effect will stop a speaker in their tracks!

  • Toastmasters is good to try out technique with friends and workmates with positive feedback. You get to try out things and redo them to make them better!!!

  • I could probably write an entirely post (and then several) on this… Not entirely sure where to start as there’s a lot I could say.

    I was the person who mentioned the IgNobel’s way of getting speakers to know their time is up… I’m sure it’s effective :-) I’m not sure many conferences could pull that off—the IgNobels are a fairly unusual event—but you’d want something. I’ve been to one meeting where the organiser used a (small) Chinese gong. Remarkably effective: no-one wanted the gong to be struck because it was so damn loud! :-)

    More later (things to do…) but for most talks focusing on driving concepts and the like seems to work best for wider audiences. Those wanting details can ask later.

    FWIW it’s worth this topic has come up on sciblogs are few times before, might be worth exploring: http://www.google.co.nz/search?rls=en&q=site:http://sciblogs.co.nz/+talk+presentation

  • One thing I have seen a excellent communicator do is tell the person looking after a session to signal her when she has 2-3 minutes left.

    I remember being the third person in a session which as well as starting late, I was preceded by two speakers who spoke longer than they were allotted, including questions. My talk ate into the next break even though I consciously shortened it by 5 minutes.

    I’ve seen a bell used at one conference effectively – one quick ring when one minute is left and then two rings when time is up. And I think one excellent moderator just kept ringing it when one of the speakers wouldn’t shut up.

    Another idea would be a kill switch which the moderator can hit which would shut down the projector and mic.

  • TEDtalks… every scientist should watch them and learn what can be done when you really focus on the audience.

  • Agree with Peter – there’s some really engaging stuff on TED. The key thing is tell a story. Lead the audience along a path that tells a tale and they’ll remember the key things far longer than if you just fire the facts at them (after all, if I wanted that I’d buy the book or read the paper). I heard a great tale last night of a keynote presenter at a marketing communications conference some years ago who had an hour to speak to the topic of how to make an impact on an audience. He walked on stage, paused, said ‘Be bold’, and walked off. The audience was stunned, the organisers horrified. But it’s the only presentation of the conference that everyone there remembers and the only advice most people still try to enact.

  • The whole story think is important I think. It was first hammered into my brain by Elizabeth Connor – science communicator type person from Wellington. She also had a lot to say on the pitching the talk to the audience. Listening to her was quite useful after the first talk I had to give my PhD (it was appalling). My talks (not that there’s been many) got quite a bit better afterwards.

  • In my experience the better/best communicators ‘own’ their presentations. They speak confidently (or ‘fake it till you make it’) and clearly, engage with the audience, field questions without being sticklers but by drawing on a much broader knowledge and by putting things into perspective, a larger context, that shows (the) relevance. Good communicators share their enthusiasm, sometimes even excitement, and enjoy giving the presentation; nothing worse than a presenter who clearly doesn’t want or like to give the presentation, for one reason or another.

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