by Leo Kretzner
National Association of Science Writers/Council for the Advancement of Science Writing Meeting New Haven, CT; November 5 - 9, 2010
Zing went the strings of my mind
We were at most ten minutes into Yale Professor Laurie Santos’ talk on the phylogeny of irrationality when I was struck by her medium and the way she was using it. Summary slides of classic psychology experiments from the 1950’s and ‘60’s were accompanied by decidedly post-modern, ironic, and iconic graphics. Walking around the stage, gesturing at schematic models and data paired with some very smart art, Professor Santos calmly laid out her work.
On top of an interesting subject and solid data, she already had a presentation advantage, she noted with the comment “How can you not like movies of monkeys?” Further addition of a slyly humorous graphic sense put her presentation even further over the top.
Does she have an art assistant lurking about somewhere?
“No, I do it all myself -- and I probably spend way too much time on it,” she acknowledged.
So many talks, so little time
Since many talks were given simultaneously during NASW/CASW, it was impossible to take all of them in –- but I would classify all the presentations I saw as good to outstanding. It’s interesting how different people put their subjects and themselves across. Scientists and journalists are rightfully concerned with content over packaging, but solid content delivered with style is a very powerful combination.
Dr. Gil Mor, like so many great speakers, completely infused his subject with his own unabashed passion for it. “Can you imagine?” he asked rhetorically. “For decades, we have been treating the wrong cells in cancer!” His enthusiasm, coupled with the clarity with which he laid out the current state of ovarian cancer therapy, had me –- and, I sensed, all of us -- hanging on his every word and eagerly awaiting each next slide.
Dr. Matthew State and Dr. Harlan Krumholz likewise put some of their feelings about their work into their talks to good effect. Dr. State’s brief use of films depicting young people suffering from involuntary tics greatly humanized the nature of the genes and conditions he’s working on. And, when dissecting the mis-parsing of clinical trials, Dr. Krumholz wasn’t shy about expressing his exasperation that something important is being missed. When coupled with hard specifics, showing some honest emotion -- not even necessarily a positive emotion -- can highlight the significant elements of a talk.
Technical pizzazz and intellectual elegance
The two other talks that stood out to me were: Covering Medical Meetings, for the technical novelty that wove the speakers together; and Book Session 2, for a style of presentation itself that did the same.
Bob Finn of the International Medical News Group led the medical meeting session, running a new app called Prezi that had the viewer zooming around and into slides. His presentation is available here: http://bobfinn.net/sciencewriters2010 First we were reading an introductory slide with simple text and a graphic –- then we were suddenly zooming into that graphic, which revealed itself to contain the next nugget of text/data along with another graphic. The audience could then step further into the data, or they could step back, giving them a feeling of coming "back up out of the rabbit hole." Some of the other speakers still did Power Point talks, but these worked apparently seamlessly with Prezi, even though Prezi optimally requires that Power Point slides be converted to PDFs.
I’ve saved the most basic form of artfulness -- or perhaps the most intellectually based -- for last. This would be the elegant framing and naming of the talks that Robert Lee Hotz had assigned to his speakers: voice (KC Cole), story (Jonathan Weiner), character (Charles Stipe), structure (Jennifer Oulette), and authority (Carl Zimmer). It was a nice way to uniquely draw out each speaker, while also reviewing some things we can’t overlearn. It was the opposite of stridently didactic.
Very well done to all! Here was clear evidence that the Art of the Presentation is a field in movement among both scientists and the writers who cover their work.
Leo Kretzner, PhD, has been a molecular biologist in basic cancer research for twenty-five years, as well as a song writer and musician on guitar and dulcimer for even longer. He is a freelance science writer who lives in Claremont, CA, and he blogs for TalkingScience about Science & the Arts.