Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Brrr-illiant tips for technical speakers from a TED Talk on Antarctica



My longtime friend and colleague, Wall Street Journal science columnist Robert Lee Hotz, gave this TED Talk about Antarctica, a cold, distant, hard-to-imagine place--and does it in under 10 minutes. His slides have no bullets, just pictures of a foreign, frozen world, both inside and outside an Antarctic laboratory. Hotz is a bit of a ringer when it comes to translating technical topics for public and non-scientific audiences, but here's some of what you can glean from his talk and technique:

  • Give us some (well-chosen) detail:  One thing that surprises my scientist-trainees, over and over again, is that detail--used judiciously--can make a public talk a success. Here are two that work especially well: These scientists are working in the coldest place on earth, and inside a lab that is itself a refrigerator, in order to keep the ice-core samples at optimal temperature....so they keep gloves in an oven, ready when their hands are close to freezing. The hot gloves and the cold lab are sticky images that almost don't need a visual, as the mind's eye can conjure them.
  • But don't put the details in the slides: None of the visuals here use words, but they're packed with meaning--and Hotz's narration fills in the data blanks. Leaving the pictures free of facts helps the audience listen and absorb them, but with ample visual evidence to make the facts concrete and memorable. (Feel free to use words in your slides, but don't overload them with data.)
  • Analogies help pack in the facts:  The drill that pulls the ice cores out of the snowmass is "like a biopsy needle"...the cylinders of ice come out of the barrel like spent shotgun shells. Analogies make a mind's-eye connection that's memorable and concrete for your listeners.
  • Make the extraordinary ordinary:  This research site was selected precisely because snow accumulates here 10 times faster than any other spot on Antarctica. Hotz explains what this means in real terms for the scientists--terms we all shudder to imagine in our own lives: "They have to dig themselves out every day. It makes for an exotic and chilly commute."  The entire talk does what I wish more scientists would do:  Share the daily grind, so we understand what failure, frozen fingers and your work surroudings look like, up close.
  • Ask the dumb or skeptical questions your audience is thinking:  "But don't we already know what we need to know about greenhouse gases? Why do we need to study this anymore? Don't we already know how they affect temperatures? Don't we already know the consequenses of a changing climate on our settled civilization? The truth is, we only know the outlines, and what we don't completely understand, we can't properly fix. Indeed, we run the risk of making things worse."  That's how Hotz at once includes climate skeptics and makes specific--and brief--the answer to their questions.
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