Science Communication: one really needs those presentation skills!

Today I visited the Athens Concert Hall (Megaron Moussikis) to attend a talk by Marcus de Sautoy (website1, website2). I found out about it the last moment through twitter (twitter gets more and more useful everyday!!!).

According to wikipedia:

Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy OBE (born in London, 26 August 1965) is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, and Wadham College, he is now a Fellow of New College. He is currently an EPSRC Senior Media Fellow and was previously a Royal Society University Research Fellow. His academic work concerns mainly group theory and number theory. In October 2008, he was appointed to the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science.

It is this last sentence that really obliged me to go to see him. Maths is especially difficult to communicate, since people have all sorts of prejudices against it. Biology is sort of easier I think, which does NOT mean that it is easy. Just easier.
I would have gone anyway, even if he was not the Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Why? Because it makes a huge difference to attend a talk where the speaker knows how to engage the public. Having watched his TED talk (see below) I knew he was one these speakers, the speakers that drew you in so much that you did not want him to stop. That makes forget even that he is talking about maths.
Maybe this post, once again, has a Greek as well as a biology twist. But I do not think that Greece is the exception. I think that Greece is the rule. It requires a lot of work, a lot of training and a lot of talent to be able to stand up in front of large audiences and seem like you are talking to your mates down the pub. The key word here is the “training“.
To be one of these charismatic science communicators you need to present your facts in an interesting, easy and fun way. Which is bloody difficult. This is why this training I am talking about should NOT start at the PhD level like it usually is in most countries. It should start a lot earlier. From school. The development of Presentation and Communication skills is something that is not included in the curricula of a lot of educational systems. Yes, in the US and the UK such skills are appreciated and promoted from school (I mentioned the US and the UK because these are the countries I know something about, that is all) but in countries like Greece, this is not and has never been the case.
So how does one find out
1) what is the situation concerning presentation, communication and debate skills in one’s country?
and
2) where should a country begin in order to improve the situation above?
I know that these are simple/stupid questions but for me they are not… For me they are just two of the first questions I will pose in this blog.
For the time being though, enjoy Marcus de Sautoy:
UPDATE: you can find another mention to the same evening at http://knightofmathematics.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/finding-moonshine-in-athens/
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2 thoughts on “Science Communication: one really needs those presentation skills!

  1. I just wanted to say a word of encouragement, because I think you've identified a little-discussed but truly profound topic.

    I say this with some authority in that, somewhat unusually, I was trained by Xerox PARC to give scientific presentations. At the time none of us researchers believed we needed any such training. After all, we'd learned to give scientific presentations, at least from our Ph.D. defense onward. We had already learned how to communicate science simply by doing it. Hadn't we?

    To add insult to injury, we were trained by the Xerox director of corporate marketing. MARKETING!? How could a marketroid possibly have anything to offer us scientists about presenting our own scientific material?

    This turned out to be the correct approach and the director turned out to be genius IMHO. It was correct because, whether we liked it or not, it's all marketing. Any scientist who does not understand that or cannot repeat such “dirty words,” is not yet ready to give a top-notch presentation. The director was a genius because he managed to get certain presentation skills into our heads, despite the fact that many of us resisted him at the time.

    There's no space or time here to itemize many of the amazing things I learned from him, but one of them was that every presentation must have a hook. If you do not know your hook, you are not ready to present. If the audience is not hooked by your presentation, why should they waste their time listening to you?

    I believe the hook in du Sautoy's presentation is the unseen role of mathematical symmetry, but I didn't find his presentation all that compelling. In fact, it took me a while to figure out where he was going. Moreover, du Sautoy only discusses discrete symmetries, not CONTINUOUS symmetries—the latter were developed by a woman mathematician, but du Sautoy never mentions her.

    Maybe I know too much but, in my view, a much better presenter was the late Jacob Bronowsky. He talked about the same point in his TV series “The Ascent of Man” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ascent_of_Man) and here's his hook, for comparison.

    Having already discussed the 2-d tiled patterns at The Alhambra, he then moves on to the possible shapes of crystals e.g., cube, tetrahedron, etc. Bronowsky mentions the following magic numbers: 2, 3, 4, 6. Nothing bigger is allowed and no number 5. Why not?

    He says: “Their symmetries are imposed on them by the nature of the space we live in—the three dimensions, the flatness within which we live. And no assembly of atoms can break that crucial law of nature.”

    “Like the units that compose a pattern, the atoms in a crystal are stacked in all directions. So a crystal. like a pattern, must have a shape that could extend or repeat itself in all directions indefinitely. That is why the faces of a crystal can only have certain shapes; they could not have anything but the symmetries in the patterns.”

    “For example, the only rotations that are possible go twice (2) or four (4) times for a full turn, or three (3)  times or six (6) times—not more. And not five times. You cannot make an assembly of atoms to make triangles which fit into space regularly five at a time.”

    It's even more compelling to see Bronowsky explaining it on video.

    In other words, Bronowsky hooks you (or did me) by emphasizing the mysterious, rather than the evident, and engaging you to ponder that mystery. It's not the symmetries that exist that are so interesting as those that don't. They tell us something deep about the space in which we live. Even if you don't completely understand his remarks, it is compelling. It hooks you.

    I suspect du Sautoy sourced some of this material w/o attribution, but missed the really compelling point IMHO.

    For this reason, your blog post didn't hook me to watch du Sautoy immediately (I resisted yet another TED vid), but it did hook me to comment on it. 😉

  2. I just wanted to say a word of encouragement, because I think you've identified a little-discussed but truly profound topic.

    I say this with some authority in that, somewhat unusually, I was trained by Xerox PARC to give scientific presentations. At the time none of us researchers believed we needed any such training. After all, we'd learned to give scientific presentations, at least from our Ph.D. defense onward. We had already learned how to communicate science simply by doing it. Hadn't we?

    To add insult to injury, we were trained by the Xerox director of corporate marketing. MARKETING!? How could a marketroid possibly have anything to offer us scientists about presenting our own scientific material?

    This turned out to be the correct approach and the director turned out to be genius IMHO. It was correct because, whether we liked it or not, it's all marketing. Any scientist who does not understand that or cannot repeat such “dirty words,” is not yet ready to give a top-notch presentation. The director was a genius because he managed to get certain presentation skills into our heads, despite the fact that many of us resisted him at the time.

    There's no space or time here to itemize many of the amazing things I learned from him, but one of them was that every presentation must have a hook. If you do not know your hook, you are not ready to present. If the audience is not hooked by your presentation, why should they waste their time listening to you?

    I believe the hook in du Sautoy's presentation is the unseen role of mathematical symmetry, but I didn't find his presentation all that compelling. In fact, it took me a while to figure out where he was going. Moreover, du Sautoy only discusses discrete symmetries, not CONTINUOUS symmetries—the latter were developed by a woman mathematician, but du Sautoy never mentions her.

    Maybe I know too much but, in my view, a much better presenter was the late Jacob Bronowsky. He talked about the same point in his TV series “The Ascent of Man” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ascent_of_Man) and here's his hook, for comparison.

    Having already discussed the 2-d tiled patterns at The Alhambra, he then moves on to the possible shapes of crystals e.g., cube, tetrahedron, etc. Bronowsky mentions the following magic numbers: 2, 3, 4, 6. Nothing bigger is allowed and no number 5. Why not?

    He says: “Their symmetries are imposed on them by the nature of the space we live in—the three dimensions, the flatness within which we live. And no assembly of atoms can break that crucial law of nature.”

    “Like the units that compose a pattern, the atoms in a crystal are stacked in all directions. So a crystal. like a pattern, must have a shape that could extend or repeat itself in all directions indefinitely. That is why the faces of a crystal can only have certain shapes; they could not have anything but the symmetries in the patterns.”

    “For example, the only rotations that are possible go twice (2) or four (4) times for a full turn, or three (3)  times or six (6) times—not more. And not five times. You cannot make an assembly of atoms to make triangles which fit into space regularly five at a time.”

    It's even more compelling to see Bronowsky explaining it on video.

    In other words, Bronowsky hooks you (or did me) by emphasizing the mysterious, rather than the evident, and engaging you to ponder that mystery. It's not the symmetries that exist that are so interesting as those that don't. They tell us something deep about the space in which we live. Even if you don't completely understand his remarks, it is compelling. It hooks you.

    I suspect du Sautoy sourced some of this material w/o attribution, but missed the really compelling point IMHO.

    For this reason, your blog post didn't hook me to watch du Sautoy immediately (I resisted yet another TED vid), but it did hook me to comment on it. 😉

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