I spent some of this week running training for young scientists on how to present scientific ideas to non-expert audiences. This particular piece of training runs regularly, but because the people have different needs each time, and the context is altering, it always feels a little bit different.
One of the main things we try to do on the course is remove Powerpoint – participants have to deliver a talk or activity without any Powerpoint whatsoever. I tend towards Edward Tufte’s view of Powerpoint: I use Powerpoint an awful lot but there’s something about its style that can easily dull your thinking. The folk on the course are allowed flip charts, if they want (I’m not that cruel) and any props they like.
It works pretty well, I think, because it breaks people out of the normal presentation rut. It also marks out the difference between presenting to scientific peers, and engaging with a lay or student audience. At the same time, the removal of Powerpoint can be pretty anxiety-provoking for the participants. Some people love it, some people hate it.
What people produce under pressure is constantly fascinating. There are some great, wild ideas that come out of the process: complicated games, plasticine analogies, virtuoso talks worthy of David Attenborough. I always maintain it’s the quiet folk who are great to watch: freed up to act, people who are a little bit shy or a little bit unconfident can produce the most interesting and thoughtful stuff. It’s easy to overlook talent, when it whispers rather than shouts.