In praise of showmanship in scientific presentations (CORRECTED)

In my ESA talk, I threw in a couple of pictures of my 18 month old son as a joke. It got a nice laugh from the audience. I often do this sort of thing. It’s purely showmanship–the only function is to make the talk more entertaining and engaging than it otherwise would have been.

I sometimes hear this sort of showmanship bemoaned or derided. There’s a view that only the substance of your science should matter, and that showmanship is a triumph of style over substance. That if you’re telling jokes, or adopting a lively, energetic style, or whatever, you’re just a salesperson, not a scientist. I’ve even heard the view expressed that flashy salespeople get faculty jobs at the expense of “real” scientists.

I disagree, at least mostly. When I sprinkle jokes into my talks, it’s not to hide lack of substance. When I’m writing a talk, I don’t think “Boy, this talk stinks, I’d better throw in some jokes so that no one notices the crappy science.” In fact, it’s just the opposite–the jokes help me convey the substance. Because an entertained audience is an engaged audience. I want my audience alert and listening closely, not bored and drifting off. A bored audience is not going to absorb whatever substantive point I’m trying to convey. And no, good scientific content in and of itself will not necessarily keep an audience engaged.

If you feel differently, let me ask you this: don’t you do lots of things to keep your audience engaged? Don’t you structure your talk in a logical order, so that it “tells a story”? Don’t you include pretty pictures of your study organisms and field sites? Don’t you use figures rather than tables whenever possible? Don’t you try not to speak in a monotone? Don’t you look around the room rather than reading from your notes? Because strictly speaking, none of those things has anything to do with the substantive content of your talk either.

Look, good public speaking is difficult, and for a lot of people it doesn’t come easily. In other words, it’s just like lots of other useful skills. So if it doesn’t come easily to you, I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to practice and get better at it if you don’t want your career options in science to be severely limited (it’s not just academics who need to be able to get up in front of an audience and communicate science). The good news is that you can get better. I can name multiple top ecologists and evolutionary biologists who’ve learned to overcome stage fright, shyness, and other obstacles to become very good public speakers. Don’t resent good public speakers as “showmen”–learn from them.

Can showmanship be taken too far? Sure. Like Evgeny Morozov, I’m very uncomfortable with many TED talks, which really do use style as a substitute for substance. And even in longer-form talks, too many jokes or anecdotes or whatever can get distracting. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible to give a terrifically engaging talk without a single joke. But in contexts like departmental seminars, conference talks, job seminars, and undergraduate lectures, too little showmanship is much more common than too much, in my experience.

And there are contexts in which quite a lot of showmanship can be just fine, or even great. Ed Burger Colin Adams* is a mathematics professor at my undergraduate college. Sadly, I never had a class with him, though I saw him lecture once. He often dresses up in costume and lectures in the guise of an alter ego: “Mel Slugbate, insurance salesman”! I relate this not to encourage you to deliver lectures in costume, but just to encourage you to get comfortable with some modest level of showmanship. Your audience will thank you for it–and will pay better attention.

*Thanks to a commenter for correcting my embarrassingly-bad memory on which amazing Williams College math prof lectures as “Mel Slugbate”. Rest of the paragraph edited accordingly.

11 thoughts on “In praise of showmanship in scientific presentations (CORRECTED)

  1. Pingback: Presentation style « Insights of a PhD student

  2. I entirely agree that showmanship can improve a talk, and especially improve the retention of that talk’s contents. At ESA, someone presented a summary slide entirely in Dr. Seuss-style rhyme. Could it have been taken too far? Sure, but it wasn’t. There was one mention of Dr. Seuss earlier in the talk and then this slide. The rest was really interesting science. The personality and whimsy displayed in that single slide improved the talk and my perception of the project. And I haven’t stopped telling people about the talk or the project since.

  3. The word ‘showmanship’ got me thinking a bit here. Having watched many talks and given them myself, I wonder if jokes, etc are more accepted when given by a male rather than female speaker. As I woman, although I generally feel supported in science, I think maybe we walk a finer line here than our male counter parts. But maybe that is limited to my experience. And I am definitely not that good at telling jokes!

    • Hmm…not that I’m aware of, but I think everybody’s experience is a bit limited here. Only a small proportion of ecologists, male or female, tell jokes in their talks.

      Don’t feel you have to tell jokes if you aren’t good at it. Just find some way to jazz up your talks that fits with who you are and how you’re comfortable speaking. At the Evolution meeting, Peter and Rosemary Grant began their keynote talk with a classical Greek poem. There’s an infinity of things you can do…

    • I actually do think women tread a finer line on jokes in scientific talks than men. It’s not jokes in talks per se; rather, it’s that women have to work harder to be seen as serious scientists in general. So jokes have to be more carefully crafted. I think it would be a lot more dangerous, for example, for me as a young, not-yet-established female scientist to throw a picture of my kid into a talk as opposed to Jeremy doing so. (The danger being that I would be taken less seriously as a scientist when also viewed as a mom.) That being said, I did throw a non-parental joke into my ESA talk (having tested it out previously on a lower-stakes audience), because I agree with Jeremy’s point here: you need to be somewhat entertaining if you really want your audience to listen to you talk about your science.

      • Good point re: what you can joke about without worrying about it. I didn’t think twice about throwing in a picture of my son.

      • Yeah, I agree with ALP and Margaret that women probably have a finer line to walk here. I think this holds for scientific presentations and for teaching (and, for that matter, all sorts of other things at work). It’s cute if my co-instructor uses his kids as an example of growth curves; if I do, I risk looking unprofessional and not serious.

        That said, I recently joked that my ability to give a talk was somewhat hindered by the infectious disease I was unintentionally studying thanks to my toddler. People seemed to like that (but, I guess the people who thought it made me look like I wasn’t serious probably just wouldn’t have said anything).

        Anyway, this sort of thing is probably something I will cover in future posts.🙂

  4. Pingback: We’ll never get rid of “salesmanship” in science (and wouldn’t want to) | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Pingback: ESA Wednesday review: Ignite sessions | Dynamic Ecology

  6. Hi, I just discovered your blog and am enjoying reading the old entries. A little late on this comment, but the math prof who dresses up as Mel Slugbate is Colin Adams, not Ed Burger. (I also taught in the math department at Williams and was a colleague of both profs, who were a great inspiration to me.)

    • Good lord, my memory is clearly going! Thanks Sam, I remember Colin Adams and attending one of his lectures as Mel Slugbate (never had a class with him, though), so I’ve no idea why I wrote Ed Burger (a great teacher as well, of course). I’ll update the post.

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