Why aren't scientists good communicators?

Francisco Mesquita

Last week I attended ECCM, the European Conference on Composite Materials, for the first time in my career. This is the largest conference of the year, and so, more than 1000 researchers were there, presenting their work. From the presentations I was able to see, I have to say that the level disappointed me a little. Not because of the content, but the delivery of the message. So that made me wonder: why aren’t scientists good communicators?

As a first disclaimer, I didn’t watch all the presentations! I’m sure there were many good ones, where the message was straight and clear. But that was obviously not always the case, otherwise I would not be writing here. A second disclaimer is that my presentation was also not perfect. In my case, I can say that I had a timer problem, and I ended up rushing the end of the presentation when I still had quite some time left. Again, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that had these kind of problems.

I would therefore like to give some tips to our viewers, scientists or not, in hopes of improving the quality. From all the tips I could give, I chose the ones that could be least subjective (because everyone has their way of presenting) and also most relevant.

  • Look at the audience, don’t look at the slides. This is important for two reasons: it shows that you are not secure in your position. Is it because you are just shy (most of the cases) or because your work is not that relevant? The audience cannot know. The other reason is more technical. Once you turn around, your voice is projected in the opposite direction. Therefore, people cannot listen to you anymore and there is not chance they understand your work.
  • Control the information on the slides. Don’t show all the information in one slide at once, use animations (appear/disappear). I’ve seen this a lot and so far I think it’s just lack of preparation. People, get ready for the shocking truth: the audience reads faster than you can speak. Shocking, right? It’s also easier to follow if things show up while you talk. If the audience gets distracted (and this is a bad sign already), you can always grab their attention back. The moment you make something appear, that’s what you are talking about. The audience can then catch the story of the presentation again.
  • Adapt the content to your audience. You must be prepared for the audience you have in front of you. For example, in a composites conference, you don’t have to explain what a composite material is (unless is absolutely relevant). You can’t assume that they know all about your topic. The whole point of the audience being there is because they want to learn more about your work. How can they do that if you don’t stop the car for them to get in?

Focusing on the question in the title, why aren’t scientists good communicators, I have a theory. We can say that the scientific community is mostly composed of extremely intelligent people. And coming back to our young age, we all remember that intelligent kids were always cast aside and therefore acquired no social skills or they had no social skills to begin with and that’s why they were cast aside. Communication is a social skill. If scientists can’t communicate their work to their fellows, how can the “common people” (people who are not experts in our field) be interested in our work?

I heard a colleague say last week that the world’s environmental problem will be solved when it’s profitable to solve it. I would say that we can get there faster when scientists are good communicators and can explain to everyone the problem in a way that people will care. In the meantime, we are hostages of politicians who are, inherently, good communicators.