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  • Writer's pictureJags Pandhal

Science and a Pint (or twenty)

by Luke Richardson

Last Thursday evening, I took part in PubHD. This is a monthly fun thing where anyone who has done their own independent research at some kind of respectable institution (i.e. anyone from masters to postdocs, no permanent positions welcome) has 10 minutes to explain their research in a pub. Simple as that, really, except you aren’t allowed slides. You have yourself, a freestanding whiteboard and a pen and that’s it. This forces effective verbal communication without reliance on slide reading and flashy figures. My talk went well, I was 5 minutes over time (but the organisers let me run over so oh well), and I got lots of questions and some feedback, and it was a great way to practise a talk with minimal resources.

I’d recommend PubHD to anyone, it’s a fantastic exercise for developing your skills. First off, you get a really broad slate of attendees, from experts in your own area to people off the street with no specific subject knowledge. To give a good talk, you really have to master the art of going back to basics, starting at truly universal knowledge and rapidly building up to the advanced concepts you deal with on the day to day. You have to be aware of the fact you probably don’t even see jargon anymore, and might say something like “this strain can express photoprotective astaxanthin under stress” and forget that means absolutely nothing to anyone!

Breaking that down, you can go from universals to specifics. First, “photoprotective pigment” is a terrifying phrase, but everyone knows melanin is what protects people from the sun and that’s why light skinned people tan, and why dark skinned people are dark-skinned in the first place. So you can say, “This kind of algae can make a pigment called astaxanthin, which is roughly like melanin in people. They produce it to protect themselves from UV, and this stuff is red. A light skinned person will make melanin to protect themselves from the sun, but melanin is brown so they go brown”. This translation to true universals is an incredibly versatile exercise. Combine this with the need to replace slides and figures with one’s own showmanship, and you massively enhance your ability to communicate with everyone.

To editorialise a bit, I think many academics don’t do this because they fear being patronising. They don’t want to treat their audience like idiots, and that’s understandable. However, this impulse is wrong, unless you are speaking exclusively to subject matter experts. First off, people who don’t understand the basics of your field aren’t stupid. They just don’t know. It’s not patronising to give someone new knowledge. This is up to a point, of course, you have to judge how simple is too simple, we're not fitting the triangle shaped piece in the triangle shaped hole here. To slightly disparage a talk I saw a few years ago, the speaker was explaining how he uses AI to speed up manufacturing of really complicated metal parts like aeroplane structures. However, he completely forgot to define how these parts are made (CNC machines) or what a CNC machine is (A robot holding a drill), and went on for ten minutes about how to optimise splines whilst everyone without the requisite knowledge just stared into space. Defining terms is fast and easy and increases accessibility very quickly.

The flipside is that you may fear backtracking that far may make you seem simple in the eyes of your subject matter experts. This is a silly fear. These people are only waiting for your results anyway, and they are playing the game of judging how well you can explain the basics. I don’t know about you, but even after years in the field I still find a succinct and elegant explanation of a basic concept, say evolution, incredibly satisfying to see. It also always elevates the speaker in my eyes when they can explain important underpinnings in a accessible yet rigorous way.

The last thing about going back and explaining your premises properly, is that it lowers what I call the “Question floor”(™). Ideally, the goal is to get your ideas to new ears, and for these newcomers to ask questions. Newcomers ask the best and crucially broadest questions, and a broad question is basically an excuse to do two more minutes of talk! What I think is often missed is the fact that if a speaker doesn’t mention something, they are implying that the thing isn’t worth asking about. By briefly backtracking basics, before building back bit by bit, you allow newbies to think of questions while making them feel like the question is welcome. You don’t want all the questions in an event like this to be a viva-level grilling about your particular experimental design or whatever, as that information is no use to a layman who came here for an introduction!

After all that, I think PubHD is invaluable as a training ground for better popular dissemination of ideas. It forces you away from the crutches of slides and figures, forces you in front of a general audience, and then makes you restructure your talks in a way that makes all your talks better, especially your academic ones. Context never hurts, remember thy audience, and when you say there are no stupid questions, try and believe it yourself.

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