Speaking about science: a manual for creating clear presentations

Speaking about science: a manual for creating clear presentations 

Scott Morgan and Barrett Whitener 

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press | 2006 | 138pp | ?12.99 (SB) | ISBN 9780521683456 

Reviewed by Mark Peplow

Communication is the currency of science. Peer-reviewed publication is the principal way to establish priority in one’s field, and provides the citations and impact factors that put an important numerical value on a career. Why, then, do scientists so often prove to be appalling communicators? 

Two new books attempt to provide some much-needed advice on science communication. The first, Speaking about science: a manual for creating clear presentations, is focused on scientists’ lectures to their peers. As a quick refresher for the experienced, or a primer for the uninitiated, this is a really useful book. 

The authors stress how important it is to get away from the traditional structure of the scientific paper, and instead tell a linear, engaging story. Keeping an audience hooked with an intriguing question and the promise of an answer can carry even the toughest audience through 30 minutes. 

They also rightly condemn using PowerPoint slides as a script, one of my own personal bugbears. Simply reading whole paragraphs from the slide - or, worse, using that deathly phrase, ’I’m afraid this slide’s a little busy’ - shows a lack of effort that betrays utter contempt for the audience. 

Along with chapters on preparing posters and acing job interviews, they deal briefly but helpfully with media interviews. They rightly point out that, fundamentally, journalists want the same as an academic audience - to know what’s really new and why it’s important. They also helpfully remind the reader of the three cardinal rules when talking to a journalist: assume you’re being recorded all the time; nothing is truly ’off the record’; and no, you don’t get copy approval.  

The hands-on guide for science communicators  is written by Lars Lindberg Christensen, the European head of communications for the Hubble Space Telescope. This book is an incredibly detailed tour of his job, taking in every step of the process a typical news story takes from laboratory to newspaper. It is lavishly illustrated with complex flow diagrams and charts, alongside some of Hubble’s greatest hits. 

It should be required reading for the European Space Agency’s press officers (who are always overshadowed by the brutal efficiency of their NASA colleagues). But it’s certainly too in-depth for scientists with anything but a passionate interest in the nuts and bolts of a press officer’s working life.