In recent months I’ve given some presentations and talks that I myself wouldn’t have been able to understand two years ago. In the past two years I’ve read scientific papers, written scientific papers, and sat through talks and presentations of scientific research, and one of the important lessons I’ve learned is that it’s okay to be confused and ignorant. Even when a scientist talks to room full of scientists, all of whom ostensibly have the requisite background knowledge to understand the speaker, a lot of sheepish “I had trouble following along” still happens.
This is because the things we might talk about can be hard to understand – for anyone. Science is a group effort. No one person can adequately understand every complex subject worth understanding. So we share in papers and in power point. I’m telling you this because it implies a great need for scientists to be good communicators. It is all too easy to master an issue, to make real sense of it, and then bungle the delivery. If you only had a colloquial understanding of science and scientific progress, this might shock you; isn’t science about truth? Why would scientists need to be good at selling their ideas? “Selling their ideas” implies that style can overcome substance and fact, that the truth can be overridden be good salesmanship.
This is an oversimplified view, but an appropriately simple rebuttal is that no, style doesn’t trump truth, but truth with no style scarcely gets believed.
If you are the world’s greatest dentist, that fact alone will not drive your business or please your patients. Presentation matters; it is how they find you, it is how they remember you. You should do more than diagnose and apply a treatment; you also need to sell your patient on the diagnosis and the course of action. This is the difference between them having confidence in you, (and liking you), and them recommending you poorly. (Or, as you may already know, suing you). You may have the cold, hard scientific understanding of your patient’s situation, but that alone is not adequate.
Also, having all the right ideas about how to run your business is not the same as convincing your staff that they should buy into your gameplan. A plan in your head is no plan at all.
I feel I should relate my own experiences presenting. I suppose in this forum it also doesn’t hurt to recall that my father – y’know, Dr. Larry Emmott – has been able to make something of a career of his presentation skills, so I might be lucky in that some that has rubbed off on me. All the same, my grade school, high school, and undergraduate careers were not unfettered with nervous energy, the common fear of public speaking. This, for my part, was a benefit, as I was nervous enough about the final outcome that I would put effort into making sure I did a good job.
I really want to point out that fear helps, because the next stage of my presentation giving career was the one in which I had no fear. I’m not sure how or why, (or when), but at some point I lost all fear associated with speaking in front of groups of people. This was a bad thing, because I lost all motivation to prepare. I wasn’t nervous! Everything was going to be fine! This was how I entered into my computer science career and this was how I entered into teaching undergraduate sections. On raw talent alone, (thanks, Dad), it wasn’t a disaster, but when the stakes were raised at graduate school – when I realized that scientific ideas might live or die on good salesmanship, that truth and fact were vulnerable to my blundering lack of fear – I realized I had to change. I had to develop a new fear. A fear that my ideas could die.
And that’s what I part you with. There are likely many wonderful truths about you and your business, and great ideas in your head, but if you don’t put effort into harvesting those truths with good communication, they will die on the vine.