Over the last few years, I have worked to help scientists in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries make data-driven presentations to their bosses persuasive presentations as well.
The challenges to speakers are many–and I’ve noticed that they are shared by engineers and “techies” in all sorts of fields and industries.
To begin with, the scientists often have to report to their bosses in Europe via video conference. The image projected in Switzerland is a wide-angle shot of six people sitting at a table in New Jersey. It’s difficult to know which person is talking.
English is being spoken in a variety of accents. America is blessed to have brilliant people from all over the globe come to work in our pharmaceutical and biotech industries, but understanding each person, on both sides of the Atlantic, through a wire thousands of miles long, is a continual challenge.
When English is spoken as a second language, it is often delivered in the pitch pattern and rhythm–the music–of the first language, which makes it hard for us Americans to grasp.
Then imagine a doctor newly arrived from China speaking heavily accented English to a researcher from Spain.
Sensitive cultural issues arise. In some European cultures, one does not tell a senior scientist overseeing a vast number of crucial experiments that his presentations are incomprehensible. One calls on a consultant to say such things–if, in fact, the scientist in question agrees to meet with the consultant.
Even in conversation, scientists and other technical people use words that are perfectly ordinary within their circles, but are simply never heard at a bar, dinner party, or on the side of a soccer field. When speaking to marketers, these people have to learn to stand back from their own work and see it as strangers might.
Many distinguished scientists–Richard Feynman, J.B.S. Haldane, and Peter Medawar among them–knew how to hold a popular audience, and they weren’t afraid to address their peers with the same vividness and economy. In fact, their fame became inseparable from their gift for words.
Scientists can be great communicators. Carl Sagan, Primo Levi, E.O. Wilson are three great examples. They each had the engaging quality of enthusiasm, which means divinely intoxicated.
In order to be useful to their companies, and to society, scientists must be able to sell their ideas. Most scientists think clearly. Many can write clearly, but fewer are spellbinding on the presentation platform.
They can learn–learn to use their voices effectively, to slow down, to enunciate, to speak with clarity and crispness–to delight laymen and fellow experts with their ability to communicate their knowledge.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.