Connecting to the audience,  Public speaking,  Science communication

How to make your presentation more engaging: puzzle or problem?

How do you, as scientist, invite and welcome non-scientists into your wonderland? By making your ideas accessible? Do you avoid jargon and bullet points? Yes, you should definitely make your ideas accessible, avoid jargon and bullet points, and use all the other tricks of the trade to present ideas clearly and convincingly. However, this is not—any more—enough.

Let me explain: we’re all suffering from information overload, so what’s the point in presenting more and more information even if it is clear and convincing? In this information-filled landscape, you may find that engaging an audience is becoming harder and harder.

I tell scientists to use a different approach—present a problem, not a puzzle. What is the difference between the two? Puzzles are based only on relevant information (all the puzzle pieces), and lead you to a single correct solution (research results)—you get to play with all (and only) the puzzle pieces that you need to assemble the final product, which is defined in advance. This is what most scientists do: they present only the information necessary to draw a straight line to the solution they offer. But by the time you get to the solution, you’ve most likely lost your audience.

When you present a problem, instead, you indirectly encourage your audience to solve it with you, thus stimulating engagement. You make clear that not all information is available, there are many possible solutions or, alternatively, the problem might not have a solution. You show what is doable, and you also show that it could be necessary to reformulate the problem. In other words, you show the path, and you navigate the path with your audience.

Albert Einstein (or someone else) said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”. Engage your audience by talking more about the problem—you will likely need less than 55 minutes, but make sure you take the time necessary to guide your audience on the journey from problem to solution.