Episode 5Scientific Presentations & Wonderbread
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Details and Transcript

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my magnificent family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the fifth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. With the current followers I have now, I have performed the draw for the custom, butterfly-printed Metaphorigins mug, and the winner is Mr. Calvin Duc. Woohoo! Congratulations! I’ll shoot you a message following this episode.

 

With that said, I will host another sort of giveaway on the 10th episode, so stay tuned for that.

 

Okay. Today’s episode will be a bit different from the previous episodes as I will not go over the origin of an expression. No no no. Today, I will dive specifically into a topic that effects mostly everybody working in science, or those interested in science, and that is scientific presentations.

 

Do you find yourself fascinated by science and watch YouTube videos, Ted Talks or even attend a seminar about a topic that certainly interests you, but then you start slowly zoning out and losing interest? You’re not alone. Now, imagine being the person giving these kinds of presentations.

 

Many people, with all the shit that is happening or could be happening right now, have an attention span of only eight seconds. That’s right, whoever or whatever you are listening to, has 8 seconds to capture and retain your attention, not just at the beginning, but throughout.

 

Except that’s not even true. This 8-second rule was reported and popularized by various credited media outlets of a 2015 survey from Microsoft Canada. An article in 2017 published by the BBC has since debunked this short attention span myth by reaching out to experts in the field actually studying human attention span in various situations. Basically, our attention span is biased and task-dependent, and whether or not we can allot attention time to something depends on how we feel about it, our interests and what we can contribute to the task. A mechanic who fixes cars surely can devote more attention to changing a flat tire than an immunologist. But an immunologist can pay more attention to a lecture about inflammation than the mechanic. But what about an immunologist who stubbed their toe that morning and found out they have no more government funding?

 

If you think about it, there’s even more to holding attention than just content. Why are we so inclined to pay attention to experts we know as opposed to experts we don’t know, despite their relevance? Regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, why am I certain that I will listen so closely to Bill Gates versus, say, Emma Walmsley, the CEO of GSK, the largest producer of vaccines in the world? Or even Canada’s Minister of Health? (By the way, that title is held by Patricia Hajdu).

 

While that’s true in some cases, it’s certainly not true for every person in an audience. That means you have people who will actually listen to you because they know you, people who will listen to you because they have a vested interest (ie, your topic impacts them personally), people who will passively listen to you, and people who might not even wish to listen to you at all.

 

In all honesty, you should think that most people will be passively listening to you. And why is that? Any topic you want to deliver a presentation on is either too specific or too vague that most people will not dedicate their full attention to. Sticking within science, would you want to go to a presentation about a particular domain of a protein of the COVID-19 virus that is known to produce large amounts of inflammation in infected individuals between the ages of 18-34, or about virology? And even now, a presentation about COVID-19 is not specific enough to capture the attention of people bombarded with articles, videos and pictures about this virus.

 

And that’s even with its relevancy. Imagine a presentation about something not trending in the global news. I am currently working on my Masters Defence about how yeast can live in the gut by using mucus as their energy source. Is it interesting? Yeah. Will it capture people’s attention enough to watch it (I mean, if I could deliver it publicly?) I don’t know.

 

That’s also something to consider. Your audience. Sure, within all audiences you will have heterogeneity. But would you give the same presentation to your colleagues as you would to your friend or family member? Probably not (unless you’re all in the same discipline and therefore, I would suggest to diversify your circle). Perhaps you can be specific in some aspects and generalize in others. Or at each extreme, be as specific as possible or be as general as possible.

 

But one thing is for certain. No matter your audience, delivery of your content is by far the most important thing about giving a presentation. It’s got to be clear but also intriguing. Challenging but almost flowing as if you can anticipate what questions your audience is thinking as you speak. A wise mentor of mine once said, “You can say whatever shit you want, as long as you’re confident.” And that doesn’t mean doubling down on just any “shit” regarding the topic you want to talk about, but speaking calmly like you were having a discussion with a person one-on-one, and structuring how to deliver points in a strategic, effortless way.

 

There’s so much to discuss about the art of giving a great presentation. So let’s get to it.

 

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Most of this information was obtained from many articles and videos describing the research and experience on public speaking, from experts in various fields and successful entrepreneurs, speech coaches and content creators. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

What this will be is a sort of spider web of facts, opinions and commentary on the tips and tricks of creating a presentation and delivering said presentation. Everyone has their own procedure in which they create presentations, so my goal is not to change what you are comfortable doing. But what we should all do is be, aware… Aware that public speaking, whether that be through the medium on a stage, through a video, through a podcast, or through writing, ultimately has one goal, to present an idea, and stick that idea in the heads of listeners and readers such that they materialize into something they can understand and branch off other ideas they already hold.

 

What the hell is an idea? Well, it would be an abstract construct that can only be physiologically described as the communication among neurons in various regions of the human brain. Chris Anderson, a British-American businessman who owns and curates TED Conferences, described the concept of an idea eloquently: “a pattern of information that helps you understand and navigate the world”. An idea, is carefully, non-randomly linked with other ideas in your brain that create your worldview. As a presenter, you want to convey the simplest form of your idea, and that’s solely to help that idea stick by connecting with other ideas your listeners hold on their own. The more complex the idea, the harder it is to relate to other ideas. The good, innovative ideas, are so powerful that they are capable of forever changing how someone thinks about the world. You can’t unlearn the simplest form of an idea. For example, if I wanted to convey that the eye needs light to see, I would simply turn off all light sources and ask “Can you tell me how many fingers I am holding up with 100% certainty?”.

 

There are exceptions of course, and this will be just a bit of a rousing side point. I recently travelled to Hamburg, Germany and participated in a museum exhibit in which you live the daily life of a blind person. From getting ready in your apartment, to walking through the streets and crosswalks, to shopping at the grocery store, you performed all these tasks in complete darkness. It was during this exhibit that I realized how scarily dependent most of us are on our sense of sight. The blind tour guide, as he mentioned he always did to participants, challenged us to describe to him the concept of sight. The only thing I could discuss with him was the concept of light, or well, the absence of it. But that doesn’t work to someone who has never conceptualized the idea of brightness, illumination, colours, shade, shapes. I thought about how it would be like a new way of interpreting your sense of touch and producing a fake picture in your head. But that doesn’t even work because he doesn’t know the concept of a picture either, and you don’t need to use your sense of touch to visualize a cloud above you.  I realized that it’s practically impossible to describe any of our five senses without prior knowledge of what exactly that sense is. I failed. But the point is that ideas need to be connected with other ideas of your listeners in order to stick, in order for the person or people to go “Ah ha!”.

 

But I digressed. Let’s say you have that idea already. Now what? Slides right? No. Stemming from that previous example at the museum, you gotta know your audience. Thomas Frank, head of the productivity company CollegeInfoGeek, states that there are various groups of people you will always be presenting to. Although you always want to convey a simple idea, these 4 distinct groups are:

  • Group 1 - people who know you

  • Group 2 - people who are invested in your topic

  • Group 3 - people who are passively listening to you

  • Group 4 - people who are bored and would rather do something else

Although in his video he states that the most important people are those in Groups 1 and 2, it doesn’t really help if your goal is to change people’s worldview. To that end, I would say that the most important people are those in Groups 3 and 4, people who have no personal biases towards you and are there to be entertained.

 

Presentations, specifically those about science, often focuses on the first two groups and neglects those in Groups 3 and 4. Often presenters think that if people showed up to my talk, they are certainly invested in my topic. Unfortunately, this could not be more wrong. Most people are actually in Group 3 passively listening with many more people in Group 4 than presenters believe; people who would rather be doing other things. And it just makes logical sense. I might like the idea of stopping climate change before more irreversible damage takes place. But man, would I rather be playing Super Smash Bros or eating an ice cream right now? Damn right. Give listeners a reason to care and stir the only common attention-keeper there is: curiosity.

 

Presentations need to stir audience curiosity effectively. They should flow like reading a book, or watching a movie. In fact, nothing is more valuable and relatable than the stories you share with people. Large amounts of money are invested in books and movies because there is profit in telling a story. I mean, sometimes they could be bad stories, or highly repetitive stories, but the ones that stick are the ones that connect to the audience’s world view, whether that be to heroes and villains (like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), to murder mysteries (like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express), to class conflict in developed countries (like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite).

 

So you have your idea, you know your audience, and you have the outline of the story in which shares this idea with the audience. Now you can start developing your presentation. I won’t spend too much time on this since the majority of the tips and tricks for presenting devote much of its content on how to make the presentation. I think this is probably the least important step of delivering a solid presentation. In a Forbes article listing successful tips for a world-class presentation, Eddie Rice of CustomSpeechWriting states that “slides should be the supporting cast of your talk”. Plan out what you want to convey before you design your slides. In other words, can you convey your idea without having any slides at all? The answer to that question should be, yes.

 

Most of the tips are pretty straight-forward. This same lists shares other useful tips like the following: 1) tell the audience your point as soon as possible, 2) think about the median person, or in another way, you are not presenting to an expert or a clueless person in your topic, but someone who lies somewhere in the middle, 3) catch people’s attention with visual aids and hold their attention via specifically chosen language, and 4) setup your stage to what makes you the most comfortable.

 

Regarding the presentation slides themselves, these following tips are also pretty obvious yet often overlooked. Have little to no text, be uncluttered, and try and follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule, which is that powerpoints should have no more than 10 sides, be no longer than 20 minutes and no less than 30 point font. In fairness, you can adapt this to fit the timing and format specified by your given situation. Perhaps your allowed time is an hour. Well, you can still follow a general rule of 1 slide every 1-2 minutes, with less clutter and contrasting colours for ease on the eyes. Remember to separate the “Say, Show and Give”. Say your story, show them something that represents each part of the story, and give them the idea you want them to know. Make it so easy, as effortless as if the idea came from within themselves (sort of like, Don’t think about elephants. Another Christopher Nolan reference).

 

Now we’re stepping into the execution phase. It’s time to deliver this idea to your audience. But remember, don’t be nervous! Well, how the hell are you supposed to do that?

 

Eric Edmeades, public speaking coach and creator of WildFit, states in his MindValley seminar that one of the most important rules about public speaking is to not show or tell the audience that you are nervous. He mentions, “No person is born afraid of public speaking”. However, the US National Institute of Mental Health stated that glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders and heights, with judgement or negative evaluation by others as the underlying reason for this fear. Why is that?

 

We are raised so often to value the judgement of others, and for good reason. Whenever we do something crazy or stupid we are judged by our role models, parents or teachers. This is especially true when we are being our most expressive, our most vulnerable. At our rawest form, we are typically scolded for our looks and desires. Public speaking, the concept of it, is this vulnerability, when we are given attention to and evaluated by peers and strangers. Perhaps it could go well, but what if it goes poorly? What then will they think of me?

 

Don’t spiral out of control. How are you supposed to not be some negative feeling? You can fake it. It’s not ideal, but until you can believe that you are going to speak well, pretend that you can. There’s a great book called The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease that really dives into poses, positions, expressions and how they make you feel and even how they can change the way you feel.

 

What I’m trying to say is that for great delivery of your content, be aware. Be aware of the rate of your speech, breathe normally, have pauses that can let ideas sink in and give you time to think, give eye contact like you would give to any person you are conversing with, but to an audience instead. You don’t even have to look at someone in the eyes specifically, but just gaze at the audience throughout like you’re talking to them collectively. And for god sakes practice, practice, practice. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who can deliver a great presentation without a single second of practicing. But for the majority of us, practicing will give us the confidence we need to really drive that presentation home. It’ll help you know your material while helping you be more aware of your emotions and body language. These tips will take your already good presentation, to something greater.

 

And that covers it. Many tips and tricks to deliver a great presentation on an idea of great importance. To reiterate, just remember to 1) Hone your idea into something simple, 2) Understand your audience, 3) Create an organized, uncluttered visual representation of your idea (ie. slides), 4) Deliver your story with confidence (real or fake).

 

Ideas in science is something we need to share. And like I’ve said before, the language of science is often what prevents people from connecting with the material. If we personalize it and remember to make a relatable story, we will stir the one thing that can keep our attention, the curiosity in us all.

 

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For this episode, I would like to “walk the walk” if you will, using the information from the previous section to present to you an idea of my own. I completely understand that this podcast is a complete auditory medium, and therefore a presentation over podcast will lack a lot of the steps I mentioned, such as the visuals and stage delivery of an in-person talk. However, I think I can still practice other important points to deliver an idea.

 

I mentioned that I am currently finishing a Masters in Biochemistry at the University of Ottawa. Therefore, for the next 5 minutes, I would like to try and share with you the importance of the work I’ve been doing for the last 2 and a half years of my life.

 

I’m currently 26 years old. And I’d say over the last three-four years, I’ve started to notice something about my diet. Now, back in the day, this stomach of mine could withstand some volume. I could eat basically anything: a whole pizza, club sandwich, a dozen donuts and a nice pint of beer, all in one sitting. One of my good friend’s parents calls me “the bottomless pit”.

 

But nowadays I’ve started to hit my limit faster than usual. Now, usually two slices of pizza, no sandwich, one donut and a bottle of beer, and I’m “heavy breathing” kind of full. Yes, I’ve had to say no to even pizza. Replaced with a salad, fruit or sadly just some water. I was becoming more aware of what I eat, and how my body reacts to it.

 

That got me interested in how the body absorbs nutrients from our diet. The cells that make the human body are not alone in breaking down the food we eat. Surprisingly, billions of microbes live inside us, in our guts, and break down food we eat into nutrients. For example, short chain fatty acids, the essential energy source for cells in our large intestine, are created by the microbial metabolism of indigestible foods like fiber. Eat things like bread and grains, get dem fat acids.

 

Nutrients are not the only things you get when you eat. Lets just say, your microbial society in the gut has a high amount of foreign immigration. You consume millions of bacteria, fungi and other organisms through eating foods. There will always be some bacteria on vegetables and fruits, whether or not you wash them. Even take bread. From raw ingredients to the actual loaf, surely there’s no microbes in or on that slice of bread. Well actually, what ingredient helped make that bread rise? Yeast.

 

Yeast is a very interesting fungus. It can be good and bad, depending on the context. Yeast invading and proliferating in certain regions of the body, definitely on Team Villain. But certainly in the case of baking pastries and making beer, it’s one of the good guys. It doesn’t really cause harm upon entry into our bodies through diet. In fact, yeast are one of the most common microbes we ingest.

 

Hundreds of research studies on the microbes that live inside our gut try to identify which organisms stay and populate. Why? Think of it as if a tour bus came into a small town. It can either pass by, or it can stop and allow tourists to get off. Here, if yeast and other microbes are the tourists, they can interact with the residents, eat at the local restaurants, buy some clothes at the store…Yadda yada yada. Basically, yeast can impact the gut environment by staying there.

 

How and why would it stay there? It’s not like there’s a whole lot of good nutrients that makes its way to the large intestine anyway. There’s just this sticky coating that lines the entire digestive tract. This coating, called mucus, helps protect our own cells from the bad guys, kind of acting like a thick, slimy wall.

 

This wall is made up of proteins called mucin. At microscopic scale, they’re huge, mainly because they’re surrounded by an incredible amount of sugars. What if yeast could eat this wall? It would be both how they can stick and reside in the gut, while also consuming it too for energy.

 

And in fact they do. It can metabolize mucin using these scissors, or a specific protein that degrades other proteins, that can either help take up mucin from the environment or help break it down through some biochemical pathway. We can actually visualize these scissors inside cells through microscopes, working to help the cell survive in mucus environments. The sugars that create the bulk of the mass are broken down further and feed into mitochondria, the energy producers of the cell, for yeast to survive. We were able to test the activity of mitochondria in mucus to show just how incredibly active they were. And with that knowledge, we can find out if residing yeast can impact our health by interacting with other microbes and our own cells.

 

And isn’t that just Wonderbread?

 

Thanks for listening to this special episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on yet another draw on my 10th episode. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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