Presentations and Prejudice

I'm thinking just now about two very different projects: the first is a post-grad seminar I'm giving on presentation skills in August, the second is a local volunteer project I help with. Weirdly enough the two projects overlap in my mind.

Forth-Clyde canal

I live a few minutes from the Forth-Clyde canal which was built over 200 years as Scotland became a mercantile and intellectual hub. In recent years various Scottish agencies have invested in redeveloping the canal and the best example of this is the stunning Kelpies.

On my local stretch, the Scottish Waterways Trust have started a pilot initiative called 'Love your Canal' recruiting and training volunteer guides, lock-keepers, maintainance teams etc. I frequently run or cycle along the towpath, but occasionally I've canoed (or paddled) along it too, so I'd volunteered to clean the reed beds and water of the accumulated rubbish.

Earlier this month I was out in the kayak, picking up litter, and as I paddling back to a pontoon to dispose of it, I passed a small group of young lads with an early morning 'carryout'; one asked me if 'this was my job'. As I told him about the canal's new project and how to volunteer, one of the group made it clear - through a rude gesture - that he wasn't interested in community green-space initiatives and believed me to be a right idiot. Sort-of-stunned, but still being friendly I wished them luck and paddled away. My slowly simmering indignation stoked by the fact that I later picked their discarded bottles from the water (you can tell when the labels are still on and the beer inside is still fizzy). OK, an unpleasant conversation, so what's that to do with teaching post-grad students about presentation skills. Well, this...

Diamonds from dirt?

One of the ideas I try to get across to students is that negative experiences can be as valuable, perhaps even more valuable, than positive experiences. A cringe-worthy lecture can be a worthwhile if you look at it and work out what was boring, off-putting or unpleasant about it. So, I can't get away from the idea that been insulted by an inebriated teenager as I spend my free time cleaning the canal, transforming it into a nice stretch of water for him and his mates to lob their empties into, is the sort of negative experience that - if I walk my talk - could be more valuable to me than the other nice (and encouraging) discussions I had with other towpath users that morning.

Here goes...

It's difficult to get a true reflection of the interaction: all I have to go on is my memories. But, I was asked a simple, closed question; I should have given a simple, closed answer. That would have allowed dialogue to start, or stop, but either way it would have been controlled by the questioner. My vocab and language were probably too academic or 'promotional' (but hey, I'm keen on the canal project!) and I suspect I started to lose 'the audience' with the words 'Love your Canal'! And I was probably a bit nervous: your surprisingly cornered in a kayak on a narrow canal - I can't paddle faster than walking pace, nor dodge missiles without tipping in. So my learning points: I need simpler, shorter sentences, careful choice of words, and perhaps a more assertive and confident manner. But I'm not finished there...

Going deeper

As a science engager this interaction contains a deeper challenge: the challenge of how scientists convey innovation and creativity, which is admired from an academic viewpoint, to a community where the opposite can be true. Putting my recent experience on the canal to one side (because shouting insults isn't a real indicator of someone's attitude to innovation), I think of my school years where creative approaches would run the risk of being of publicly mocked, or targeted, by a small group of prominent pupils who were usually known for their disruptive, and sometimes, violent actions. In my last few decades as a scientist I've been affirmed for my innovative approaches to problems and kayaking down the canal picking up litter is one of those solutions: but it's also too far outside the 'box' for some folks, and so the responses won't always be positive ones. At its heart, science engagement is about getting the audience to go 'wow' about the science, not nerd about the scientist. How do we reach an audience who starts from the premise, or will almost instinctively comes to the conclusion, that you’re just a geek in a lab coat (or in my case a yellow kayak)? 

Deeper still

But back to the presentations skills seminar I'll deliver in a few week time. I'll tell my students to predict the audience they will present their work to (academics, commercial scientists, post-grads or school pupils?) and modify it accordingly. And that's great advice for the students and me: so, with public science engagement (and wombling along my local canal I'll be predicting my audience. Next time I see young lads drinking beside the canal, I've a plan. Except I'm worried.

Worried that in predicting my public audience (a good thing) I've started to become prejudice (a bad thing). Predicting and prejudice seem to be part of the same desire, or as I'll teach it, the requirement, to understanding how someone else might think and react to a presentation, or some other conversation. I'm not comfortable with this: when does my prediction become my prejudice?

The only resolution to this dilemma for me is trying to shine a spotlight on the focus of my intentions: is it to deepen people's understanding of some worthy project or dismiss groups or individuals as unworthy observers ? Maybe I really have learned more from my negative experience than I would have if the lads had said - as most other towpath users did: "that's a great idea".