11 August 2010

The Zen of Presentations, Part 34: Lessons from the blind

I was lucky enough to do a post-doc with David Macmillan. David is a wonderful person, and a terrific scientist. He was very active, and the sort of person you could see wondering, “What will I do when I retire?”

About two years ago, David got an unexpected answer: Learn to live blind.

David lost his sight in one day from an autoimmunity problem.

But thanks to the technology available now, he has barely slowed down. He continued to serve as department head and a editor of the journal Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology. He jokes with fellow neuroethologists, “I reckon I have the visual system of a primitive mollusc.” He recently made the trip from Australia to Spain for the International Congress of Neuroethology, and gave a poster (David’s the one in dark glasses on the left).

Of course, being blind gives you a different perspective. David said that since he lost his sight, he realized that there are two kinds of presenters:

  • Those who tell a story, and use slides as a supplement to their story.
  • Those who make their slides, show them, and comment on them.

Even without being able to see the slides that are pervasive in scientific talks, David is able to enjoy the former. But he gets frustrated and bored with the latter.

Or, to borrow from Educating Rita, can you do it on the radio? Do you have a verbal narrative that carries you through without slides?

Again and again and again, like a drumbeat: Tell people a story. They’ll love you for it.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

I think you're conflating medium and message here. No question, the best messages are stories; but the medium of slides is a perfectly good one to tell a story with. Sometimes a sequence a pictures alone is a story, and very few or no words are needed.