Every scientist has had the experience of needing a small number of slides for a short time slot. Faced with the forty or fifty viewgraphs we have already prepared which describe the topic in sufficient detail to satisfy any expert, reducing to a small number is a daunting prospect. This task, however, is one of the most important aspects of advancing science – editing your material, and thoughts, down to the central essence.
Short conversations with people (your colleagues, your friends, your bosses, your program leaders, your sponsors) are the most important thing you can do to advance your prospects of having an impact or getting a new idea adopted. The first page of a proposal or a five-minute discussion can generate interest in spending another half an hour on the details. The short viewgraph presentation is perhaps the most difficult example of this short conversation, because we are naturally drawn to include more of the detail of our analysis than time, or audience attention will permit.
With that in mind I want to share some thoughts that originated with Jay Davis, Champion of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry and the first Director of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). (Check out our recent conversation with Jay). He emphasized that there are five things you need in any short conversation or presentation:
The Technical Gap
Filling the Gap
Why You Are Right for the Job
How Will You Meet the Sponsor’s Needs?
Jay often presented these in terms of the ‘Five Slides You Need’, but the concepts are exactly the same for the beginning of a white paper. In fact, it is a great idea to discipline yourself to have the first two paragraphs of a white paper match both your three-minute pitch and your first five slides in tone, content, and message. Then you only have to do it once, and you are doing it the best possible way!
I worked for Jay early in my career. He was asked to create a directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory combining all the environmental and energy science into one large team, which for many of us was our first real taste of science in teams bigger than our university research groups. With almost 200 scientists under one roof, it was important that we communicate well with each other. In order to carry out our mission to support the national needs in environment and energy, we had to communicate with a diverse set of outside interests and sponsors ranging from environmental activists to former Navy fighter pilots now commanding bases that required dramatic groundwater cleanup.
Jay was adamant with us young ‘uns that we be able to prepare five viewgraphs at the drop of a hat. He never specified exactly what those five viewgraphs should be. Instead, he said you should be able to condense your entire argument, including the ask, into five viewgraphs that exemplify the whole. Start with those five, and if you never get to the entire presentation, you have exposed the important material. This avoids perhaps the most grievous outcome of all – a willing collaborator, an eager sponsor, or an influential policy maker, cut off from helping you by the lack of time. Not on Jay Davis’ watch.
I remember struggling with the nature of the five viewgraphs each time Jay would require it. What exactly were the five he was looking for? Turns out it is not that hard. Whether the ‘five’ is actually ‘six’ or ‘three’, the point is to be concise, and remember that almost any short discussion of this sort has the same required elements.
Here they are:
1) The Problem.
What is missing from the world which you care deeply about? A good way to think about this is first the overall context, and then a gap that keeps us from getting from where we are to where we want to be. Constructed well, that gap is something you are working to fill.
- Context, e.g., “Climate change is well known to be an issue.”
- Gap area, e.g. “Predicting the effect of climate change on Navy force utilization in the Pacific has recently been highlighted by PACCOM (Pacific Command).”
This dual use of large-scale (context) and project scale (gap) thinking lets the audience know that you are aware of the big picture, while having the self-control to know that you must define a project with a budget that the sponsor can supply. The simple phrase, “This gap keeps you from achieving your goal”, will get any sponsor’s attention.
When using slides, start with this, and NOT your title slide or a list of collaborators. For the first 20 seconds you unequivocally have their complete attention. Put it to the best possible use. They already know your name and organization. Make the audience think, “Yes, that is an important problem, that I care about, and to which I’d like to have an answer!”. Put the problem in front of them. But don’t perseverate on this topic, the next slide is the most important.
2) The Technical Gap.
Now you make the connection between the gap, and what area of science, engineering or technology could be improved to help us jump forward to a better position regarding the problem?
- Name the specific thing we can’t do today because of a gap in knowledge or ability, e.g. “We can’t predict the number or intensity of Pacific typhoons.”
- Link it back to the broad problem statement, but focus on the technical need.
This is the slide where you can talk about the conventional way to think about the problem and why the gap exists. This is also the optimal place to make another statement which will always capture an audience’s attention – “What if you could?”. For instance, “What if you could skip this hard step?”, or, “What if we could apply knowledge from another discipline to solve this tough problem in my discipline?” An audience, particularly a science and technology audience, will always honor this challenge with another minute of intense attention. This is at the heart of what makes us love science. This statement repays the audience for their time spent listening to you. It’s what they came for.
Now that you have their attention with a key problem, and a potential opening to pursue, you can make the first mention of your contribution.
3) How Can you Fill the Gap?
What sort of science is needed?
- Imagine the future – “If we could reliably do ‘X’, we could fill the technical gap, and address the large problem in a new way.”
- How will this improve the general state of science? Even a highly focused sponsor wants to know that their efforts fit into the general progress of knowledge.
Obviously this is more than a one-slide topic in a detailed slide deck, but in either that format or a white paper, you have less space than you would like for this material. In the Five Viewgraph version, it really is only one slide. Be concise, and trust that the readers do not need a detailed description of your previous accomplishments and your experimental plan – just enough highlights to make them confident (and to let them ask you questions, which they always love to do!).
Let your audience absorb the material slowly. Make them want to get the details. Accept the fact that many of the most important white-paper readers will never get beyond the first two paragraphs because they just don’t have the time. Give them the opportunity to love your idea in the time they have available.
4) Why Are You Right for the Job?
Among the topics you can choose from for this answer are:
- Why are you or your team well poised to be efficient and effective?\
- Why will your company or lab be proud of this accomplishment?
- Why is this well suited to your skills, reputation and facilities?
- What have you or your collaborators done previously in this area?
In the opening paragraphs of a white paper you want to address this in a sentence, picking one or two most important of these topics. Then follow with a short paragraph in the body.
5) How Will You Meet the Sponsor’s Needs?
Now we come to a critical part. You have identified a need, and you have an audience that in some way is connected and interested in addressing that need. The worst possible thing you can do is to waste their time by not making an ask. How can they participate? How can they advance their agenda by following your lead? How can they collaborate or invest or support you? How can they convene other resources also interested in the problem? Even if the ask is nothing more than, “Please let me know what you think of this idea”, make the ask. Every time.
While the ask is often for money, you should keep this principle in mind for all sponsor-related interactions. Be specific so that they are able to invest in you. Give them the information they need to respond to their oversight committee, or slot you into a research theme, or know when they can check in on your progress. Give them the ability to act.
- How much are you asking for? Put it up front to provide context for the scope of your work. Under the title is good – e.g. $350K/yr for three years.
- What general types of work will be done (experiments, models, etc.)?
- What will you provide that actually fills the gap you defined in slides one and two?
Don’t be vague about what you provide, e.g., “A report,” but rather something like, “An analysis that compares the results of this method to previous techniques, and evaluates the time and resource requirements for implementing this technique”, or, “A working prototype computer model that embodies the physics we have described here”.
Be sure to have clear examples of what you will do. Asking for money to evaluate what needs to be done will never be well received. Even if you are not sure, say something like, “Our initial analysis indicates that path ‘Q’ is likely to result in a successful outcome, but we are also spending some effort on path “R” because it has merit”. Making a decision on the final path is a great intermediate milestone. NOTE- in a complete proposal slide deck with required elements this is not the milestones and deliverables slide. This is the conceptual version of that topic.
The balance of words and figures is critical, and different, in white papers and short presentations. Words are the most important part of a white paper, with perhaps room for one salient figure. Two paragraphs, one large, simple, and legible figure is your entire first page – all you can count on being read.
The situation is reversed for the presentation – do not let your slides become slideuments. Your voice conveys the important information, and the slides provide space for key supporting visual messages. Keep the words minimal (no more than one slide with more than 20 words on it, most with few or none. Turn off the bullets). It may be ideal to leave a whitepaper behind. That’s a terrific way to meld the words and pictures. But don’t pass it out until you finish talking – you want the audience’s attention on your face.
Finally, give your pitch to anyone that will listen. Make sure it is coming across the way you want, and pay close attention to the questions that indicate where people were lacking key information that you assumed they had.
Capturing the essence is essential. Following this five topic structure will enable you to crystalize your thinking and have greater impact on your audience.