The Art Of Making Your Audience Comfortable – A Conversation About Structure, Style And Strategy With Joshua White

“Speakers often focus on the technical content and forget about other cues, like visual and emotional cues. One important element is that you have to give people a feeling of the structure of a presentation to make them feel comfortable as it unfolds.  Give them the feeling that they will understand it.” 

– Josh White, Engineer and Geophysicist

At Championing Science we have been interviewing senior scientists and communicators about their communication methods.  Young scientists also can be great champions, and we are curious to find out how they become good speakers so quickly.  Is it school, or experience, or disposition?  One such young scientist is Josh White, a geophysicist and engineer, and winner of the prestigious Lawrence Postdoctoral Fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  His clarity and poise in front of an audience stand out in his cohort – we interviewed him in Livermore to find out how he does it.  Among his awards for communication are:

  • Best Poster Award, Postdoc Poster Symposium, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, 2012
  • Outstanding Student Paper Award, Hydrology Section, American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, San Francisco, 2008
  • Outstanding Student Paper Award, Tectonophysics Section, American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, San Francisco, 2007
  • Centennial Teaching Assistant Award, Stanford University, 2007

Josh was an engineering and architecture undergraduate at Princeton University, and graduated from Stanford with a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.  In grad school he thought he would like to design bridges, but became fascinated with the complexity of geophysics and the mechanics of things underground. He has 14 published papers on geophysics and computational geomechanics.


How do you approach the development of your presentations?

Instead of thinking about presentations as an opportunity to discuss technical details, I think of them as an opportunity to get other people excited about the work. I then want people to go home and read the paper that has all the technical content.

I also think carefully about the visual presentation, not just the content.  When I was growing up I was very interested in graphic design and used to read about it and study it. Anyone can look at a graphic and immediately tell a good one from a bad one, but the question is, why is one better? People subconsciously notice the use of contrast, alignment, and relationship.  These are simple mechanisms you can use.  I want the viewer to immediately see what is most important and what is of secondary importance.  I don’t want to distract people with a whole jumble of stuff.  If the point of the slide is one figure, then I make it the whole slide.

How do you ensure that your audience will understand what you are communicating?

I’ve worked in several disciplines which has helped me learn what is common versus jargon. The question is, can you actually teach someone to be sensitive to overusing jargon, or is it just something you accumulate over time?  It is really important to be sensitive to using jargon. When I meet someone at a conference or a poster session I usually ask them what they do. Then I have a sense of their background and can try to find some common language.

Certain topics are popular.  If I am talking to someone with no science background and trying to explain a science topic, I start out by trying to gauge how much they already know so I can figure out where to start.  Sometimes I’ll make statements to see if they agree, and that helps me get a sense of their base of understanding.

Why do you think scientists find it difficult to present their ideas effectively?

Unfortunately presentations are a very inefficient way to convey technical information or convey a tremendous amount of detail. Papers are far better.

Often speakers focus on the technical content and forget about other cues, like visual and emotional cues. One important element is that you have to give people a feeling of the structure of a presentation to make them feel comfortable as it unfolds.  Give them the feeling that they will understand it.

You mentioned your focus on structure.  How do you create visible structure in your presentations?

One method is to use a header that shows the sections of the presentation and shows progress.

Example of headers with clear structure

Example of simple progress labels in the slide header

That way the audience can see what section we are in and where we are headed.  Sometimes people get bored and distracted and you want them to get reengaged later on.  Showing the structure this way can help. You also want to surprise them to keep them interested.  But a big part of structure is taking the time to figure out what the key points are and what’s secondary.

All of my education has been about how to carefully structure things. If something is important and not crucial you have to leave it out.  That’s hard for most people. I don’t think that showing everything you know is an effective way to get your ideas understood. I don’t gear the presentation to the one expert in the room. I gear it to the broad audience.  I’m very aggressive about cutting things out when I’m preparing. In writing classes I was taught that you don’t use two adjectives if one will do. Don’t use an adjective if a good noun will do.


How do you decide what content to include in your presentations?

I take the allotted time for my talk and divide the minutes by two or maybe three. That’s my formula for how many slides I should use. It gives me a sense of how much content I can have.  I’ve never seen anyone complain when a presentation goes short. People often underestimate the value of the question-and-answer portion of a talk, and you want to leave time for that.

Then I try to figure out what is important to the audience. Let’s say the presentation is for a sponsor who is really engaged with the technical work. I think about what questions they posed when they funded the work and what we have done to address those questions. Then I think about the points I want to make and pull my slide content together from there.

What about situations where you have seen people champion a scientific idea?  What stands out about those presentations?

The most important thing is the first few slides.  In the first few slides, the audience needs to be convinced that the problem is tremendously important and has to be solved.  By the fourth or fifth slide, you have to convince me that while I may not understand all the technical details, you have a different way of thinking about the challenge and I should give you the benefit of the doubt that your idea is going to work.  It’s important to help people understand how things in the past have failed and what makes your approach different. So championing science is all about the set up!

How do you manage audience engagement to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand?

I try to have very few slides. I like it when people ask questions in the middle of the presentation. I know how long it is going to take me to get through things. If a particular discussion goes on too long, I don’t hesitate to say, this is a very important question but we have a lot to get through so can we hold off until the end.

How much do you practice before you give a presentation?

I practice, but I try not to practice too much so I don’t sound robotic. I try not to put everything I plan to say on the slide. I will often use just a figure and practice to know the four points I want to make.

I pay most attention to how I’m going to transition from slide to slide. Usually there is a structure on the slide itself and a structure to the entire presentation. I practice for time and for what’s going to come next so I know where to make specific comments.

The amount of time I spend preparing a talk varies greatly.  High-visibility talks often have to be in draft form a week or two in advance so they can be reviewed.  Low-priority talks I can put off to the last minute.  Sometimes it is better to only have a few hours to prepare because it requires focus.

How do you handle complex content when you have a diverse audience?

Equations are a really tough thing in a mixed audience.  Some expect them, and others have no idea what they mean. When I present an equation I try to present it simultaneously for two audiences on a two-column slide [See Figure Y].

Creating one column with the essence of the equation helps keep the entire audience engaged.

Creating a description with the essence of the equation in plain language helps keep the entire audience engaged.

I put the math in one column.  Right next to it I’ll have a description of what the equation represents. So for example, I’ll have a symbolic equation and right next to it I’ll have text that says, “Conservation of Energy”.  So even if someone doesn’t understand the field at all, they won’t feel completely lost.

Anytime I put anything on a slide, it has to be explained.  If it is important enough to put it on the slide, it is important enough to take the time to go through every term and explain what it is. Sometimes a speaker talks a million miles an hour and even people working in the field can’t keep up. I think that keeping people engaged comes back to structure, appreciating that there are certain sections where you may lose some people. I might be explaining a model but then I will apply the model in the next section, and at that point I can get everyone in the audience to re-engage.

What are the outcomes you work to drive when you give presentations?

My first question is “What am I trying to achieve?”  If it is a presentation to a technical audience, then the idea is to get them excited about the technical work.  If it is to a sponsor that we already have money from, then I want to convince them that we have used it responsibly. If it is to a potential sponsor, the emphasis is that we are going to use their money responsibly and the work will be of value to them. Those are all very different presentations.

How do you sum up at the end?

I view the last slide as a chance to leave one or two essential points in people’s heads, even if they forget everything else.

Let me give you one specific example from a recent meeting with a potential sponsor.  We discussed all the things we could do for them and all our areas of expertise.  The last slide I put up was a menu of everything we could do, how long it would take and how much it would cost. Immediately in summary they could see everything.  It set the tone for the discussion.

This was a very direct, specific approach because the person we were talking to was technically very sharp and he already knew us well. He was very budget conscious, and he greatly appreciated the direct approach.  If that had been the first presentation to a sponsor who wasn’t used to working us, throwing a number at them off the bat may have turned them off.  But this person already understood our value.

Let’s talk about the proverbial elevator pitch. Can you give an example of one you use?

As a technical person, you understand all the nuances but in an elevator pitch you have to gloss over the nuances and have to be comfortable without conveying all the nuance.

I often talk with people about underground carbon storage.  Here’s what I say. “We have all these other potential energy technologies but we are heavily reliant on coal and fossil fuels. The beauty of carbon storage is we can continue to use those fuels without emitting CO2 to the atmosphere.” I find people immediately understand this, and are then willing to talk about the challenges and subtleties.