In academia, and in companies with academic leanings, there are events known as Job Talks. …
Despite having an education and career that are strongly rooted in science, art has been a consistent thread in my life. I can’t remember an era when I wasn’t creating something…finger painting in preschool, cross-stitching in grade school, picking up knitting in college, taking a quilting class after my oldest son was born.
In college, when my good friend asked if I could write for her section of the school newspaper, I joked, “I can’t write,* but I can draw.”
“WOULD YOU?!” she exclaimed.
And so an offhanded comment turned into Brain Farce. I drew this weekly comic for The College of William & Mary’s Flat Hat for two and a half years, and I still consider that to be one of my coolest pieces of Lori Trivia.
In response to last week’s blog post, a college friend suggested that I resurrect Brain Farce. This got my wheels turning. I realized that there are some parallels between comics and good scientific presentations:
Images are critical.
Presentation images can literally be photographs, illustrations, or data visualizations. They can also be mental images that you create for the audience through storytelling. Either way, images grab attention, facilitate understanding, and tap into emotions.
Words are sometimes needed. Use them intentionally and efficiently.
It’s a rare comic that doesn’t need some sort of verbiage, whether that’s labels, dialogue, or onomatopoeia.** The same is true of presentations. You’re going to need to convey facts and offer explanations. The key is to limit words, both spoken and displayed, to those that are essential for audience understanding. (And keep in mind that you and your audience may have different perspectives on what’s essential.)
On the infrequent occasions that I use a lot of words in a comic or on a presentation slide, it’s typically to make a character (or myself) sound a little unhinged:
Pattern and repetition help you tell a cohesive story.
In Brain Farce, one of my common approaches was repetition with variation. So, here is X, now here is X applied to a different person or situation, and isn’t that hysterical? You can do the same thing in a presentation. Maybe the repetition is visual, like formatting section header slides in the same way or using star-shaped bullets throughout an astronomy presentation. The repetition could also be conceptual, where you could introduce a character, theme, or metaphor and reference it at different points throughout the presentation…like (just off the top of my head) using strips from the same comic to illustrate different features of effective presentations.
Humor, when it’s natural and compassionate,*** builds connection.
At some point in college, I had a group project meeting in my dorm room. One of my teammates, who I didn’t know particularly well, noticed some Brain Farce-esque art I’d hung up. “Oh, you draw that?!” he said. “I have the one about the girl sleeping in class up on my wall.”
At times, we’ve all felt silly or embarrassed or utterly preposterous. We’ve all met eccentric people and seen wacky things. It’s a part of the human experience. When we can bring humor to our “very serious” scientific work, it can make a speaker seem relatable and approachable. It can also inject some life into a topic that may, inherently, be less than thrilling.
In presentations, as in life, humor and credibility are not mutually exclusive.
*Not strictly true. I later went on to write the paper’s humor column, and I now write for a living.
**Credit to my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Rogers, for my ability to define and spell onomatopoeia.
***Trauma, stereotypes, and jokes that demean marginalized groups are not funny. Forced humor will fall flat. When in doubt (about a joke), leave it out.