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This is a comic with two panels. The top panel is labeled "Freshman Year," and it shows 4 students looking happy, perky, and overeager. The second panel is labeled "Senior Year," and it has 4 students looking weary, jaded, and unimpressed. The first student, a female, is labeled as "Wants to be school president" as a freshman and "President of the Squirrel Appreciation Society" as a senior. The second student, a male, is labeled "Wants to run a marathon as a freshman and "Signed up for a 5K...overslept" as a senior. Student 3, a female, is labeled "Wants to make PBK" as a freshman and "Makes PBJ for lunch every day" as a senior. Student 4, a male, is labeled "Wants to date 15 different girls" as a freshman and "Put on 15 different pounds" as a senior.

Comic Relief

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.

This is a comic with four panels. Panel 1 has has a female student sleeping at a classroom desk. Panel 2 has the same student sleeping in a lecture hall. Panel 3 has the same student sleeping next to a Bunsen burner. Panel 4 has the same student awake in bed at 2:17am.

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.

This is a comic with 4 panels. Panel 1 has an exterior door with signage reading, "Welcome to The Caf. Please leave with only one (1) item." Panel 2 has a female student holding a soft-serve ice cream cone, with the caption "One (1) Ice Milk Cone." Panel 3 has a male student at an ice cream machine, filling a bucket, with a caption that reads "One (1) Gallon of Ice Milk." Panel 4 has two male students rolling an ice cream machine down a sidewalk, with a caption that reads, "One (1) Ice Milk Machine."

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:

This is a comic with 4 panels. Panel 1 has a female student on a cordless phone, saying, "Hi, Professor Frumpleford? This is Sally Salamander from your 'Western Thoughts on Eastern Thoughts' class. I was calling to see if I could get an estension on the paper that's due this afternoon. Why? Inclement weather." Panel 2 shows a female professor on the phone in her office, saying "Oh dear, Sally! What happened? Did you get snowed-in out of town?" Panel 3 has Sally saying, "Well, not exactly. See, I heard that it was going to snow, so I had to go to the grocery store & stock up on ramen. Then I had to hunt around my room for the Caf trays I stole to sled on last year. And I had to find my left mitten. I had some time left after that, but it was kind of hard to concentrate with the Weather Channel blaring in the background." Panel 4 shows the professor with her head on the desk. Coming from her phone receiver is a bubble that says, "And then, wouldn't you know it? I woke up this morning & no snow!" The professor is thinking, "Why won't this semester end?!" This is a PowerPoint slide titled (What NOT to Do). The text reads: Almost every presentation slide I see is packed with words. I mean, words, words, words, words, words. It's not because those presenters are horrible people. They're using their slides as notes. So, they've written everything they want to say on the slides and then they're reading them like it's karaoke night. They're also printing out their slides and using them as their handout. But text-heavy slides are terrible to watch. And 99% of your audience is never going to reference a print-out of 20 slides packed with bullet points. So, PLEASE make your slides, notes, and handouts three different documents. PLEASE.

Pattern and repetition help you tell a cohesive story.

This is a comic with two panels. The top panel is labeled "Freshman Year," and it shows 4 students looking happy, perky, and overeager. The second panel is labeled "Senior Year," and it has 4 students looking weary, jaded, and unimpressed. The first student, a female, is labeled as "Wants to be school president" as a freshman and "President of the Squirrel Appreciation Society" as a senior. The second student, a male, is labeled "Wants to run a marathon as a freshman and "Signed up for a 5K...overslept" as a senior. Student 3, a female, is labeled "Wants to make PBK" as a freshman and "Makes PBJ for lunch every day" as a senior. Student 4, a male, is labeled "Wants to date 15 different girls" as a freshman and "Put on 15 different pounds" as a senior.

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.

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