Finding Your Research Voice

Itai Cohen and Melanie Dreyer

Students work individually and in groups to learn specific presentation ideas and participate in field tested exercises that will help them improve their research presentation skills. Finding Your Research Voice is a hands-on workshop that also involves learning how to use your body and your voice to engage any audience. Participants practice new gestures, experiment with the use of props, and take advantage of video and peer feedback.

This two-day workshop is led and organized by Itai Cohen, Melanie Dreyer-Lude and Susi Varvayanis. It is designed for grad students and postdocs in the social sciences, STEM, humanities and arts disciplines who are interested in an immersion to improve their research communication skills. In a safe space to try new approaches and where everyone is there to improve themselves, the workshop provides an atmosphere where one is not afraid to make mistakes and also provide constructive feedback to others. These workshops have led to a published book that summarizes the exercises and serves as a step-by-step guide to Finding Your Research Voice – Storytelling and Theatre Skills for Bringing Your Presentation to Life. It is fully accessible through the Cornell Library System.

Finding Your Research Voice-November 2018

Participants shared takeaway lessons and feedback from the workshop:

“I am so glad I participated in this program within within the first two years of my PhD which allows me to apply these skills to many future presentations and data/research visualization.  The most important skill I gained was to stick to the core message and consider how a slide relates to core message, then edit.  Additionally, the power of well timed visualizations of workflows/methods rather than text heavy slides allow you to tell a story and reach more audience members knowledge levels/attention spans.” “The recordings are very useful! and Melanie’s coaching offered the perspective that many PI’s can’t/don’t provide.”  —Plant Breeding and Genetics

“Thinking about changing the order of your presentation was really helpful.  I think it changed the whole structure of my talk to present the main result first because that allowed me to also make my intro cleaner and more understandable.” –Molecular, Biology and Genetics

“I feel the most important skill I learned at the workshop is to think quickly on my own feet while presenting. The knowledge that was rendered in the workshop – for instance, how to make a story out of your research, was priceless. I hope to inculcate these skills in my research to better engross the audience when I speak.” –Food Science

“How to think about what are the central parts to a presentation. How to look at my slides from an outside perspective. What is important in terms of posture, pace,…” –Sociology

“Arrange content logically.  Keep focus on linear story telling” –Biological and Environmental Engineering

“Various presentation skills, different angles to view the presentations, ways to catch attention of the audience.” —Bioinformatics

How to convey a story and separate it into parts that allow you to tell a story that makes sense.  How important a good beginning is, from your intro slide to how you hook your audience.” –Materials Science and Engineering

Finding Your Scientific Voice-June 2018

Participants from many disciplines, including the physical sciences, social sciences, and life sciences worked individually and in groups to improve their presentations both orally and visually. To practice new gestures and analogies, experiment with the use of props, and reorder slides that now each incorporate just one message, participants were aided by video and peer feedback. Learning how to give a good beginning, how to tell a good story, using voice and gesture as well as movement during a presentation helped attendees improve their own presentations and give constructive feedback on others’. The most important knowledge or skill gained? From the doctoral participants’ perspective:

A lot of good information on speaking. Clarity, diction, speed, volume.”– Physics

“I’ve gone to other talks/workshops on how to make an effective presentation but none of them walked me through the implementation or gave me iterative feedback on whether I was using strategies effectively. Watching videos of myself speaking was painful but really helpful, especially paired with specific feedback from the instructors so I could focus on the things they pointed out rather than how weird I think I look/sound on camera. I think this critical approach to self-evaluation and being able to ‘get over it’ is one of the most important things I’m taking away from this workshop.” —Biomedical Engineering

“I didn’t realize the small things I often do in presentation before this workshop. It is so nice to have someone else tell me my blind spot.” —Biophysics

Participants indicated important knowledge gained in the workshop included the core message-how to make it to the point, how to use the structure of the talk to keep things simple, streamlined and straightforward. They enjoyed watching how everyone improved their core message and their talk, learning how to go about fixing something and achieving a new effect in public speaking

“The theatre exercise helped loosen me up and encourages creativity and motivation. Seeing other people’s improvement is very encouraging.”–Psychology (and Music)

They learned how to “have a more engaging beginning of presentation. [It was] good practice to work with people with different disciplines [to] make me really need to find a better, clear way of explanation.” —Genetics, Genomics & Development

Now participants are going to “Think about how to convert information effectively instead of just throwing out results.” —Engineering

Participants in FYRV workshop

As they learned how to tell a good story, and vary the story elements to better engage their audience, participants tried on new ways to present the beginning of their talks. “I am more aware of the structure of my presentation slides”–Plant Breeding and Genetics postdoctoral scholar

Finding your Scientific Voice-April 2018

Participants from many disciplines gathered to learn about and practice their skills in research communication in an intensive experiential workshop. Working their bodies and voice to create engaging beginnings, focused core messages and clear slides, participants were videotaped and engaged in improvisation to improve the dramatic arc of their research presentation.

Participants shared the most important thing they learned:

“Telling a compelling story is important.” –LASSP

“Storytelling! The dramatic arc and how to apply to my talk. Great mix of general ideas and then applying to my stuff. Did not feel like all day! Time flies when you are having fun!” —Genetics, and Genomic Development

“Techniques to hone my message. Ideas on how to present my material a little different. Thank you for a fantastic workshop!” –Population Medicine and Diagnostic Science

“The idea of switching around the components of the dramatic arc to improve the story was really interesting, and I think it will really help me to improve my talks. This was super fun!” —Entomology

“I liked most how the instructors taught us to flip our presentations and elevator pitches.” —Animal Science

“How to successfully catch an audience’s attention at the beginning of a talk.  How to modify and create a strong core message. Other skills like how to walk and speak loudly and with proper gestures. The environment and everyone made me feel comfortable.  Both of the instructors are enthusiastic and friendly.  Overall I enjoyed the workshop.  Good amount of activities and revising to mix things up.” —Biological and Biomedical Sciences

“Detailed tips about presentation style (breathing, hands, walking…) and presentation structure.  Fitting the presentation into a story.” —Civil and Environmental Engineering

Finding your Scientific Voice-July 2016

Erika Ganda won $1500 from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners at their annual meeting for her presentation “Milk microbiome assessed through 16S rRNA sequencing during antimicrobial treatment of mastitis-A randomized clinical trial and longitudinal follow up”. She ascribed to her award practicing her presentation and refining it with help via this workshop.
The AABP is an international association of veterinarians serving society as leaders in cattle health, welfare, and productivity.

Participants were asked what the most important skill or knowledge they gained:

How to defeat the curse of knowledge and make my research accessible for the general public by making simple changes in my presentation.”
“How to compartmentalize portions of my talk to tell a better story. Beginnings are very important too.”
“I learned more about my research by making it concise and clear to the audience.”
“Ability to express myself and methods of framing my research story.”
“It’s simple, but making sure each slide is contributing to the primary message you’re trying to send.”
“How to apply storytelling to scientific presentations.”

Here are a few more quotes from recent participants about what they learned and liked most:

“Awesome. Learned a ton of new things. The in depth nature and great feedback” —Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

“The way that the improv activities directly connected with the communication was incredibly helpful. There are a lot of trainings out there for communication with the general public, which is great, but there really aren’t a lot of places to hone your skills of presenting to a scientific audience.”–Immunology & Infectious Disease

“How to convey my enthusiasm for my work.”–Biochemistry, Molecular Cell Biology

“Ability to express myself and methods of framing my research story”–Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

“Creating more compelling story lines in my presentations”–Biomedical Engineering

“Just that you need to be willing to try new things.“–Physics

Finding your Scientific Voice-December 2015

Science Meets Theatre

By Dumi Tembo

“Scientists are not terrible communicators. They are just focused on other important things; the science.” Melanie Dreyer says.

I find this statement very true just by listening to my peers explaining their research at the “Finding Your Scientific Voice” workshop. The first thing I hear is the science. Big words and scientific names of viruses and bacteria and their processes and counterparts I cannot pronounce, let alone spell. Although some words swoosh past my brain into the atmosphere, what I hear the loudest is the passion.

Science matters. People vote or make a purchase based on science. That is why it is very important that scientists communicate the right information in such a way that it does not get misunderstood and misinterpreted. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

When I asked some of my peers why they decided to attend this workshop, the most common response was “I want to improve my communication skills”.

Whatever the case, the strategy is to shape your message into a story. You want to make sure that you keep your audience engaged so that they don’t have to work hard at getting what it is you are trying to tell them.

How you begin matters. You want your beginning to be so good that “if someone was standing in the doorway they will decide to come in, if they were about to leave to go the bathroom they will stay.” Itai further explains, “Remember that the introduction to your research is the entry way into your talk. In cases of presentations, the first slide is what people will be looking at a good number of minutes. Therefore it should contain the main message.”

While it may appear to happen magically for others, mostly it requires work. The good news is that whether on camera or with an audience, the more you practice the easier it becomes. Performing for the camera is different from performing for an audience. Don’t be shy to record and watch yourself on camera if there is that opportunity. Just like a good movie, create and structure your scenes in such a way that will build the story and keep the audience engaged. You can incorporate props, add humour or use a personal story. As you continue to increase and build your confidence feel free to change things that are not working but make sure to keep what is working.

Warm up is essential in sports as in speech, whether you do the haka, scrunch your face, or use a tongue twister. When you have delivered your message, how you finish is also important. Signal that you are ending. Give a cue by subtly changing your voice tone, or use body language and/or hand gestures. Take care that your last  sentence is very positive and final.

It is OK to be memorable.

The class is very participatory and exciting. You will learn the importance of breathing in speech, how to project your voice as required by your audience and surroundings. This is just a glimpse of what the “Finding Your Scientific Voice” workshop offers. Plan to add this activity to your course list and join Itai and Melanie the next time they advertise through the BEST program or other means.

Like the godfather said “you do what you gotta do” to help you take that stand in fearless confidence or at least fake it to make it. But when you are done knowing you gave it your best, the only feeling left is that your audience was lucky to have you.

This spotlight is from the time period of the NIH grant (Sept. 2013- Jun. 2019) to the Cornell BEST Program now housed in the Graduate School as a university-wide initiative “Careers Beyond Academia” to encompass all disciplines.