The Sour Grapes of Conference Presentations

Conference presentations are not entertainment events.Photo of Jenifer Alonzo holding grapes and wearing a disgusted expression on her face

Yup. It’s true. The point of a scientific conference is to share information with colleagues for the purpose of advancing human knowledge. So the important thing is the quality of the science. (Also the playing hooky and grabbing a beer instead of attending the evening sessions).

Yes, of course. Style Without Substance is BAD.

If Your Grad School Nemesis’s science is made up, uncritical, unethical, or just plain wrong – but she presents it expertly, masterfully, and entertainingly – well the science is still bad and she’s probably going to have to look for another career.

HOWEVER, there is a misconception among some scientists that effective conference presentations are so “slick” that the science must not be good.

For example, I was at a regional sea level rise meeting where we had two days of mumblers, rushers, apologizers, and aggressors (you know, presenters who yell everything at us like we’re naval cadets). Everyone was just ready to be done with the pain. People were openly working on email, texting, passing notes (not really, that’s why we have texting).

And then,


a  miracle occurred!

Ben Strauss from Climate Central took the stage.

  • He made eye contact with us.
  • He waited until he had our attention.
  • He grounded himself.
  • His gestures had a relationship to his content.
  • He told an interesting story connecting his work to our lives.
  • He explained the science with clarity and words appropriate for an interdisciplinary audience.
  • His slides were few, easy to see, visual, and every single one of them had a purpose.
  • He ended with a joke. 
  • Everyone paid attention. No one checked email. No one texted.
  • And Ben got his message across to every single person in the room.

At the break, a senior scientist asked me (as his friendly neighborhood science communication specialist) which talk I thought was best. I told him that Ben’s talk was far and away the most effective. “Bah,” he said. “Climate Central is always so slick. They’re not doing the real work.”

What? What? What? Are you saying what I think you’re saying?

And then I started hearing other scientists making similar contentions about effective communicators at other meetings.

“Well, with that kind of presentation, you can’t really trust the science,” a postdoc claimed of an excellent presentation about selective oyster breeding.

“Well she’s very personable, but that probably means her science isn’t so good.”  A grad student said about a keynote delivered by a dynamic woman who studies microbes in ocean rock.

I’m guessing you’ve heard comments like this too. Somehow the scientific cool kids have decided that a good presentation automatically means the science is no good.

FALSE FALSE FALSE. Or as my colleague Fred says, “it’s sour grapes.Photo of Jenifer Alonzo holding grapes and making a sour pursed-lips face

Of course we shouldn’t be expected to entertain our audiences. But we should talk clearly and compellingly enough that our audiences want to get off their i-phones, listen, and engage. Besides, I hear a LOT of conference presentations for my job (as you do). Wouldn’t you rather spend that time with a speaker who actually , you know, communicates? Me too.

Research and presenting research are two very different skills. And I want you to get good at BOTH of them.

I can’t help with the research, but I can help you communicate.

Join me in my revolution to take the pain out of the science talk.



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