The Five Cs of Mike McCurry

WARNING: THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE.

Our former Press Secretary Mike McCurry was interviewed by Tom Fox of the Washington Post on “good communication and its importance for good leadership.” He described effective communicators in 5 nouns starting with “C”: Credibility, Candor, Clarity, Compassion, and Commitment. These five Cs also apply to scientific communications and scientists.

Credibility. Mike McCurry uses three adjectives to qualify credible communicators (as opposed to spin doctors): “authentic”, “straight-shooter”, and “factual”. Factual and authentic scientists have to deal with spin doctors. Spin doctors are not scientists. Under the thin disguise of pseudo-science, they promote their wares to a population eager for credible scientific solutions to their daily problems. Confident, straight-shooting spin doctors are vocal and credited, while tergiversating opinion-in-holster scientists are mute and discredited. The quack opinions of spin doctors are hash-tagged and re-twitted, while the scholarly papers of scientists are cited in circulation-limited scientific journals read by a precious few.

Candor. Scientists don’t lack candor. They are quite willing to state the limitations of their work as proof of their intellectual honesty. But candor outside the ivory tower of research can be crippling. Why interface with the world when, like Voltaire’s Candide character, it is so much easier to quietly work in the hanging gardens of science and grow tomorrow’s uncertainties.

Clarity. If only clarity were objective, for all to see through the eyes of the beholding scientists. Alas, what is clear to a few is unclear to many, and the vision-impaired public is walking with a white stick in a world of clairvoyant scientists. No amount of lasik surgery is going to fix the problem. Only scientists can correct public vision, and for that they have to understand that they need to communicate simply, and share their science in words all can understand.

Compassion. Medical Doctors are compassionate. They took the hippocratic oath. “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.”  Is compassion compatible with science?  Is compassion an opinion? What oath have scientists taken? Have some taken instead an hypocrite oath for the good of their science towards which they will do no harm?

Commitment. Yes, it is up to the granting agencies: Will they continue to show their commitment to science? But it is also up to the scientists. Will they get out of their Science parks, their Science labs, and show commitment towards public issues? Or will they ultimately turn into the Essenes of Science burying their precious papers in jars of clay?

Having said my piece, I am honored to be the friend of many scientists who are credible, candid, clear, compassionate, and committed. I just wished there were more of them :)

By Jean-luc lebrun

Source Flickr, h.koppdelaney, Helper B-4

 

Using images in presentations – the legal issues

First of all, I am not a lawyer. Now that I have completely disqualified myself, and warned you that any information given hereafter may or may not be true in a given country at a given time for given people in given settings for given tasks, I can now broach the subject.

The other day I was looking at a medical clipart site which contained ancient black and white clipart images which had obviously fallen out of the copyright realm and were in the public domain – IT WAS NOT. Why? The people who had scanned the black and white pictures from ancient manuals in the public domain, considered that the work of scanning, cleaning the drawing (removing the aged paper color to make it white again), cropping the final art and giving it the clipart resolution was considered DERIVATIVE WORKS of a public domain image. In other words, if your aim is education, feel free to use it, but if you use it for a commercial presentation – find the book at your national library and scan it yourself :).

And now for another surprise. You visit an art gallery where a 1789 painting (surely no copyright issue here, right?) attracts your attention and you take a high resolution photo which you use on your slide and distribute or make available to others. Understand that the law in the US and in the UK is different. In the US, you could do that without problem. In the UK, the art gallery could make trouble for you unless you only use a low resolution image.

In this blog I use a WordPress plugin called “Tagaroo” by Crowd Favorite and Reuters. Its own one liner description says “Find and suggest tags and photos (from Flickr) for your content.” The images are all under CC licence (Creative Commons). If you are not familiar with Creative Commons, STOP whatever you are doing and visit http://search.creativecommons.org/# From that page, you have access to the images that you can reuse under very well defined conditions. For example, I selected the button “Use for commercial purposes”, and deselected the button “modify, adapt or build upon”,  clicked on the button “Flickr”, selected “the Commons” in the menu on the left of the search line and then typed “eye” in the search window. I found a great image named “Elod-Eye” by Frederic Dupont (a.k.a darkpatator). Then scrowling down the page, at the bottom right,  I found the license type, in this case “Some rights reserved”. Clicking on the licence name in grey takes you to the page Some rights reserved which explains what are these rights. You can then use that picture on your slide according to the stated rights.Here are several sites where you can find public domain images: http://wellcomeimages.org and also the images of the British Library https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/sets/ and of course the huge Flickr internet archive book images

 

There are other issues of course. The first one is the display of recognizable people on an image. Each one of us has “personality rights“, which include the right to control the commercial ( and even non commercial) use of our image and likeness. They vary from country to country, and from State to State. So even if you yourself took the photo, as long as it contains a recognizable person, before using that photo for a presentation, it would be wise to make sure that this person has given you permission to use that photo in a presentation (there are release forms available online that you can base your form on).

Now for the case where your slide features diagrams from other published papers (say as background information), or images from a webpage, should you mention the source of the diagram or of the web-image on your slide under the image or diagram? ABSOLUTELY. If it is from a scientific journal,  you could write the last name of the author and initials, the year of publication, and the abbreviated journal name, in readable font size. If it is from a website, the URL of the site. You would not want to be accused of plagiarism in a public forum, now would you?

By Jean-luc lebrun

Presentation traps 11 – the Q and A trap

Have you noticed that when you are under the gun, when a question is directly pointing at your chest, you feel you have to answer something – or lose face! Better give a wrong or an imprecise answer than no answer at all, some think. This is a trap.

To the question, “What is the number of genes in the human genome?”, are many answers.

The man who knows latin abbreviations writes ” ca. 23,000 genes” (ca stands for circa, a latin word meaning about).

The man who reads newspapers and loves maths writes: 20,000+ genes.

The scientist who wrote the Wikipedia entry on the human genome writes: “There is an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human protein-coding genes. This estimation has been revised down as genome sequence quality and gene finding methods improved.”

The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, reporting its findings in October 2004, writes: “Consortium researchers have confirmed the existence of 19,599 protein coding genes in the human genome and identified another 2,188 DNA segments that are predicted to be protein-coding genes.”

My grandmother thinks there are many. When pushed to say how many, she says: a few hundreds, I think… less when you get older.”

“IThink” , Therefore I am…. not an Expert!

When asked a question during the Q&A, if the first words that come to your lips are “I think…” STOP RIGHT THERE. You are about to answer an irrelevant question. Experts don’t think they know. Experts know. If you do not recall the exact number, or if the number keeps changing, give a range and explain why the exact number is not available. People will know you are still the expert.

What is the danger of giving the wrong answer? The expert in the audience (there is always one) knows the answer and either publicly shames you by telling the audience what the right answer is, or the expert keeps quiet and writes you off from his or her list of interesting people.

The expert answer contains precise words. Experts do not answer “the number of genes is…”, they say “The number of protein-coding genes is…”.

Experts are up-to-date with their knowledge. They can say “as of today, 19,599 protein-encoding genes have been confirmed.”

The moral of this story is not about my darling grandmother who tries to keep up with the times but has problem remembering what she hears on television. The moral of this story is about the presenter scientist taking Q&A after his oral presentation. The most important thing the presenter has to do after being asked a question that is clearly understood by all (scientist and audience), is to identify whether that question is relevant in the context of the talk. If it is not relevant, the presenter has the right to remain silent. It is a fifth amendment issue. Do not answer questions that might incriminate yourself and make the audience believe you are not an expert when , in fact, you are… but in your field!

Naturally, the “I do not know” answer is always available; It is not my favourite answer, however. The tactic I recommend is to acknowledge the question as an interesting one you wish you had the expertise to answer. But instead of ending there, I would relate that question to something inside your domain of expertise, and answer that other question. For example. If the question asks you to compare the efficiency between solar cells and hydrogen fuels cells, but you are an expert in hydrogen fuel cells only, indicate that you are not a solar cell expert, and offer to BRIEFLY give the increase in efficiency that hydrogen fuel cells have experienced over the last five years.

A last word of advice: there may be a gap between what you consider relevant and what the audience, for lack of knowledge about your field, considers relevant. Some of the questions may indeed become relevant in the next five year – for example questions on industrial availability of the product or technique presented in your proof-of-concept study. To answer such questions, simply encourage the questioner by stating that you are also eager to see your research benefit industry, but mention that the question arrives a little early because this and that (fill in the details) need to be done before.

I end with this quote attributed to Thomas Pynchon:

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers”

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Photo Flickr; Author: Andreas-photography.

Presentation traps 3 – the joke is on you

Photo Source: Flickr; Author: By Creativity+Timothy K. Hamilton

“Start with a joke”, “deride the audience”, “make them like you by making them laugh”, the pundits say. And out they go, on a limb as always, out go the serious presenters who end up being the only ones who laugh at the end of their jokes. The day before the event (it is easier to remember), they rush to the web for recycled jokes, or they try out the latest joke heard in a bar or at the canteen where everyone burst with embarrassed laughter. That joke often has sexual, religious, or racial connotation, and upon hearing it, the audience instantly moves from a I-am-neutral-towards-you state to a I-intensely-dislike-you state. Some may even get up and leave. I know you will say it never happens this way. Well, it does, and I witnessed such disastrous joke-telling at an international gathering of scientists. Some refrain from risky jokes and instead use self-deprecating jokes; after all, it’s ok to laugh at yourself, is it not? : “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, or it might have been… had you been able to skip my talk and run to the beautiful beach in front of this hotel.” or ” I’m delighted to be the one who has been selected to help you sleep after today’s copious lunch. So I’ll do my best to make this talk as boring as I possibly can. Could we have the lights down now? Thank you very much.” The audience did not come to attend your talk expecting to be bored, but to discover new things. Your self-deprecating humour, will be translated by the audience as follows: “His slides are boring. He has not even bothered to rehearse his talk at all. He really doesn’t enjoy presenting to us, but he’s doing it because he has to.” To conclude, avoid jokes altogether at the start of your talk, even cartoons that may be funny. A play on word requires a good understanding of English. Idiomatic expressions, or culture specific jokes are beyond the level of comprehension of scientists with English as a second language or from different cultural backgrounds. If you want the audience to relax, use the only way that works 100% of the time: Face the audience, and SMILE 🙂

 

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Who is responsible for communicating the outcome of research

This question is explored in a community forum of the online journal “The-Scientist.com”. You will find it here

->The importance of good communication skills in science (you may need a subscription to access this page).

Here was my answer.

I would like to attempt answering this important question using two metaphors: Communication of a signal through an electrical network, and communication mediated by wind.


Communication as signal through an electrical circuit (Flickr – by Matthew Boyle)

The scientist who conducted the research is the source of the first signal in a long chain of networked communicators with various degrees of resistance, conductance, and amplification (managers, you are part of that chain – and you could be a resistor, capacitor, or amplifier).
One may argue that, without that sense of exaggeration brought by the “inflated view of the importance of their findings” described in an earlier comment, personal scientific communication would lack the energy necessary to pass through a network unable to easily distinguish signal from noise – even after peer-review. The communicator should indeed be in an excited state for a while. Otherwise, we would have to rely only on the characteristics of the signal transmission path in the network– a network whose amplification characteristics are often – and understandably – biased by the recognition of the success potential of the signal source.

Communication as wind (Flickr – by Hans s)

Naturally, there is chaff and there is wheat. And we need wind to separate the two. The wind of change is one, but also the gentle wind of well-targeted communication. Occasionally, if the impact is great, the wind of mass communication will kick up a storm great enough to blow away the chaff and seed productive ideas across a vast land, as well as return to fallow land parts of the sterile research landscape by depriving it from its life-sustaining grants.

To sum up: the responsibility is collective. Scientists need the press, but they also need to be aware of and energised by the impact of their research. As always, managers have a great role to play to facilitate this, but they need to understand that wind can also snuff a good candle, and that resistors always create heat.

By Jean-luc Lebrun