Presentation traps 7 – the cultural trap

Image from Flickr; “The return of Edward Hyde” by Luis Carlos Arauio.

I have much respect for authors who go to great lengths to get an attractive title for their  paper. “The Inflammatory Macrophage: A story of Jekyll and Hyde”* is a fantastic title… for westerners familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 book “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Now imagine the biologist from a chinese university reading that title for the first time. What will he do? Search for these two scientists, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde, in the reference section for their journal publications? Will the search be fruitful? Beware of cultural icons, in your title or in your talk.

For the sake of clarity, do not use metaphors or expressions that are meaningless to a foreign audience. Take baseball language, for example. It is understood by a few nations only – The scientist who claims his lab is batting a thousand in proteomics research, and has all its bases covered is certain to lose Dr. Pierre Lebrun, and Dr Xiao Hong. I remember buying the book “Playing for Pizza” written by my favourite author John Grisham. I could not understand a thing. The baseball language effectively excluded me from most of the story.

For the sake of clarity, do not display your extensive culture by using a sophisticated word where a simpler one exists. Doing so creates a distance between you and your audience in terms of understanding (common word) or comprehension (sophisticated word). Think audience. The scientists attending your talk may have good knowledge of the keywords used in your domain, but they may not have your culture. French presenters, beware. To the native English speaker, you seem to use a very sophisticated English during your talk, when in fact, you use words that are in your everyday French language, pronounced “à la sauce anglaise“. And now you have another example of such mis-behaviour: using foreign words to display your extensive culture. If you want to know why the French seem to speak such polished English, look here (hint: it started in year 1066 Anno Domino) – Beautiful latin, isn’t it? Sorry, I’m manifestly getting off base on this one. ARGH! I think it’s time for a tin of spinach – Hey, Popeye!

By Jean-luc Lebrun

*JS Duffield, the inflammatory macrophage : a story of Jekyll and Hyde, clinical science (London). 2003 Jan ;104(1) :27-38

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