Mastering the Art of Show-and-Tell
Chris Quigg

The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid. By Michael Alley. Springer–Verlag, New York, 2003. $29.95 paper (241 pp.). ISBN 0-387-95555-0.

The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science. By Scott L. Montgomery. U. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003. $40.00, $15.00 paper (228 pp.). ISBN 0-226-53484-7, ISBN 0-226-53485-5 paper.

Sharing the numinous adventure of discovery is one of the great pleasures of a life in science. As speakers or listeners, writers or readers, teachers or students, we nourish our intellectual lives by exchanging ideas, techniques, hopes, and frustrations. All of these roles are active; for that reason, every memorable talk or research paper is a performance and conversation.

Perhaps some people are born speakers or writers, but in my experience, anyone who claims to be a natural has a faulty memory. Talent may beget craft, but craft is won over time through observation and emulation, through practice and coaching. We become better speakers by becoming more attentive listeners, better writers by becoming more discerning readers, better teachers by becoming more responsive students—and in every case vice versa!

Michael Alley's The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid and Scott Montgomery's The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science begin with the premise that good scientific writing or speaking about science is, fundamentally, good writing or speaking. Effective communication is not achieved by filling out a template but by thinking carefully about the topic and the audience, by learning from others, and by never being satisfied. The strength of these books is that they do not merely compile dos and don'ts; they present the reader with issues that require consideration and explore those issues through engaging anecdotes and examples. Alley's and Montgomery's books both have elements of conversation that engage a reader in ways a list of rules would not. They can be profitably read from cover to cover, but they can also be opened to a specific section for reference.

Scientific writing in research journals and writing about science in popularizations call for principles of organization and storytelling that are familiar in fiction and personal essays. Techniques include building a narrative arc, creating and resolving tension, and using the minute particular to attract the reader's attention and frame the discussion. My conception of writing and editing has been enriched by the advice, some of it confessional, of writers I respect. David Lodge's The Practice of Writing (Penguin, 1997), Richard Rhodes's How to Write: Advice and Reflections (Quill/HarperCollins, 1995), and Robert Graves and Alan Hodge's The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (Random House, 1979) have reinforced or challenged my instincts.

Scientific presentations, whether for a gathering of colleagues or a general audience, benefit from techniques of stagecraft and rhetoric. A memorable presentation will rarely be an unpunctuated sequence of equations or an uninflected recitation of sources of systematic error. Surprise and drama are precious elements of a talk, and the power of specimens, artifacts, and even souvenirs to engage an audience is too little exploited in physics lectures. Just as a writer makes an implicit compact with the reader, a speaker shapes, and then must meet, an audience's expectations.

Time is the easiest factor to measure, so it is essential to plan an end for your talk. Indeed, it makes good sense to begin planning your talk from the end by asking, "Why am I doing this? What is my punch line?" Because images are so central to many scientific presentations, I find myself returning again and again to Edward Tufte's three classics, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press, 1983), Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990) and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (Graphics Press, 1997).

Alley's The Craft of Scientific Presentations joins his earlier books on writing, The Craft of Scientific Writing (Prentice Hall, 1987) and The Craft of Editing: A Guide for Managers, Scientists, and Engineers (Springer–Verlag, 2000). Alley is in the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech, where his approach to writing and speaking is incorporated into several lab and design courses. He maintains a Web site on writing guidelines for engineering and science students. The Craft of Scientific Presentations is informal in tone but serious in intent. Alley makes the reader think about the point of a presentation, about different kinds of presentations, and about different techniques—from writing on a blackboard to using computer slide shows. He shows how to think about finding the right words, structure, and images. He is at his best discussing well-chosen examples from both great and lesser-known lecturers, and his counsel to anticipate what could go wrong is sage advice.

Montgomery's Chicago Guide to Communicating Science has all the authority one would expect from the publishers of The Chicago Manual of Style (U. of Chicago Press, 2003). Montgomery is a consulting geologist, writer, and independent scholar who covers with scholarly grace topics ranging from writing scientific papers and grant proposals to preparing articles for the general public and for Internet publishing. He, too, emphasizes the importance of developing an effective style by studying and imitating successful models and using them to find one's own voice. He shows the value of thoughtful revision and refinement by presenting before-and-after examples (and sometimes after-and-after examples, because once is not enough) of passages from scientific papers.

Montgomery points out that reading widely to become a better writer means reading your own work, too. Many graceful writers have come to value the ear of the native speaker as an editorial instrument. It is important to read your writing aloud, even an article for the Physical Review, to measure the cadence and test whether you can follow your own thoughts. Montgomery also offers good advice about graphics by advancing the laudable notion that revision should apply to images as well as words.

The best advice I can add for a young scientist-writer is to hope that you will meet a gifted editor who believes that your literary soul is worth saving. Until that happy day, spending time with these books will give you food for thought and the encouragement to practice, practice, practice!

Chris Quigg is a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and was for 10 years the editor of the Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science.

Published in Physics Today 57, 59 (July 2004).