Last month, Leah visited Neil’s university to give a colloquium talk about her neuroscience research. She spoke about things that Neil, a social behavior researcher, doesn’t know much about—brain parts with fancy names such as the “ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.” But he was fully engaged with her talk—and didn’t spend any time scrolling through his Twitter feed (promise!)—because she took the time to explain that what she was really trying to figure out was why teenagers learn differently than adults. Leah communicated the topic in a way that could resonate with a broad scientific audience and enrich Neil’s understanding of his own work.
Leah did a great job presenting her research—but for every great talk we’ve seen, there seems to be an equal number of train wrecks. How can you make sure your next talk grips the audience and gets your point across?
Paul Grice’s four maxims of communication, which describe things that people typically expect in conversations, offer a good starting point. According to Grice—who was an influential philosopher of language in the 20th century—communicators should (1) try to be as informative as possible, giving their audience as much information as needed and no more, (2) be truthful and only share information that is supported by evidence, (3) share information that is relevant for the discussion at hand, and (4) be as clear, brief, and organized as possible, avoiding obscure and ambiguous language.
These maxims have implications that extend beyond conversations, informing what we consider to be best practices for how to communicate information effectively in talks, whether you’re giving a 5-minute “lightning talk,” a 15-minute conference talk, or a 45-minute colloquium or job talk. Here are three tips for putting them into action.
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