Scientific Writing, ESL and Storytelling – A conversation with Maureen Archer

Published by Access 2 Perspectives on

Maureen Archer is President of the training and consulting firm Professional English Inc. and helps professionals (incl. researchers) improve their English skills and confidence for career advancement. With Jo, she talks about the career path that led her to her current profession, common challenges and obstacles with the English language as perceived by non-native English speakers, as well as some of the key skills researchers should have in communicating their ideas, thoughts, and results.

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Maureen enjoys working with a wide variety of professionals. After receiving her Ph.D. in English linguistics from Purdue University and teaching university courses for 10 years, she founded Professional English Incorporated. She is a subject matter expert in communication training and technical editing, specialized in supporting non-native English speakers; having helped thousands of professionals from around the world. Maureen is a course designer and instructor, a personal coach, a professional speaker, and a technical editor. 

Maureen Archer

My professional goal is to help researchers accurately communicate their ideas in papers and presentations.

Maureen Archer

Which researcher – dead or alive – do you find inspiring? George Lakoff

What is your favorite animal and why? Cats. They are adorable, playful, funny, and fearless.

Name your (current) favorite song and interpret/group. My favorite song since childhood is BTO’s “Taking Care of Business”. I listen to a wide range of music, but my favorite current artist is Adele.

What is your favorite meal? Crab legs with melted butter, steamed broccoli, and rice.

Maureen’s cat ‘Tangelo’


Book: Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson;


Part 1: Scientific Writing, ESL and Storytelling

Go to Part 2: 5 crucial mistakes to avoid and what to do instead when presenting your research.

Jo: Welcome back, everyone. We are here at Access 2 Perspectives Conversations, talking today with Maureen Archer, who is joining us from the United States and is the President at Professional English Incorporated, a consulting firm that specializes in technical writing, scientific writing, science communication at large. Maureen is passionate, as far as I heard from her, and also seeing in action, about English as a second language. So nonnative English speakers, helping people to learn the English language in a way that’s fun and engaging and also to make everyday tasks, but especially in the professional context and arena enjoyable and to dig into the language as it is your native one. Welcome, Maureen. Thank you for joining the show.

Maureen: Thank you so much. It’s my true pleasure to be here.

Jo: To give you a little bit of background about Maureen, she received a PhD in English linguistics from Purdue University and has been teaching for about a decade until she founded her own company, which is now Professional English Incorporated. She is a subject matter expert in communication training and technical editing, and specialized, as mentioned, in supporting non native English speakers. In doing so, she’s helped thousands of professionals from around the world, and she’s also a course designer and instructor, personal coach, professional speaker, and a technical editor. Together,  we have co-facilitated a short training on technical scientific writing for a mixed audience, which was quite fun. So it’s really enjoyable to have you here. I’m glad that we know each other and we can inspire each other and the work that we do in supporting scholars and researchers in the work that they do, the work that every researcher eventually has to do and might not come as easy with scientific or technical writing.

Maureen: Exactly. It’s been a lot of fun working with you so far, and I look forward to it in the future.

Jo: Thank you so much. So starting, would you like to share with us what got you to this point in your vita? What made you decide to eventually brand your own company and do the work that you’re now currently doing, with particularly nonnative English speakers, and also to serve the scholarly community in technical writing?

Maureen: Definitely. Yes, I’m happy to share that because with anyone’s background, it’s a bit twisting and turning at times. Since I was young, I always wanted to focus on English because for me, languages are like puzzles. So I grew up doing puzzles and getting into words and how they’re associated, and their connotations and denotations, and how they fit together and how you can change them to create even different meanings. To me, it was like a big playset, something very fun. So I knew I wanted to go into that. And then I discovered, oh, I could do that at a high level and help others with it. So that’s why I wanted to go into College teaching. So I was very much focused on becoming a professor at the University, which I did. And then I was a professor for seven or eight years. But unfortunately, I found it a bit of a toxic environment at times. I have to say the politics in academia sometimes were a bit challenging. I was also the writing center director. I started a successful writing center at the University. And as the director, I would receive calls from outside of the University, from businesses that needed help with their native Chinese executive, from people who wanted help for their cousin who was coming to visit. So a lot of need, I found, was out there. So I realized that there was a business opportunity to help those whose English skills were too advanced to take classes and who really need the specialized focus to help them with the profession that they were in. So I started Professional English really just to focus on helping non-native English speakers to be more effective in their professions. But then so many organizations said, oh, can you come and teach classes in writing and presentation skills and cross-cultural communication? And so it kind of blossomed that way. But it could be in part because of where I am in southeastern Virginia and the fact that we have a very large research network here. We have one of the NASA facilities, we have some large research facilities that are just in this area. And so the need was very great locally. And also I come from a long line of engineers. And so I’m very much focused on the construction, the structure, very much how the pieces fit together. And so that’s how I teach. That’s how I talk. And that very much fits in with those who are doing technical writing and scientific research. It seemed like a natural fit. And I am so excited when I get to help those who are doing amazing things in the world, those who are producing the new research, the latest developments, and to be able to help them to effectively communicate their brilliance, the results that they have come up with. It’s just a joy. And so that’s where I am after 23 years in professional English, the fact that I’m able now to get more specialized in this area because it is a passion of mine.

Jo: I mean, it looks like, first of all, you live in a hotspot of researchers where there’s plenty thereof, and they all need guidance and support. I also, like myself, being a nonnative English Speaker, but doing courses and scientific and technical writing to researchers. And when I had native speakers in the class, they all told me that we need to learn the same things because the spoken English, be it American, Canadian, South African, Kenyan, whatever, is so different from the technical writing style. And yet, of course, learning a second language, or in many people’s cases a third or fourth language, because many people I know before English have learned two or three other languages. And then there’s also the saying, the more English you have to speak, the more languages you speak, the easier it gets to learn another one. But it’s still a challenge, an extra challenge be it alone for the vocabulary. What did you see in how the course work that you provided, and engaging with the students or the participants of your courses? What was it like to observe them, to make those steps forward and understanding the language and finding the right words to express themselves in their research as well? Can you recall one or two examples of how that came about? Is that maybe difficult to grasp also? Because in some cases longer and in other cases it’s a shorter process, I imagine.

Maureen: Oh, yes. And people have different skill sets within language. Some people pick it up very fast, and for some people it’s a real struggle. So it depends on if it’s a strength, you know,  and everyone is different in that. One of the reasons I enjoy coaching so much is that I can really focus in on exactly what someone needs. And that’s especially important at the higher level for the more advanced English speakers, because when everyone is beginning, then you can teach the general stuff. But then as you get more advanced, there’s maybe a particular pronunciation or maybe there’s a particular grammar item that that particular person has, or it could be a category of vocabulary that we need to fill in or we need to reinforce. So now there are some things that I found are across the board for those who are at the higher level of English Speaker, and that is idioms or phrasal verbs. These are very much a challenge for many at the higher level. And I understand because I have some reference books. One has over 10,000 American phrasal verbs. Yeah. It’s just daunting. So what do you do with that? Well, most of us will use the same terms again and again. Once you have, let’s say, a list of 20 that you use fairly frequently, then you can become very focused on those. And I always recommend that someone keep a language journal. It’s really nice, especially in your field, because then you’re going to hear people, such as your colleagues, especially if you have those who are using certain idiomatic phrases over and over again. What is that? So you write it in your journal, you look it up, and then you try it out.

Jo: And learn to use it and apply it.

Maureen: Yeah. So for those more advanced in their fields, it’s a really nice thing to get a coach or to have a colleague who is a native speaker and who you want to emulate, someone whose style you like, if you can work out some kind of partnership with them to help each other.

Jo: And remember, it’s got to be mutual because I know many of the native speakers in Europe, they’re overwhelmed by the request. Can you just quickly correct this for me for the English? And it’s fun if you do it once or twice a month. And that’s already a lot. But at some point just so much. And people also need to do their own work. But yeah, maybe find a way to balance the workloads that you put on other people and yet also speak up because most people would be willing to give help or to find a way like a mutually beneficial kind of coworking agreement where both win and can reward them with cooking dinner once a week or something.

Maureen: That’s very good. When you do ask someone, even if you could just ask them to mark what is not clear, just what is not clear. Or maybe if there’s a grammar thing or two because there are patterns and once we learn the patterns, then we can move to correct them. The other thing is to get practice at proofreading and editing your own writing. And one of the rules that I think works so well, one of the strategies is to read your own writing aloud, to read it out loud. And a lot of people do not. So it really helps. First of all, it helps you slow down and hear it. You can listen for the repeated words. You say, “Wait a minute, is that right?” So instead of only having it in your brain, because we often read what we assume we have written, instead of what is really on the page. So that is one of those golden rules that I like to pass along. So if you haven’t tried it yet, I definitely recommend that you try it.

Jo: Yeah, I agree. And I do that sometimes. Not for a full article, but it’s definitely useful. I’ve learned in school, like coming back to this exercise or stuff in the workflow really, to read out loud, what’s the difference between written sentences and spoken sentences? Because you wouldn’t write a speech as you would write a research article. Right?Maureen: That’s a very good point. Yeah. There are some strategies. If you are writing a speech, then you realize that the people are only listening. So it’s a matter of being a little bit more deliberate with saying something, and then repeating it a little bit to add more details. So the transitions are often even more important when you’re writing a speech, because if they are bombarded with too many things that aren’t connected, then they start not listening because they’re confused. So to create a very clear line to help them stay with what you’re saying: “now the next example of this is this.” Now if you have a slide presentation, it makes it easier because they can see.Jo: And you walk them through as you speak.

Maureen: Exactly. However, I’m glad you mentioned speeches because I always like to tell people that when they get the adrenaline flowing, it’s very good to purposely slow down a little bit with your speech, especially if you know the listener is not used to your accent. So to slow down a little bit. And also it’s very common for those who are in positions of power and leadership to speak a little more slowly. So you also convey that professionalism. So to slow down, even though the adrenaline has kicked up, it can be very good for all concerned.  

Jo: Thank you. Okay. And then is it like what I was referring to earlier, that also native English speakers have troubles with technical English because they like to insert some more than others, but they like to insert descriptive words, as you would do in prose writings. And technical writing doesn’t call for that as much. We want to focus on science, and yet we need our brains to have storytelling. So how can researchers balance not to have it too technical, but still comprehensible in a way that storytelling and our ancient way of transferring information would be served to make it easy to comprehend for anyone to read, really, but also leave out all the unnecessary words and just keep the necessary amount of unnecessary words from a technical point of view.

Maureen: So, yes, very good question. And it’s one that I would say is in the editing process. They say the best research papers are a story. What is the setting of the story? What problem are you trying to solve? And then the steps you go through to do the research and the results. So it kind of has that natural storyline to it. So the first draft or the first two drafts, that would be what I would focus on. But then the idea of the style and the conciseness, that’s when you go through and you really look for that, and that’s something that I think is skipped a lot of times, especially since we’re very busy and oftentimes we’re rushing to get the paper written and submitted. But the professional editor for the publication will be very happy that you have taken the time to go through and really look and see if there are ways to make certain sentences or certain entire paragraphs just a little more concise for the reader because oftentimes the readers will skim anyway. If it is too, as I like to say, muddy, it has too many words. So I wrote an example down: instead of “In this paper, the data are presented to show the results” you can just say “This paper presents…” So it’s a matter of going through and really looking at: is it possible to say this in fewer words? And that’s kind of a muscle that once you start working it, it’s easier to do.

Jo: Many people also struggle with, oh, I’m supposed to squeeze my findings into 8000 words only, and that seems impossible at that point. But it’s actually not if you stick to the essentials and rephrase to make it more concise. And yet, coming back to the storytelling, from what I’ve seen and observed, it’s hard to actually do it for me, myself. But it’s easy to spot in other people’s work to use words that assist our brains to understand it better. Like we would read a whole story connecting words between sentences. Also unconsciously, often for our brains to allow us to see the connection between one sentence, one meaning in that sentence with the other, what’s coming in. And then sometimes it might be good to use words that also pass along passion or motivation of your own. Why you do this in the first place, why this is important to you, and why it shouldn’t matter to others, and because we are still humans, as researchers, as much as we want to do technical writing, I personally think it doesn’t mean that we have to strip off all humanity from it. I think examples for that could be from what I’ve seen. It’s difficult to come up with them from the top of my head. Of course, we want to convince people of the rigorousness of our results, but also why we think this is important, why it matters, and there are words to express that. So to also give it a slight emotional touch. Have you seen that, or would you agree with that? To a certain degree. I still have an example I’m sure we come up with at some point in this discussion.

Maureen: Right. Even something small, like, “Surprisingly, the results show…” Yes, wow, that’s a little bit of the humanness in there. My thought on all of this is, yes, you want to convey the humanness and yet still be professional and polished without being too whoopee, whoopee [overly enthusiastic] about things. 

Jo: Yeah. Respectful. And yet we can also show that we’re excited about the findings. 

Maureen: Yes, that’s great. I would recommend people to go and read, to read articles, and to see what they do in the article. They think, wow, I really enjoyed reading this. And then go back and say, why did I enjoy this? What was it about how they told their story that made it interesting? What words did they use? How did they structure it? And so to get to use our researcher brains and analyze it. So then we can emulate it.

Jo: Exactly what words they use and made us feel a certain way about the research and how it was communicated.

Maureen:And also one other thing that’s very nice, too, is when you have a certain publication that you want to publish in, is to read several articles in there to see what the editors and the publishers are publishing. What is it that they are looking for in an article so that then you can provide them with that kind of article, because different publications have different focuses and different things that they’re looking for, even different styles.

Jo: They also have author guidelines nowadays, many of them, not all, which is certainly a way or a page to check out. I also point out, always in my scientific writing courses, through that. But despite that, is it what I hear what you’re saying not only from the formatting point of view, but also the style, which might not be as obvious and as descriptive in the other guidelines.

Maureen: Exactly, yes, that’s a wonderful piece of advice. Definitely get into and find the editing guidelines, authors’ guidelines, authors’ recommendations; they’re called different things. But to get into the website and pull those up, because they are often very specific. Even things like the use of passive voice, there is now more of a push. I think to add more of a human touch, too, is to use the active voice as opposed to so much passive voice.

Jo: Because that’s also what I’ve observed and heard many people complain about that technical writing sounds so dry and boring, and you really have to kind of switch your brain on to be able to understand what’s actually written. And that’s often because, when I ask students, participants in my courses, why don’t you use “I did this, we did that” whatever, like whoever did the work, but it makes it explicit. It’s not some random ghost in the lab who did all the work, some piece or whatever. So you have to use passive voice, that’s for the methods part. There it matters what was done and how it was done, but the rest of all the other sections should be active voice with some passive voice in between, where it makes sense.I think it comes to our writing naturally. So this goes back to what you suggested, like just write down as it comes to your mind and then edit and then read it up to you again to make it all sound really, to make it sound nice and compelling.

Maureen: Yeah, that’s excellent advice. And there’s another trick for self editing: as you are reading it out loud, if you are stumbling over your words, that’s a good place to go back and revise. If you are having difficulty reading your own writing, chances are someone else will, too. Yeah, that’s very nice. And it reminds me you have asked a question about what’s the difference between speech and writing. In speech, we are making constant performance errors. It’s very rare that we will start at a particular sentence and then keep going. And even what I’m saying right now, if you were to type it out, it looks very disjointed. For some people, though, to get over their writer’s block, they will just talk out their paper and then either just have it typed in, because now we have that technology, of course, or to go back and listen to it and put it into complete sentences as they want. It’s a strategy for getting over writer’s block sometimes.  

Jo: There’s also this trick I learned and now pass on. If you don’t know what to write, just write  exactly that: “I do not…” Just get your brain and hands to work, get them to work, and then the flow will come and bring the rest of things into it.

Maureen: Yeah. That’s a great writing technique to get over writer’s block. Yeah. And also I had a series, I don’t know if you saw it, about procrastination in my LinkedIn post. And one of those is just to break it into smaller pieces. If you’re overwhelmed by “Oh no, now I have to write this all out into a paper.” Just start with something small. Maybe I’m just going to write out my methodology section. It doesn’t have to be in the order of the paper. They actually say to do the abstract last. So you don’t have to write the introduction first. You can start at any point and just start to get it out.

Jo: Or sometimes it might be good to start with the abstract just to get the plot there to start with. And you can still tweak it. But it’s right that you should do the last polishing things you should do in the abstract and then actually the title very last, whatever. But sometimes it goes the other way around. Also, there’s no rule of thumb, just the guidance that people find useful.

Maureen: And also, if you’re struggling to write a paper, it may be because you are trying to put too many ideas in it. I’ve worked with so many researchers who just say, “Oh, it’s so hard to do this paper.” And then we get into it. And I say, “What is your main purpose? What are you trying to convey here?” And they say, “Well, I want to convey this and this and this.” And I said, “Well, that sounds like three papers.” That’s three papers. And so then it’s like, oh, my gosh, if you start to pull it out and say, I can publish three papers, and I was trying to all put it together into one. And so that idea of just kind of looking at it from a distance as well and identifying what is the purpose of this paper.

Jo: Yeah, that’s a key message and shouldn’t be more than one, really. And then maybe two or three accompanying results that support the take-home message.

Maureen: Exactly. And then also showing it to someone, someone you trust, that knows what they’re doing, and just ask them, “Could I make this into two papers?” They might say, sure. Or you could just do it this way or here’s my thought. And to get some help from your friends. 

Jo: Thank you. In the preparation for this episode, I also asked you a few questions which were meant as ice breaker questions just to get the flow going. And also, it might be fun for our listeners to hear from you and others who are here with me in these conversations. Let’s start with one who is a researcher in your life that you find or found inspiring. And you mentioned George Lakoff.

Maureen: George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist. His book Metaphors We Live By was one that I used both in my master’s and PhD research because I was so fascinated by it. I thought, oh, it makes so much sense that there are these large cognitive metaphors that we use to understand our world and that we hear in our language all the time. Like, one he uses is: time is money. So how are you spending it? You wasted it. So we tend to, especially, for abstract parts of our lives, we use concrete things, so he would identify all of these conceptual metaphors that we’ve used. And I thought, oh, that’s fascinating. So my dissertation research was on the conceptual metaphors we use for language teaching and language learning. And the whole idea that someone is speaking broken English, which I never liked that term. I thought, oh, that’s terrible: “broken English.” So it’s the idea that you need to fix their English as opposed to learning English, and you’ll have natural ways of growing and your English skills will develop. So there’s different ways of approaching teaching and learning based upon the metaphors that you understand and use for certain categories.

Jo: To my understanding, language is never a status quo. It’s always evolving, and it is continuously being influenced by non-native English speakers who come and inspire the majority, to offer another word. 

Maureen: Yeah. Well, that point is so good and never failed to aggravate the teachers, the future teachers that I would teach in College because they wanted to be grammarians. They wanted to know how to do it so they could always teach it that way. I’m like, I’m so sorry, but language is always changing. Yeah, well, they say if enough people make the same mistake, it becomes the rule. If enough people take out the Oxford comma and people decide they don’t need the Oxford comma anymore, they stop using it. Or if enough people stop using ‘whom’ correctly, they don’t know how to use ‘whom’, and the teachers don’t know how to use ‘whom’. So guess what? We don’t use ‘whom’. Language is always changing, that’s what I find fascinating about it, too. But yeah, that infuriates those who really want to keep it the way it used to. “Well, when I grew up, I learned it this way.” Well, that’s nice.

Jo: Good for you. And things are changing.

Maureen: And that’s why I think we get resistance sometimes to those who learn that, hey, I’ve got to write in the passive voice all the time because that’s what scientific writing is all about. Well, no, thank goodness we are changing. So it’s more enjoyable and easier, it’s actually easier to read if it’s in the active voice.

Jo: I also don’t know where this came from because I think 40 years ago, researchers were much more passionate in their writing, and it was much easier to comprehend and read really. And then at some point, some people here changed the paradigm. Some people started not having to be rigid and technical and leave out all the words that are distracting or seem distracting and then it’s difficult to actually understand or not, because it’s too technical and it’s not accessible for our brains. Really? Yeah. And that’s why I also try to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way just because that’s most of what you see it’s not written anywhere, and it might have been one or two editors and one Journal who made this a rule and nobody else did it. But then everybody complied. Most people would comply with it. It’s funny.

Maureen: Yeah, it’s interesting. It was the middle of the last century when we really started getting that coming through very clearly as scientific writing needs to be passive, and now any book you pick up about scientific writing will say it doesn’t have to be that way. Please stop. Because especially with the amount of writing that’s out there, you just can’t read a lot of it. And quite frankly, if a reader picks up your writing and your writing is all in passive, and it’s all really hard to read, they are not going to read it because it’s just too much. So it is a benefit to our listeners that if they write in a style that’s easy to read, that people are going to read their material much better.

Jo: Yeah, I could talk on forever. We probably will. We could very likely continue with this conversation in future episodes.

Maureen: I would be happy to. Yeah.  

Jo: Thank you. Watch out for Maureen on this channel, and thank you so much for your time here today, and let’s see what we can do together. Maybe you also see some course announcements to sign up for where Maureen and I work together to work with you through your research writing hurdles to make them fun and enjoyable, and yeah, that’s what we do.

Maureen: My pleasure. It’s been great fun. Thank you, Jo.

Jo: Thank you. See you soon.

Maureen: All right. Bye now.  

Part 2: 5 crucial mistakes to avoid and what to do instead when presenting your research.

Jo: Alright. Welcome back, Maureen Archer, to this show called Access 2 Perspectives Conversations. It’s a great honor to have you here again. 

Maureen: Oh, it’s fantastic to be returning. Yes, I appreciate it. 

Jo: So, for those of you who don’t know Maureen, she is a dear colleague of mine. We’ve also co-facilitated workshops together in the past and might be doing so in the future as well. So stay tuned for any announcements in that direction. You are also serving researchers like myself who struggle with scientific writing, scholarly writing at large. You’ve had a fair share of experience and expertise sharing with researchers when it comes to fine tuning the English language, particularly if it’s not the first language. In this show, since we spoke, we had a couple of episodes covering the importance of multilingualism and the importance of knowing a language well enough to be able to transmit information embedded in this case, the English language. So that the readers or listeners for an audience in person or on zoom or whatever, like where you present already so that the recipient of the information can actually understand and process information as intended by the person who delivers it, like the presenting researcher. And today we agreed that we focus a little bit, very much so, on presentation techniques and common mistakes to be avoided, along with suggestions and tips and tricks on how to do better, isn’t it? So let’s dive right in. So let’s just get started. The floor is yours. 

Maureen: Sure. Yes. I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of scientists over the past since I was in grad school. It’s been over 30 years now that I’ve been able to help, both as a professor of linguistics as well as consultant and trainer in my business called Professional English. And English as a second or foreign language is my specialty. So I’ve been able to work with some of the brightest minds from around the world, over 50 countries. So it’s been fantastic. And over those years and with that variety of clientele, I’ve really noticed a pattern of some of the most, I would say important mistakes just to avoid. And so that’s what I’d like to share with your listeners today, because just some simple tricks, some simple tips, things to keep in mind can make a huge difference when they’re trying to present their information orally. Be it conference talk, teaching any aspect where they’re presenting the material orally can be very instructive. So if you like, I just jump into the first one. 

Jo: Yes, let’s go. Yes. 

Maureen: The first one is putting too much information into one presentation. I have seen wonderful research that just gets a bit lost if it’s trying to be compact into, let’s say, a 20 minute presentation, it often comes down to the best thing to think of. What is the purpose of the presentation? What are you really trying to convey? Oftentimes, if you’re trying to put too much information into one presentation, it’s best to break it out into multiple presentations. And that can even be beneficial for one’s career if you don’t want to get everything in one presentation. It would be better even just for your publication and presentation portfolio to have it in multiple talks. So who is your audience and what is it that you want them to understand? If you can write down your purpose in one sentence, it’s a very nice guiding sentence to help really focus on what it is that you want your audience to leave understanding? 

Jo: I have to say that I need to plead guilty on this one, and not only as a researcher, but also as an entrepreneur on my role as providing or giving workshops on a particular topic. Because I always have a level, an urge of sharing as much information as I think the audience would need and appreciate and then realizing that the feedback is often then, oh, it’s not well structured. The feedback was never there was too much information. But people are not able to process all of that information that you put into a certain amount of time. 

Maureen: Yes, as you were saying that, I was thinking that it reminds me of serving a meal. If you serve someone a meal, you don’t want to give them too much food because then they won’t be able to eat it or it will even be bad for them, or it would be just too overwhelming. And also during a presentation, your audience is not going to memorize everything. So what are some key items that you want them to leave understanding? So yeah, that idea of saving some for later for other presentations and really clarifying, what is it that you want to highlight for that particular presentation based upon your audiences? 

Jo: Exactly. I think the comparison with food or a meal, like with a is it a precourse, the main dish, and then a dessert, which also correlates with a good structure. What’s the introduction context? What’s the main one piece of information you actually want to convey to the audience? And then the dessert would be maybe a little bit of storytelling and contextualizing. Again, we cannot stop the world in one day, or we cannot possibly nobody’s asking us to condense five years of research into a 20 minute presentation. You have to select. And what’s important for the audience to know at this point, for this purpose, for what they came for to hear. And what have you done, like each and every minute throughout your past five years? 

Maureen: Yes. And what is the purpose? Is the purpose to show how the results of your research can be applied in a certain area? If that’s the case, then that’s what should be the main focus, not all of your methodology or all of the background, because it’s just too many details. So to give a few details of the earlier items, but then really focus on the applicability, if that is the purpose. 

Jo: Brilliant. Okay, that makes sense. Totally buying.. Okay, so what’s the best practice instead? We said to choose one or maximum of three. Is three also a good number? 

Maureen: Right. I would say to focus on the purpose. What is your purpose of that presentation? What do you want your audience to leave understanding realistically?

Jo:  Okay. And then the number of second messages will crystallize from there. 

Maureen: Right. And you’re right, it should not be more than three. It’s very nice just to have one strong singular purpose as opposed to maybe two or three, depending on the length of the presentation. If it’s 1 hour, maybe three, but yeah, if it’s 20 minutes, maybe one. 

Jo: Okay.

Maureen: Very nice. And the second mistake to avoid is putting too much information on one PowerPoint slide. And I understand the urge to do that. Oftentimes people will try to pack everything they want to say onto one slide and that becomes their speaker’s notes and that becomes a problem because anything you put on a slide can be asked, the audience can say, oh wait, I see that number up here, tell me about that. Well, it’s not really what you wanted to highlight or spend time on. So it’s much better to have meaner slides that then you can talk about the details of. Instead of having everything on the slide, it should be as clean as possible and then speak the details because the focus should really be on the presenter and not on the slide. And oftentimes too, if we try to put too much information on the slide, it becomes too small and then people can’t see it and then it just becomes frustrating. 

Jo: Yeah. And then they try to deliver and they’re not listening anymore. 

Maureen: Exactly. Oh, actually it’s a brilliant insight that we can only do one, we can only have one focus at a time. We can either be listening or we can be reading the slide. So if you put a lot of text up on a slide, there will be some people who read it through and not listen to what you are saying if you’re saying something different, or they will listen and they won’t read or they’ll go back and forth. And it’s much better to control the focus of the audience. Do you want them listening to you or do you want them looking at the slides? 

Jo: Yeah, I think there’s also a common tip. I don’t know how common it really is, obviously at first, but remind me of the billboard rule which I often share in my courses, which means that if you visualize or if you remember a billboard on the road that you can actually capture as you drive past in a reasonably fast car, no particular brands here. So the billboard rule says you should be able to capture the information that’s written or visualized on the billboard within and in less than 3 seconds or one. 

Maureen: I love that rule for poster presentations because poster presentations. If you’re in a let’s say if you’re in a conference that has a side room that has all kinds of poster presentations happening, it’s very nice to have different levels of glancing. So you have the headlines that people can just read from a distance, and then if they get a little closer, you might have your sub ideas, the different places, but have the font big enough so that people can read it from a ten day, so they can get clean things, and then if they come closer, they can read more. So that’s a really nice strategy for posters. 

Jo: And then applied to the slides of a presentation, it ensures that you will only put so few words on it, memorizing. I guess you’ll be actually expected to read this within 2 seconds. So I can only put a maximum of ten words on a slide, or maybe twelve. And that’s it? 

Maureen: Yeah. And it’s much better to have nontext visuals if you can. Yeah. Or maybe just have your chart of your graph and talk about it instead of trying to put all of the text to explain it, because you are the one explaining it. It’s very nice. And there’s some amazing books out there. Death by PowerPoint is one that comes to mind. There’s a nice variety out there.

Yeah. I always think, oh yeah, bullet points, get it. That’s my part now.

Jo:  And then one more thing. You said that some people might be tempted to put too much text on a slide to be able to memorize what they wanted to say. I would argue I agree with you, and I would argue you still need to practice. So to know what you want to say, actually, by heart, you should not let go of that idea because the slide should only underline what you’re actually saying. The people came to hear you in order to read an article. They could have done that at home.

Maureen:  I really like that. Yes. And what is the benefit of attending a presentation as opposed to just reading an article? For a presentation you really get the energy and the insight from the researcher, him or herself, and you have the ability to ask questions. 

Yeah, but what you just said is a very nice lead into my third mistake. Yeah, the third mistake is not preparing materially mentally and physically in advance. 

Jo: Wait a minute. Okay. 

Maureen: Physically, too. Yeah, physically. This is one that’s not often taught. So let’s start with material first, which you referenced was really knowing your material, being very comfortable with it, even sometimes especially. I’ve seen this in the corporate organizational world a lot where people are handed presentations by, let’s say, someone up the chain of command and said, here, go present this. Well, you still need to really understand it to practice, but to read your slides, prepare your presentation aloud, not just in your head, but actually saying it and timing yourself and understanding that. Especially if you are on a panel with multiple presenters that you’re, especially if you’re, let’s say, the third or fourth in a panel. And suddenly, instead of 20 minutes, you have ten minutes, because the people before you have taken too much time. And prepare to say, okay, if that happens, what do I really need to focus on? Which slides can I let go of or can I minimize? And just practicing that flexibility because you never know what might happen. So to prepare materially to understand and to go through and to make sure you don’t have any tongue twisters in your presentation. Yeah, try to do that one. 

Jo: Can you say one? Now that we mentioned it, do you have an example of a tongue twister? Maureen: Yes, tongue twisters. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. She sells seashells by the seashore,

Jo: I know that with Sally. But also she is actually more difficult. I’m not going to try. 

Maureen: No, but oftentimes there are words that you will have to pronounce that are difficult, like interoperability. Some words are just multi syllabic that are good to kind of warm up. To prepare mentally means to get yourself in a positive frame of mind, to have positive affirmations, encouragement. Try to get any negativity out of your mind because people are showing up to hear what you have to say. They are interested. So to prepare mentally, I also do this. Any presentation that I make, I think of myself as a teacher, not in a derogatory way, but just the fact that these are people who want the information I have to present. My goal is to give them this information in the best and clearest manner possible. 

Jo: And they have friends, they come with a friendly attitude. They may be hungry, if it’s the last time before lunch, but otherwise… 

Maureen: Keep that in mind. Yes, great. And then physically it is to warm up your instrument, your mouth. So to stretch, I usually stretch up, stretch out. I like to do some tongue twisters. I don’t know if you know the Mary Poppins movie, but there’s super cali fragilistic expialidocious is what she says. So anytime, even before doing any kind of talk, I will do these physical warming ups. Also, another good thing is to do some deep breathing. I do this especially right before it’s my turn to speak. Just quietly take three deep breaths as I’m listening to the person who’s speaking before me. Because not only does it help relax, but it gives oxygen to the brain, which is fantastic. 

Jo: Who doesn’t need your Lbs? 

Maureen: A little bit physical as well. Preparation. So those are the three really nice areas to think about. 

Jo: Can I add the power pose? I love how you stress the jaw muscles and the actual apparatus to convey the information through oral presentation, but then also to gain confidence, to stretch the spine, to build a posture in front of the audience, to also take ourselves seriously and be taken seriously by the audience instead of branching and so on. But then by taking in a power pose, Amy Chad, I think is the research or tab target. We can link that also to the shonotes..

Maureen: Yeah. Fantastic. Yeah. Just as you stand up to present, stand up. Be your tallest, most confident self. It reminds me of the silly phrase, but it does work. Say fake it till you make it. 

Jo: Oh, yeah. 

Maureen: Even if you don’t feel confident, have that confident pose. Stand up straight. Put your shoulders back a little bit. Look people in the eye, even if you’re terrified, but just act a bit of acting. And it’s amazing how it will actually affect you.

Jo:  I have another favorite Ted Talk. I think it’s what Ted ad, ted Education, where they had an educated movie about the fight or flight reaction, where scientific evidence, it’s normal, it’s expected. Expect to be scared to either fight or flight. User reaction is to flight. Who wants to die in victory, I guess, on point. So our body is calling for flights when we are about to present, and that’s a physical reaction, because we’re exposing ourselves as a potential threat, even if rationally, we know this is not a threat. People are here to learn from me. But the body thinks, oh, my God, what are you doing to me? 

Maureen: First, we’re stepping out of the pack and into view, and it’s an exposure. But if you think the fact that you are doing it for the benefit of those who are attending, I love the idea of focusing on the audience instead of focusing on yourself, what are you giving them? You’re giving them this information. They want to receive this information. Therefore your focus is on them. It’s not on yourself. And most people are not focusing on you, really, anyway, they see you. But they’re focusing on themselves because we’re naturally self focusing. And that gave me great comfort when I learned it, I thought, yeah, they don’t really care about what I look like. They want to know what I can tell them that will help them. So they don’t care what jacket I’m wearing or what my hair looks like. They don’t really care. It doesn’t matter.

Jo:  At a conference, because I actually came. They signed up for the content and we’re here to deliver the content. 

Maureen: Exactly. Yes. And also a side note for that is expected to make performance errors. We all make errors as we speak. So we’re going to slip up on a certain word or we’re going to search for a word that we didn’t have at the tip of our tongue, and it’s going to and that’s normal. If you see a true transcript, there’ll be a bunch of UMS and us and this. Even though we’re not seeing them that often, they will still come in a little bit. So to be realistic with yourself, do not expect perfection, because there’s no such thing as a perfect talk. It is just you expect the performance errors.

Maureen: And yeah, I would like to add also, let’s allow ourselves to be humans. We are not robots.

Maureen: True. True. Yes, true. 

Jo: Imperfection is human. 

Maureen: Yes, exactly. Which is right. All right, would you like number four? 

Jo: Yes, please. Okay, number four and five. These are mistakes that happen during the presentation itself. And number four is failing to give transition to keep the audience connected and focused normally. And I don’t have anything to back this up, but I have read somewhere that we tend to have about a 25% efficiency rate with listening. That just means that we focus on what we hear and then we drift off. We come back and we drift off. We come back and we drift off. And we’ve all experienced that when we’ve been in presentations. We’re like, oh, wow, I was thinking about lunch. But no, I need to focus on what’s being said here. 

Jo: I’m so glad you mentioned that there’s actually scientific evidence. I’ll try and find it for you guys who are listening. Because as many of these things, unless we talk about it, it’s also happening to me. And I thought I was the only one. Am I the only one in the whole audience who cannot concentrate on this really exciting and interesting talk.

Maureen:  It is very. And just think about those who have had little sleep, those who are distracted by something that’s going on in their lives. They have probably even more difficulty focusing on what you’re saying. So as you as the presenter, you realize that that is the reality. We’re dealing with human beings who have this challenge, especially as we transition from one side to the next. It’s good to both orally introduce it as well as have headings on your slides that tell the audience where we are in the presentation. What is the topic of the slide we’re looking at? So if I’m transitioning, I might say, and now I’m going to talk about the methodologies for this particular research. And so then I have the methodology slide. And also when you do that, it tends to bring people in. Oh, we’re going on to something new now. I hear this. So just the simple act of having transitions between each of the slides will keep your audience with you. 

Jo: When you give workshops, if you were asked to measure, which I’m doing now, like, what’s the percentage of, like, highlighting, please add a transition to your slides because it’s missing in a practice talk, like, is this common? Well, it’s a common mistake. Like one of the common mistakes. So you see that quite often? 

Maureen: Oh, yes, very common. I think it’s most common because you as a presenter know what’s coming next. So you just present it as opposed to introducing it. And the nice part about introducing is you’re creating that cognitive space for your audience to put that information in their heads. So you’re preparing them, and so you’re preparing them for the new bit of information that’s coming along, and they’re much more likely to not only be focused, but retain it better and be able to process it. So it’s very helpful on so many levels to do that instead of just one slide after the next slide, after the next slide, after the next slide, and we’re not sure where you are. 

Jo: Yeah, okay, good to know. In my scientific writing course, most often I use the title scientific Writing from a reader’s perspective. And to be honest, between you and I, as if nobody else was listening, I haven’t thought about the same approach, representing I mean, it’s kind of intrinsic as we practice, but this is why we practice. We want to put ourselves in the audience’s shoes to help them. Being able to follow our presentation and not coming from a presenter’s approach, while that’s regular, but actually doing the mind shift of how somebody in the audience receives information, I’m trying to convey.

Maureen:  Exactly. It is the very foundation of everything I teach about communication. Communication is not about you. It’s about what you’re the receiver, who is it? Because let’s say you’re making a presentation to fellow experts in your field. You’re going to present something one way. If you’re presenting it to fifth graders, you’re going to present it a different way. If you’re presenting it to people who are interested but don’t know any of the technical terminology, you should really present it in a different way. Yeah. Instead, it’s that idea of packaging everything for the audience. It’s so crucial. 

Jo: It is. So now that we talk about it, it’s so obvious and it’s easily forgotten because we make it about us and not the topic, but it’s actually about the recipient. 

Maureen: It’s about the recipients because you already know the information. So, yeah, if you’re just presenting for yourself, you’re really wasting your time because you already know it 

Jo: And everybody else is true. 

Maureen:Yeah. Sometimes the most profound or the most simple insight. So, yeah, I really like that. Oh, this also goes to the fifth and final common mistake, I would say, and that is speaking too quickly. And this happens so often, and it’s so important to slow down. It probably feels sometimes, for example, if you’re speaking at the pace that I’m speaking right now, it might feel a bit slow as you’re doing it. However, there may be people in the audience who are adjusting their ears to your accent. They may be those who are just adjusting to, oh, wow, now I got to function in English again, or oh, what was that word? And so just saying it slowly really helps people process it. And if you speak too quickly and people start not being able to comprehend you, then all is lost. And the other reason to speak more slowly is because you will see that the more professional speakers do that, they speak more slowly because it tends to command focus. It’s like this person is relaxed, they’re in control. They’re speaking at a pace that’s not too fast, because oftentimes if we’re nervous and then we start talking too quickly, and then we can’t get it out and we’re just the adrenaline going. And so we tend to race because we’re nervous. So if we slow down, it’s that idea of standing tall and confident. Just try speaking a little more slowly as well. You’ll be amazed at how people tend to focus a bit more. 

Jo: Beautiful. I also haven’t seen that from this angle. Thank you. 

Maureen: Yeah. 

Jo: Speaking slowly is a matter of authority, or it expresses control and security. also in a sense so people feel secure to listen.

Maureen: And it gives you that chance to really look for the words that you want to say as well. And so it also allows you to emphasize what you want to emphasize. And as you practice, it’s actually not a bad idea to record your speech and listen and to see, am I talking too quickly at times or how is it sounding from an outside perspective? 

Jo: Okay, here’s a suggestion, because I have a few friends and colleagues who speak really fast. I think I can sometimes also do the same. And now with these digital devices that we all carry in our suitcases and pockets, there’s often a feature where you can not only double speed a recording, but also slow down a recording. And how funny is that stuff? Record and then increase or decrease the speed of our own voice and listen to ourselves and see what effect that has. 

Maureen: Very interesting. But I would say even the Ted Talks that you referenced, notice how slowly they often speak, right? 

Jo: Yeah

Maureen: It’s very interesting.

Jo:  And these are considered fine, sometimes over polished and super polished presentation modes, right? 

Maureen: Yeah. They are often coached so that they will be able to present most confidently. And it’s difficult when that adrenaline is running, but to take those three deep breaths, remind yourself to stand tall and slow down. It just has an amazing effect.

Jo:  Really. Okay, so in summary, we are going to repeat all five, and then the two of us come up with best practices instead. So don’t do this instead, try that. 

Maureen: Okay. All right. So the first one is don’t put too much information into a single presentation. So instead, think of what the primary purposes of that you want in that single presentation. And then also think if you have a lot of data that should be parsed into different presentations. 

Jo: Right. So less is more. 

Maureen: Less is more, often less is more. Very good. 

Jo: Okay. 

Maureen: Second one is to avoid putting too much information onto one PowerPoint slide. So kind of the same, less is more.

Jo: So people in the audience can only either listen or read.

Maureen:  Exactly.

Jo:  If you put so much text. They will read, they cannot listen. Whatever you say will be lost to at least 20%, 70% of the audience. I mean, once a while. 

Maureen: Definitely, they can only focus on one thing. They can listen or they can read. Very nice. And then failing to prepare materially mentally and physically. So I think the advice would be to take the time needed to prepare effectively, to practice it, to have that Positivity, to know that you are there for your audience to convey the information they want, and to warm up your instrument and to breathe deeply. 

Yeah. Nothing to add. Thank you. 

Maureen: Number four, failing to give transitions to keep your audience connected. So to both orally as well as on the slide, have a header that tells your audience where you are in the presentation, but to help them bring them back in from wherever their brain is at the moment. To help prepare them for the next slide by introducing it. And it’s just simple. On the next slide, I’ll show blah, blah, blah. And the last one is not to speak too quickly, but basically to slow down. Really enunciate and have that command of what you’re saying.

Jo: Enunciate. I might have seen it before as I’m also teaching presentation techniques, but for those who don’t know the English language very well, what does enunciate mean? Basically, but in a different way?

Maureen: Yeah, basically being clear about your pronunciation. Really focusing on clarity of the vowels, the consonants. 

Jo: Yeah, I remember where I saw it. 

Maureen: Yeah. And that happens if you slow down. Very nice, very good. 

Jo: Thank you so much for sharing that. You mentioned death by PowerPoint. Is there maybe one or two other references that we can add to the reference list for the reading? 

Maureen: What I can do is let me pull up some and I can share those with you and you can maybe put some links in for the podcast. That would be fantastic. Yeah, there’s so much good advice. But this especially is for those scientists that I’ve helped over the years. These are some veterans that I thought would really help your listeners today. 

Jo: So cherry picked references will be edited and there is not an exclusive list or not an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s a very exclusive list exclusively selected by you or exclusively for you. Selected by and for your listener. Thanks for listening and if you have any questions, please write in the comments or send us an email. You can, as always, reach out to Maureen for further advice. We are also here to service. If you have colleagues or group, research group who would like to build up their presentation skills, we are ready to be at your service. Yeah, and what else is there? We link all your contact details so people can reach out to you directly. And thank you so much for sharing this. I learned something new again. 

Maureen: I’m so glad to share the experience. Yes, And please share these insights with your colleagues as well. Very nice. Well, thank you, Jo. It’s been a pleasure. 

Jo: Yeah, again. Likewise. Speak soon. Whenever. Well, there’s always something to share. But whenever opportunity comes again, thank you. 

Maureen: Thank you and be confident. Yes, I will. Very good. 

Jo: Thank you. 

Maureen: Alright. Take care. Bye.