Friday, July 14, 2017

Making conference talks compelling and meaningful

Langin, K. 2017. “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations”. The Condor 119(2):321-326.

Communicating complex ideas that rely on the accumulation of ideas, methods, and data is undeniably hard. Some people are naturals at presenting their work, but for many of us (definitely for me) it is a skill that only improves with lots of practice. With conference season in full swing, Kathryn Langin’s paper on this very topic is timely. She provides excellent advice, particularly on how to overcome the common pitfalls of “unclear questions, too much text, unreadable figures, no overarching storyline”. In particular, the appendix provides step-by-step advice on crafting talks and composing slides that should help both first timers and more experienced presenters. 

Langin notes that we treat scientists differently from other audiences: “Scientists are increasingly trained to distill research findings for audiences that lack a strong background in science (Baron 2010). However, we often fail to put those strategies to work when communicating with other scientists, which is unfortunate because many scientists lack deep knowledge of topics outside their immediate field (Pickett et al. 1991),” and “If we cannot effectively communicate our research to colleagues, then how are we going to communicate it to resource managers, policy makers, the media, and the general public?”

This is a worthy goal. But it’s also true that there isn’t perfect equivalence between these different types of talks, and while the techniques that make for public talks are useful across the board, they aren’t enough on their own. I’ve seen the odd talk where popular science video clips, overly-processed slides, or lengthy quotations took the place of substantive research, and there’s little I find more frustrating. So, to make Langin’s advice even more difficult, good science communication requires recognizing what information, and particularly what depth of information, must be communicated for a particular audience. For scientist audiences, speakers benefit from being able to make complicated ideas seem straightforward while not insulting the listener or glossing over the difficult.

Conference audiences are difficult because they tend to be a mix of different people with varied reasons for attending a particular talk. They could be specialists who sought your talk out based on the abstract, generalists in the broader area of study, or just scientists sitting randomly in the room waiting for the next talk. And while Langin says, “Science is both increasingly collaborative and increasingly specialized; an ability to communicate beyond scientists in your immediate field is important. While it may be tempting to tailor your presentation for the expert that you hope (or fear) will be in attendance (e.g., by packing it with methodological minutiae and mountains of data), such a strategy will come at the expense of communicating clearly to everyone else in the room”, I don’t completely agree. I think the people in the room that you want feedback from are the specialists and the experts. So it’s important to find a balance between losing the general audience and wasting this opportunity to communicate with your peers.

I might be in the minority here, but I would rather sit through a few methods slides that I can’t follow in detail, than to sit in a talk in which the methods are so cursory as to be uninformative. Similarly, utterances like “…and then there was some math here, but don't worry I won’t talk about it” seems counter-productive. Ignoring the anti-math sentiment (which reinforces the idea that math is hard and so should be avoided), if the math or stats are important enough to mention, they are important enough to talk about properly. With care, it is generally possible to find a balance in which you provide details for the informed listener while explaining the general logic of the mathematical approach for the rest of the audience. This is true for complicated methods of all types – all listeners should emerge feeling as though they understand what you did, even if they don’t understand it at the same level.

For new speakers this may sound overwhelming. A few points help all talks. Most importantly, every good talk has a compelling narrative that takes the listener on a journey. Even when that journey is complex or has a few twists, speakers can help by signposting important points and findings. Have important information on each slide be both written and verbalized. Get feedback from someone who is not you. And recognize – as a presenter and as a listener—that as with all things, it takes time to become an expert. And, practice makes perfect.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Solutions to managing invasive species by combining research with local knowledge

--> *This was originally published at the Applied Ecologist's Blog

While many hurdles hamper the successful application of ecological concepts and theories to developing solutions to environmental problems, one area of ecological concern that has been especially consequential and complicated to solve has been the control of invasive species. The non-native species that end up spreading in new regions with massive impacts on local ecosystems are difficult to predict beforehand, and eradicating invasive species is a nearly impossible task. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on invasive species control, there are few success stories. Realistically, the best-case scenario is finding efficient management strategies that reduce the abundance and impact of invasive species to acceptable or tolerable levels.
Image: African lovegrass (

Part of the problem is that researchers and research organisations, which are needed to develop management strategies, are usually stretched thin and unable to devote the time and resources needed to develop evidence-based solutions. A research project into the control of invasive species requires baseline data, an understanding of basic species ecology, and a list of candidate control measures. These starting points are not trivial to satisfy and often require years of basic research before we can assess possible control measures. One of the reasons often given for this limited success is that ecological systems are inherently idiosyncratic or unpredictable. However, this lack of predictability is virtually inseparable from a lack of system specific knowledge. This lack of fundamental understanding means that we may be asking the wrong questions or pursuing inefficient management solutions based on our assumptions about an ecosystem’s behaviour.

In many systems, there exists an underutilised resource -the experience of local landowners, farmers, and ranchers. A recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology titled Integrating local knowledge and research to refine the management of an invasive non-native grass in critically endangered grassy woodlands by Jennifer Firn, Emma Ladouceur, and Josh Dorrough represents a new approach to incorporating local knowledge for testing invasive species management options. This paper, to my mind, constitutes one of the best and most innovative attempts to integrate detailed local non-scientist knowledge with modern research methods.

The study by Firn and colleagues takes an original approach to addressing research and invasive species control shortcomings by working with Australian landowners who have intimate knowledge of the grasslands they work in and, more importantly, how they have changed over time. Firn’s research team interviewed these landowners and developed specific hypotheses based on landowner knowledge about African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) growth and spread in Australia, an invasive plant introduced from southern Africa. Firn and colleagues then scientifically tested these hypotheses, showing support for some landowner perspectives, and disproving others.
This research is crucial because it shows how research and management can be made more efficient by working with local landowners. It breaks down the walls that separate academic and professional applied management from local citizens and landowners who do not work in intellectual vacuums, but rather observe, contemplate and develop questions. The scientists provide the means for landowners to test their questions.

I firmly believe that this work will change the perspective of how researchers and scientific and environmental organisations carry out their research. It shows how powerful partnerships can be, and that knowledge and expertise sharing can maximise understanding and management solutions.
Ultimately, this work will not only directly benefit Australia’s environment by providing management options for controlling African lovegrass but will also provide a template for developing solutions to any environmental problem. It is evident that researchers working on other exotic species can emulate Firn and colleague’s work, but perhaps less clear, and what should repeatedly be broadcast, is that this method should be employed for managing other environmental changes including the effects of climate change and altered land use.