Got data? How did it make you feel?

I work with a lot of technical expert speakers, many of whom are scientists or engineers. People who are used to downloading information to direct peers. They see presentations as live opportunities to update as to new data. Which is perfectly fine when they are indeed speaking to direct peers. But when they are speaking with audiences that include people they don’t normally speak with, data alone does not a persuasive talk make. (e)

Scientists and engineers have a passion for data. They live and breathe the insight it reveals to them. When they compile all the data of a lengthy investigation or find just the right statistical treatment in a deep dive analysis, they feel an epiphany: the answer is revealed. Having been an analyst for a time in my life, this epiphany can feel incredibly gratifying. After all, I refer to it as an epiphany: the truth that you hoped was buried in that long experiment somewhere is now apparent.  Or at least enough of it that you have added fuel to your dedication to the project and look forward to continuing on the next phase: you will take this treasure and go forth in to the next quest in this long adventure called discovery. (p)

But when technical experts speak, they often set aside the zeal for that discovery and just cold hard data is presented. The data is the thing, wherein the essence of the thing is captured. And their audience, presumably made up of fellow scientists, receive that cold hard data in its essence. Science shows data, and data shows science. This truism justifies all that is needed in a scientific talk to share the information. Truly, others will be encouraged to work with the speaker given this logical conclusion, yes? (l)


Sharing data and only data will demonstrate you were thorough. That data exists.

But data alone is not inspiring. A talk devoid of emotion will not persuade the audience that something interesting happened. It will only establish that something happened; here’s the data.

Scientists are humans and humans are driven by emotions to do what they do. The drive to find a cure may be driven by altruism – a sense of sharing glory enough for all. It could equally be driven by a vindictive competition where ego and desire for the spotlight fuels a race to where X marks the spot.

To convince others to join you in the quest, share the emotions of your work. Even if it’s as subtle as “this graph really surprised me/us!” or “we’re excited to look into this next part, though the scope of the work is a little scary”. Humanizing yourself will provide a connection to those who want to work with others. After all collaboration is between people. A data to data connection is just an algorithm.

Persuasive talks speak to adventure. Lists of data speak to drudgery, noble as the goal may be.

Cinematically, the emotion of discovery looks like Indiana Jones finding the golden treasure at the end of a subterranean labyrinth. Adding just a little more data to the vast compilations is a boxed up ark in a warehouse of boxes.

If you were in the audience of your talk, which ending would you like to pursue?

So tell your audience of adventure, call on them to join you, if only in proxy. It’s so much more exciting together. And together more science will get done.


I am not the first to articulate this, not by a long shot. Listening to a cracking episode of Radiolab on competitive debate, I was introduced to Aristotle’s model of persuasive rhetoric: ethospathos, and logos, aka ethic, feeling, and logic. According to Wikipedia, Aristotle’s modes of persuasion are: ethic as credibility, feeling as appealing to audience emotions, and logic as the deliberate of-courseness of the argument. A speech that employs this triumvirate of tools will be persuasive.

Notice above the first 3 paragraphs have a letter in parenthesis at the end. I consciously wrote that opening to contain Aristotle’s tools:

  • the first paragraph establishes my credibility in what I say below, that I work with technical expert speakers, so there is my ethos section (e)
  • the second speaks to the emotion of discovery, and that scientists feel it. I bring in personal experience with “I” then pivot to “you” as a fellow adventurer in that discovery. I thus share some of my emotions and invoke the same in you. This is my pathos section (p)
  • the third paragraph is logically laid out in why scientists strip emotion from their presentations. It’s all third person, somewhat passive, just like a scientific talk. But it’s convincing enough, and thus it is the logos section (l)

I then proceed with a persuasive structure that is emphatic in its start. “No. [Don’t do this]” then invokes tales of adventure. [Note I also use the ABT structure advocated by Randy Olson].

I have adopted many methods of effective communication, and believe what I share so much I use them myself.

I’d love to work with you so the tale of your adventure inspires others to join you.

Image credit: National Academy of Sciences
©2017-2018, DJG Communications LLC

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s