I'm going to devote a couple of blogs to a genius and an expert on neurology: V. S. Ramachandran. He's a compellingly clear speaker on difficult scientific topics. Anyone who has to present dense material — science or engineering, say — can take a lesson or two from this masterful storyteller. Here, he talks about mirror neurons, the neurons in our brain that make it possible for us to be empathetic.
What makes V. S. so effective? Following are a few rules to keep in mind:
1. Focus on the passion. Ramachandran's passion for the subject shines through his presentation, in his emphasis, his vigorous gestures, and his intensity. Charisma is focused emotion, and V. S. focuses admirably. As such, we can't take our eyes off him.
2. Keep the language simple. V. S. largely avoids jargon of any kind. The most difficult word he uses in this piece is "neuron," and most people know the meaning of the word well enough to get by, even if we don't know the full scientific properties involved. V. S. further keeps providing clear examples to keep us grounded in the real rather than the esoteric.
3. Remind us what the larger point of it all is. Ramachandran's talk is really about empathy, evolution, and what connects us as human beings. The science is merely a way to understand these big issues. By keeping us always focused on the larger picture, V. S. keeps our heads in the game.
I've worked with many a presenter of difficult material, including scientists, medical people, engineers, IT folks, and so forth. Each of them has believed that her topic presents unique challenges in making the subject comprehensible to the layperson. And yet, the basic issues always come down to passion, simplicity, and focus. If you can keep these in mind, you can present the most difficult material with clarity and power.
A final note on Ramachandran's presenting style. As you'll see more clearly in the video in my next blog, he has a bad case of "head posture." I've blogged on this before; it's a sign that the speaker is focused on, well, thinking. No surprise here; V. S. has a lot to think about, and it's all about the brain itself. But the effect is to distance the speaker from the audience. All the more reason, then, to admire V. S. Ramachandran's extraordinary ability to communicate persuasively despite his less than accomodating body language.