How to advance science and look good in a talk

Many conference presentations have become more about impressing the audience than advancing science. While presenters should, of course, strive to be engaging, impressive, and proud of their work, they should also be more open about their limitations and not view their project as a lone watershed moment in science but as a piece in an ever-advancing timeline of inquiry. Here are some ways to have presentation that will not just look good but will also be good for the scientific enterprise.

#1 Have a true and guided discussion of the limitations.

Let’s be honest: there’s probably no chance that you’ve tested your theory in the absolute best way possible – funding and constraints almost always prevent this.

There’s also little chance that you’ve removed 100% of the potential confounds. If you have any doubts about this, just submit your manuscript to any journal club and the feedback you will receive will make it abundantly clear that there are at least six thousands potential confounds. Psychological research is imperfect—and as Anna Kirmani and Michelle Pham have recently argued, it is important we realize this.

So what does this mean for your conference presentations?

It means you need to take control over the discussion of your limitations. Maybe you are worried about a hidden ceiling effect in the Likert measure or an undetected mood effect; mention those things. Further, tell us how we as a field could better test your theory. Maybe it is with larger more diverse samples or maybe it is with different dependent variables.

#2 Have a true and guided discussion of the relevance of your findings.

When the first choice overload studies came out, the authors made it seem that lots of choice was almost always bad. Turns out that although choice overload does exist, the original idea as the author of The Paradox of Choice Barry Schwartz explains was overstated.

Instead of looking back at how awesome their choice overload work was, in their original presentations and papers the choice researchers should have looked forward and said to their audiences, here’s how we can test the breadth of this choice overload work. Rather than assume its ubiquity for a few studies, they should have been more humble.

Recently, my colleagues and I have tried to use a humble approach by starting many presentations with the statement: “Today our only goal is to have you leave here thinking: ‘Hey, this phenomenon happens sometimes, isn’t that interesting, and shouldn’t we explore it more?’”

#3 Don’t be a theoretical imperialist and always remember the motto: “Death to Dichotomy”

Many researchers seem to feel the need to explain why their theory explains everything. This can make one can look very good and lead to a type of prominence in one’s field and the popular press. Yet, rarely is one perspective as completely explanatory as it seems.

For instance in the field of motivated cognition, people often have dichotomous debates between the existence of a motivation explanation (e.g. self-deception) versus a completely non-motivational explanation (e.g. informational differences, self-presentation bias). Scientists often try to explain lab and complex real world phenomena within one psychological theory with nearly unqualified general claims.

This leads to a theory versus theory approach. It forms a “dichotomous” view of reality when as Michelle Pham argues, this is often far from the truth. The majority of the most interesting phenomena in real life are determined by multiple factors. For example, in the case of motivated cognition, there is a synthesis of factors in self-deception that can occur due to concerns over self-presentation.

Dichotomous type of thinking does not lead to our goal of optimally advancing science. Instead of pitting psychological mechanisms against each other in absolute terms, we should develop models that allow for a multiple psychological mechanisms. We should not ask does X mechanism explain this phenomenon better than Y mechanism? Instead we should ask, when do X and Y matter most when consider phenomenon Z?

A final consideration: Does all this humble limitation focus actually improve your presentation and make you look better?

As a young scholar, I am always so saddened when I attend talks by famous scholars or rising stars in academia only to see that they are biased toward the prominence of their theories. Their self-aggrandizing style can hurt them at least in some people’s eyes. Scientists appreciate when other scientists act like humble scientists, and yes – that is only a “usually,” not an “always,” but still, it’s worth playing the percentages.

We need to stop focusing on looking good and we to need to start focusing on doing what’s good for science. Arguably, doing the things that are good for science can also make you look good.

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