Great Presenters

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Science  04 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6154, pp. 78
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6154.78

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Bonnie Bassler and Larry Smarr have a gift for enthralling audiences. They share advice on how to make powerful public presentations.


Bonnie Bassler likes to show off bacteria that live inside the gorgeous Hawaiian bobtail squid. The bacteria, by communicating with one another en masse, decide the proper time to light up like fireflies. The benefits are mutual: The bioluminescence helps camouflage the squid by eliminating its shadow on the ocean floor when moonlight bathes it from above, and the bacteria get nutrients from their host. It's a cool story, says Bassler, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, who studies a close relative of the squid bacteria that also luminesce. "My bacteria glow in the dark—no human being doesn't like that."

Studies of this symbiosis and Bassler's own glowing bacteria have helped decipher quorum sensing, a system of chemical communication between bacteria that she compares to individuals casting a vote and then making a group decision. She and her co-workers have shown that quorum sensing exists in all bacteria and controls myriad activities, from luminescence to toxin release.

The secret lives of bacteria makes for a compelling presentation, and Bassler does the topic justice. She says bacteria speak a lingua chemica with their own species, while also using a second Esperanto-like vocabulary that all bacteria use. If scientists figure out a way to muffle this chatter and in doing so hamper toxin release, she says, that could lead to new antibiotics. More profound still, quorum sensing informs us about human social interactions, like emotions rippling through a crowd. "How do you think we got those behaviors?" she asks, with mock incredulity that everyone doesn't know this. "It's because the bacteria invented them!"

Bassler, who looks like the late actress Gilda Radner with a splash of Lily Tomlin, loves an audience. "My job is to teach someone something they never knew, but it should not be like you're in a prisoner-of-war camp," she says. "I'm supposed to be teaching you but also entertaining you. You're giving me an hour of your time. It should be lively. We're on a hunt, it's a mystery, and it's amazing."

Bassler's Rules of Presentation

Stick to the big picture.

"We know this stuff in excruciating detail," she says. "You want to drive a metal stake through your head listening to our lab meetings."

On slides, use few words and make one point.

"People can read faster than I can talk," she says. "If I put the words there, I'm irrelevant."

Tell stories.

"These are detective stories with mini mysteries that all point to the same thing."

Don't strive to be the smartest person in the room.

"Sometimes people are like, 'Wow you don't sound scientific,'" she says. "The data are on the slide."

But the most important advice that Bassler has to offer has nothing at all to do with style: Prepare, prepare, prepare. "I've spent a gazillion hours to cull these nuggets from the morass," she says.

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