Home > Nanotech, Speaking > Lessons in Winning Over an Audience: Use Metaphors

Lessons in Winning Over an Audience: Use Metaphors

September 9, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Very few things in life are as satisfying as a highly appropriate and effectively deployed metaphor.  Last month, with the start of the school year, our Materials Science program had its kickoff lunch to welcome the new students.  The centerpiece of this gathering is the Sales Pitch Contest, in which current students have three minutes to inform the judges (the new students) of their research and how awesome it is.

My friend Joy Garnett, starting her second year, works on linking together nanoparticles.  The motivation for this research is to have the nanoparticles serve as a conduit for light.  Without getting into hardcore condensed matter physics… the discussion of periodic structures—structures with a building block that is repeated with equal spacing, such as crystal lattices or photonic crystals—is nearly ubiquitous in materials science.  Unsurprisingly, Joy’s goal is to make her nanoparticles equally spaced apart and control the spacing between them.

In the three minutes allocated for her Sales Pitch, Joy did not explain the intricacies of why light behaves specially in periodic structures.  (Wise move, as new students haven’t taken condensed matter class yet.)  Instead, she told us about the classic video game, Super Mario Brothers. Frequently in the game, Mario encounters an interrupted surface that needs to be crossed.  If the blocks on which he is stepping are all spaced one unit apart, Mario can run across without falling to his demise.  (If you do not remember holding down ‘B’ to make Mario sprint, you are too young to be reading this blog.  I digress.)  If there is an irregular, extra space between the blocks, running Mario falls in and you have to start the level over again.  Similarly, Joy pointed out, if there were a disruption in the equal spacing of her nanoparticles, light would fail to traverse her nanoparticle chain, and the whole setup would be a failure.

From: gamefaqs.com / snesmaster1

From: gamefaqs.com (snesmaster1)

With one simple metaphor that the audience could relate to well, Joy conveyed to us why her work is engrossing (want to build new conduits for light) and why it is challenging (need to space the building block nanoparticles equally).  I loved it.

**Update, to answer one of the comments** Joy’s speech earned her 2nd prize (four movie tickets) in the contest.

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  1. Joy Garnett
    September 9, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Hi Saad,

    I’m so glad you liked my metaphor about Mario and photonic crystals. :D. I was worried for a long time that I would upset people for not being serious enough. The feedback from you and other people has given me the backbone, motivation, and encouragement to explain science in interesting ways.

    From that contest I learned to pick metaphors and speeches that please me and not worry about being seriously “scientific”. It’s meant to be fun. They pay us to play with big machines, build computer programs, and figure out cool stuff. Why not have fun? 😀

    Joy 😀

  2. Abram
    September 9, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    You can’t introduce use the contest context and not reveal the winner! Was the mario metaphor a deal sealer?

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