Presenting in your underwear: an interview with mosquito expert Bart Knols

Bart Knols tijdens zijn TED-Talk

How do you capture your audience? While I was doing research on malaria for an article in EOS (a popular science magazine), I came across Bart Knols, a Dutch authority on mosquitoes. The opening lines of his presentation sure captured my attention.

Better yet.

He inspired me to share his presentation on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn with the caption “best opening ever”.

I quickly learned that opinions in social media aren’t always aligned.

“Don’t you think it was a bit childish? Have we gotten to the point where we can only engage people for a scientific talk if we preface it with a little bit of theater?”, responded a friend/colleague doctor. Another scientist linked to a European research lab, on the other hand, liked the post.

It was a valid question, and instead of answering it myself, I picked up the phone (it turns out that smartphones allow you to make actual phone calls!) and asked Bart Knols about it directly.

Bart Knols is a medical entomologist who specializes in malaria. He is the recipient of the prestigious Ig Nobel Prize for his research that proved that malaria mosquitoes are particularly attracted to cheese from the Limburg region because its odor closely resembles that of stinky feet.

First of all, let’s take a look at the presentation, and see what you think about the opening, and about the presentation in its entirety.

Okay. I expect that we have mixed responses after watching this presentation.

Bart, did you get many responses after your presentation?

I did. All positive. I have to admit: the idea to start my story in bed came from my wife. I was practicing my presentation in our family room, and she pointed out that it didn’t quite work. In the original version I was standing up and hit a mosquito on my forehead. She said “why don’t you do that from a bed? That’s where people swat mosquitoes.”

I called the event organizer, and he loved the idea.

One thing led to another. Of course it didn’t make sense to be in bed wearing a suit and tie. So before I realized what had happened, I found myself on the stage in my underwear.

Nowadays people recognize me at conferences: “Hey, you’re the one from the story in his underwear!”.

Is that a good thing? To be recognized as “that underwear guy”?

Well, it really made me stand out from the other speakers, and the crowd loved it. I just came from a 3 day conference in Geneva. Half of the audience was asleep, the other half was paying more attention to their laptop than anything else. Why fly all the way to Geneva and pay those conference fees? Such a waste.

In other words, I think it is critical to wake people up or to make them close their laptops, and the one way to do that is to be radically different than all the other speakers.

Great. It sure grabs the attention. But does it also contribute to your story or your research?

For any presentation, the real question is: what will the audience take away, and what will be easily forgotten? I can show you several TED presentations right now that I can assure you will stay with me for the rest of my life, simply because of their unusual format. The format is what will make me remember the content. Like the TED-talk of Jane Goodall where she mimics the greeting of a chimpanzee in Tanzania. Simply amazing and hugely captivating.

In that respect, the format of my presentation contributes to my research, no doubt about it.

Many researchers fear that an original format will distract from the content and negatively affect it.

I get that. But if you fail to have a format, your content gets lost too.

Isn’t the entire point to share your research and to make sure people understand it, so they can do something with it? Some researchers seem to pride themselves on boring presentations and uninspiring slides. “Science has to be complicated”, they seem to think. That just doesn’t add up to me.

There are tens, if not hundreds of publications that can easily help you make your research presentations better, but many scientists are too stubborn to read up on those things. They insist on winging it.

The reality is that we’ve been presenting in the same way for hundreds of years. Sure, technology has advanced, but we still treat slides as if they are textbooks. Scientists have to evolve as well.

And that is a great conclusion to our discussion. Thank you so much, Bart!

Parting words by Toon

The takeaway here is that showing some creativity every once in a while is not such a bad idea.

Does this mean you have to perform on stage wearing nothing but your underwear? Of course not. But think about how you can present your research in a more engaging manner. Can you show something, rather than talk about it? Can you recreate an experiment? Can you engage your audience by making them a part of your presentation? Can you illustrate some of your findings by including props?

Your colleagues won’t criticize you for it, and your presentation will always be looked at more positively.

Does Bart Knols’ presentation truly exhibit “the best opening ever”, like I stated on social media? That is up for discussion, but TED decided to give it a spot in their top 10 most surprising presentations of all time. And that sure stands for something.

More about Bart knols and his work with mosquitoes:
Copyright opening picture: TED