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I Won Science Fair with A Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures

I Won Science Fair with A Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures
The Skill of presenting Failures

For my first three science fairs, I received a participation ribbon — no prizes, no other acknowledgment. For my fourth, I walked away with $600, a first place award from AFCEA, a Discovery Science award and the Yale Science & Engineering Association Award.

My science fair project that year wasn’t any different from my past projects: I failed to prove anything, learned nothing about science, and did the project in order to receive a grade in my science class, rather than any interest in the project. The real difference was in my presentation skills. I had learned that I could present a failure just as well as success.

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The fact that I could talk about my project, whether to one person or a group, gave me a head start on the competition, no matter how good their projects were. Even successful science fair participants could get flustered by a question or thrown off by shyness. They practiced their material like it was a speech — they just had to repeat it and they were done. Problem is, science fair judges ask questions in order to get a better idea of the project — it’s also their chief technique for ensuring that a student did all of their own work with no help from his or her parents.

Five Questions For Presenters

When I began preparing for my presentation, I made a list of the questions that I really didn’t want to answer about my project. Uncomfortable as that process was, I figured out how to answer those questions. I even felt comfortable talking about each of those points and included most of my answers in my presentation. The questions boiled down to the five below.

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  1. What went wrong?
  2. What could I have done, in hindsight, to prevent the problem?
  3. What parts of this project is salvageable?
  4. Can I still meet the goals of this project? How?
  5. What is the future of this project?

These questions have to be the focus of your presentation if you aren’t able to talk about successes. It can be uncomfortable to talk about these points, especially because they tend to lead to discussions of who takes the blame for any problems, but these are the questions that your audience will be interested in.

Preparing for the Actual Presentation

Creating a good presentation, even about a bad topic, isn’t just about planning what you will say. It’s about taking that standard tri-fold science fair board and turning it into something that stands out from the other three hundred boards in the gymnasium — or creating a professional PowerPoint or other presentation materials. It’s about learning background material and preparing to take questions, from people who haven’t ever been exposed to any of the information you’re talking about, as well as people with advanced degrees in your topic. It’s not any different than preparing any other presentation.

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When you’re preparing to talk about a project that, for any reason, just didn’t work out, though, your presentation materials need to be just that much better. You have a plan for every question, too. You may not be able to answer every question, but you should be able to point towards resources or describe a way to answer it. Your presentation needs to reach a higher level if you don’t have results to back up your talk. I haven’t focused much on the generalities of presenting here — if you need more information about planning a general presentation, consider starting with this roundup of past posts.

How I Presented My Failure

Science fairs can be all-day propositions. I probably presented my project twenty-five times, and each time someone asked to hear about my project, I started out the same way. I admitted my failure right off the bat. I talked about what had gone wrong and shouldered my responsibility.

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I found that the fact that I didn’t try to explain away my failure went a long way to improving the judges’ perception of my project. I was able to clearly point out what I would do differently if I was to start the project over; I knew what I could do to build on my project. Future plans were the key: I got more attention by talking about what steps I could take next than by discussing hypotheses and the scientific method.

It also helped that I didn’t use my failed project as an excuse. I completed my experiment even after it was clear that the project was a dud. I still went all out on preparing my science fair presentation board and talk, and it showed.

Playing to My Project’s Strengths

I know you’re wondering what sort of project could obviously fail, yet win awards. The title of my project was “The Effects of Everyday Radiation of Household Objects on the Regenerative Capabilities of Planaria.” My biggest award was from the AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association), and I know exactly why. The judges assigned to choose recipients for the AFCEA came to see my project because my abstract mentioned that I was testing the radiation of electronic objects like televisions. They stayed because it only took a pointed question about radiation to get me talking about why such research is necessary and where it could go. I wasn’t listed with the engineering projects: I shouldn’t have been on their radar at all. I was able to answer their questions, though, because of the strength of the preparations I had made for my presentation.

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Last Updated on April 11, 2019

How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success

How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success

Possessing strong communication skills will help you in every phase of your life. This is especially true in the workplace.

I have personally worked with several leaders who were masters of communication. A few were wonderful speakers who could tell a great story and get everyone in the room engaged. Those of us in attendance would walk away feeling inspired and eager to help with what came next. Others were very skilled at sharing a clear direction and job expectations.

I knew exactly what was expected of me and how to achieve my goals. This was the foundation of an energized and vibrant role I was in. What I have found is strong communication skills are incredibly helpful and sometimes critical in how well we perform at work.

Here we will take a look at how to improve communication skills for workplace success.

How Communication Skills Help Your Success

Strong communication skills pave the way for success in many ways. Let’s look at a few of the big ones.

Create a Positive Experience

Here are two examples of how well developed communication skills helps create a positive experience:

When I first moved to the city I now live in, I began a job search. Prior to my first live interview, I was told an address to go to. Upon arriving at the address provided, I drove around and around attempting to find the location. After 15 minutes of circling and looking for the address, I finally grabbed a parking spot and set out on foot.

What I discovered was the address was actually down an alley and only had the number over the door. No sign for the actual company. The person that gave me those very unclear directions provided a bad experience for me.

Had they communicated the directions to get there in a clear manner, my experience would have been much better. Instead the entire experience started off poorly and colored the entire meeting.

As a recruiter, I frequently provide potential candidates with information about a job I’m speaking to them about. In order to do this, I also provide a picture of the overall company, the group they might be joining, and how their role fits in and impacts the entire company.

Time and time again I have been told by candidates that I have provided the clearest picture of a company and role they have ever heard. They have a positive experience when I clearly communicate to them. Even when the position does not work out for them, often times they will want to stay in touch with me due to the open communication and beneficial experience they had during the interviewing process.

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Strong communication skills will provide a positive experience in virtually any interaction you have with someone.

Help Leadership Skills

It’s certainly a skill all its own to be able to lead others.

Being a mentor and guiding others towards success is a major hallmark of great leaders. Another characteristic of effective leaders is the ability to communicate clearly.

As I referenced above, having a leader who can plainly articulate the company’s mission and direction goes a really long way towards being the Captain of the boat that others want to follow. It’s like saying “here’s our destination and this is how we are going to get there” in a way that everyone can get on board with.

Another critical component of everyone helping to sail the boat in the right direction is knowing what your portion is all about. How are you helping the boat move towards its destination in the manner than is consistent with the leaders’ vision?

If you have a boss or a manager that can show you what it takes for not only you to be successful, but also how your performance helps the company’s success then you’ve got a winner. A boss with superior communication skills.

Build Better Teams

Most of us work in teams of some sort or another. During the course of my career, I have led teams up to 80 and also been an individual contributor.

In my individual contributor roles, I have been part of a larger team. Even if you are in business for yourself, you have to interact with others in one manner or another.

If you have strong communication skills, it helps to build better teams. This is true whether you are in an IT department with 100 other fellow programmers or if you own your own business and have customers or vendors you communicate with.

When you showcase your robust ability to communicate well with others while interacting with them, you are building a better team.

Now let’s jump in to how to improve communication skills to help you pave the way for your workplace success.

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How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success

There are many tips, tricks, and techniques to improve communication skills. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information, so let’s focus on the things that will provide the biggest return on your time investment.

Most of these tips will be fairly easy to become aware of but will take time and effort to implement. So let’s go!

1. Listen

Ever heard the saying you have two ears and one mouth for a reason? If you haven’t, then here’s the reason:

Being a good listener is half the equation to being a good communicator.

People who have the ability to really listen to someone can then actually answer questions in a meaningful way. If you don’t make the effort to actively listen, then you are really doing yourself and the other person a disservice in the communication department.

Know that person who is chomping at the bit to open his or her mouth the second you stop talking? Don’t be that person. They haven’t listened to at least 1/2 of what you’ve said. Therefore the words that spill out of their mouth are going to be about 1/2 relevant to what you just said.

Listen to someone completely and be comfortable with short periods of silence. Work on your listening skills first and foremost.

2. Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience is another critical component to having strong communication skills. The way you interact with your manager should be different than how you interact with your kids. This isn’t to say you need to be a different person with everyone you interact with. Far from it.

Here is a good way to think about it:

Imagine using your the same choice of words and body language you use with your spouse while interacting with your boss. That puts things in a graphic light!

You want to ensure you are using the type of communication most relevant to your audience.

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3. Minimize

I have lunch with a business associate about 3 times a year. We’ve been talking for several years now about putting a business deal together.

He is one of those people that simply overwhelms others with a lot of words. Sometimes when I ask him a question, I get buried beneath such an avalanche of words that I’m more confused than when I asked the question. Needless to say this is most likely a large portion of why we never put the deal together.

Don’t be like my lunch business associate. The goal of talking to or communicating with someone is to share actual information. The goal is not to confuse someone, it’s to provide clarity in many cases.

State what needs to be stated as succinctly as possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some pleasant conversation about the weather too.

The point is to not create such an onslaught of words and information that the other person walks away more confused than when they started.

4. Over Communicate

So this probably sounds completely counter intuitive to what I just wrote about minimizing your communication. It seems like it might be but it’s not.

What I mean by over communicating is ensuring that the other person understands the important parts of what you are sharing with them. This can be done simply yet effectively. Here’s a good example:

Most companies have open enrollment for benefits for the employees in the fall. The company I work for has open enrollment from November 1 to 15. The benefits department will send out a communication to all employees around October 1st, letting them know open enrollment is right around the corner and any major changes that year. There’s also a phone number and email for people to contact them with any questions.

Two weeks later, we all get a follow up email with basically the same information. We get a 3rd communication the week before open enrollment and another one 1 day before it starts.

Finally we get 2 emails during enrollment reminding us when open enrollment ends.

There’s minimal information, it’s more of a reminder. This is effective over communication.

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5. Body Language

The final critical component to how to improve communication skills for workplace success is body language. This is something most of us have heard about before but, a reminder is probably a good idea.

When I am in a meeting with someone I am comfortable with, I tend to kind of slouch down in my chair and cross my arms. When I catch myself doing this, I sit up straight and uncross my arms. I remember that crossing arms can many times be interpreted as a sign of disagreement or conflict.

In general, the best rule of thumb is to work towards having open body language whenever possible at work. This means relaxing your posture, not crossing your arms, and looking people in the eye when speaking with them.

When you are speaking in front of others, stand up straight and speak in a clear voice. This will convey confidence in your words.

Conclusion

Possessing strong communication skills will help you in many facets of your life and most certainly in the workplace.

Good communication helps create better teams, positive experiences with those we interact with, and are critical for leadership.

There are numerous tactics and techniques to be used to improve communication skills. Here we’ve reviewed how to improve communication skills for workplace success.

Now go communicate your way to success.

More Resources About Effective Communication

Featured photo credit: HIVAN ARVIZU via unsplash.com

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