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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 January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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