Producing great science events

How do you communicate science in a relevant, engaging and memorable way?  In the lead up to National Science Week as hundreds of events are being planned across the country, we consider what makes a successful science event. Whether you are the event organiser or an invited guest speaker, these ten short tips about what works and why will help you plan a fantastic event.

1. Who are you talking to?

Great science events are not just about the message – they are about developing empathy through presentations or activities that connect speakers and ideas with an audience and allow a relationship to develop.

For the organiser
When planning a science event, consider why you are doing it, who you are talking to and why they might care about what you have to say.  This will help you decide what kind of event you wish to develop. Use this information to guide everything you do, from how you develop your event to creating promotional materials.

For the presenter
Make sure you know who you will be talking to and what their interests might be. Adapt your material to suit the audience and get help in crafting the right message. What’s a point of common interest that will keep the target audience engaged with the science? Ask to see the guest list before the event to get an idea of where people are coming from. Invite a show of hands at the beginning of your presentation to find out who is in the room – are they likely to have any knowledge about your topic?

2. Make sure your science talent is suitable for the target audience

Explaining research findings is part of a scientist’s everyday life, but if an audience has little expert knowledge about a topic, chances are that scientific facts may go in one ear and out the other.

For the organiser
No matter what your science talent’s expertise, there are always bigger issues to consider. Perspectives from diverse disciplines can make a discussion more relevant and interesting. The ultimate aim should be that people in the audience enjoy their experience of participating in your event and feel inspired to find out more about the topic.

For the presenter
Keep it simple! Rather than telling people everything you know, limit the information you share to three key points that the audience will be able to relate to. What practical applications of your research topic might be of interest to them? Are there any recent news or popular culture references that might be relevant? Avoid jargon and use analogies and metaphors to help build a bridge with the audience. Raise questions about things people might have an opinion about.

3. Treat research like an exciting detective story

For the presenter
What are the mysteries you are trying to solve and how are you sifting through clues? Who are the characters and where is the action? What new knowledge is disrupting everything known about the topic and how is this changing your approach? Explain research as if it were an intriguing detective story, complete with heroes and villains, false starts and near misses. What’s at stake if you don’t succeed? A general public audience is likely to be inspired by someone’s motivation to find answers if it’s framed in an entertaining and suspense-filled way.

4.What kind of event will you host?

For the organiser
Does the topic lend itself to a panel discussion, a single speaker presentation or a hands on experience? This all depends on the audience and the topic. For general public audiences, science experts should keep things simple, entertaining and informative, remembering that many in the audience will have limited knowledge of the topic. If you are delivering a family event, consider what children and young people might enjoy and how you can make the event as fun and interactive as possible.

Panels need a skilled moderator who can draw out common themes from guest presenters and develop an interesting conversation. Avoid more than four panel members and ensure they get a chance to communicate as a group before the event. This could be done via emails, a teleconference or in person in a brief discussion preferably chaired by the moderator.

Make sure your moderator is well briefed about the speakers and the issues. If your event is built around a single speaker, be clear about time constraints, who they will be talking to and what might be of interest to the audience.

5. Choose the right venue

For the organiser
Hold your event in an appealing location and create a welcoming ambience. Imaginative sets and decor, comfy chairs, music and lighting can create a mood. Large family events need access to hands on activities, food and beverages, parking, transport and amenities. Events held under the stars, in a park or any location not typically known for science add to the audience experience. If it’s a speaker event, allow for bursts of social interaction between serious discussion to maintain momentum and make the event an enjoyable experience.

6. Communicate visually

For the organiser and presenter
If using slides, what images and text are you showing your audience and why? How would you like your audience to feel about the topic? Think carefully about the images you project and why you are using them. If they don’t add to what the presenter is talking about, don’t use them.

Make your slides attractive and be careful that your use of colour and fonts does not make them illegible. Check for spelling mistakes. Never show complex graphs, long lists of bullet points or dense text that people cannot read.

7. Get hands on

For the organiser
Offer hands on experiences at your event that relate to the topic, for example interactive demonstrations or a chance to view specimens or use equipment. Give people a chance to talk  to scientists around formal proceedings.

8. Practice

For the organiser
Once you’ve planned what you would like your speakers/presenters to say and do, encourage them to stand in front of the mirror and practice!

For the presenter
Rehearse your presentation and make sure it is to time, allowing for spontaneous asides. Notice where sentences may be too long and where you may need to take a breath. Practice projecting your voice and speaking clearly at a moderate pace. Don’t rush! Practice making eye contact and get honest feedback from friends and family. Limit single speaker presentations to no more than 30 minutes and allow time for questions. The more prepared you are, the more relaxed and natural you will appear to be, regardless of nerves.

9. Promote your event

For the organiser
Compelling event descriptions and eye catching images are essential to attract event participation. Why would someone want to come and what could can they expect to experience? What kinds of draw cards could you use to get families to come along?

Once your event is online, get the word out via the media and social media using key hashtags and networks in your area – for example what’s on guides run by local government. There are all kinds of ideas about how to promote your event on the National Science Week website. Write a promotional article for dissemination via the extensive Inspiring Australia network. Send your ideas to the NSW state manager by email.

10. Evaluate your event

For the organiser
Find out what people thought about your event and how you might improve it next time. Use an online survey tool or collect feedback as people leave the room. Sydney Science Festival participants will be provided with survey questions to use and Inspiring Australia has some excellent survey resources developed by experts that you can adapt.

More ideas

National Science Week is a great time for scientists to connect with non-scientists in creative, welcoming ways. There are many online resources available to assist with the planning and delivery of general public science events including:

For organisers

For presenting scientists