Get ready to wow your audience

During National Science Week hundreds of scientists will be replacing their labs for public spaces, presenting their fascinating research in hundreds of community venues across the country. This week, Inspiring Australia NSW held a training session for some researchers who’ve put their hand up to speak in libraries to help prepare them for this task.

Inspiring Australia NSW Manager Jackie Randles began the session by reminding the researchers that communicating science to non-scientists can be particularly challenging for people who work in highly specialised fields.

“Communicating why your work matters to someone with little knowledge about what you do is a crucial skill  – and one you’ll utilise throughout your careers,” she said.

When we can explain what motivates us to solve a particular problem, and why someone else should care, we make ourselves relevant. From this point of connection, a dialogue can begin.

“And that’s how we suggest you think of your National Science Week presentation – it’s about having a conversation with community members about what you do and why it’s important – and hopefully inspiring them to be interested in and supportive of scientific research.”

Scientists are used to presenting their work to their colleagues. They may focus on reading every single piece of literature to hopefully beat out those professors who take pleasure in identifying every flaw in your research.

However, as researchers were warned in the training session, presenting to the community requires an entirely separate set of skills and tricks. Most people may think this is easy, but children can be just as ruthless as tenured professors!

Sharing their top science communication tips during the Inspiring Australia training session were:

  • Katynna Parry, the Marketing Communications Senior Specialist in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney. Katynna has worked in science communications for 15 years and studied for a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) with first class honours in biology. Her first job was on a BBC science documentary ‘Child of Our Time’ presented by Professor Robert Winston.
  • Naomi Koh Belic, a UTS PhD student whose is also a passionate science communicator, Naomi competed in the national finals of FameLab and Amplify Ignite, hosted 5 episodes of SCIENCEY with ABC Science, featured as a biology expert on all 10 episodes of Dr Karl’s Outrageous Acts of Science with Discovery Channel. She also participates in live events such as at Pint of Science and Sydney Science Festival.
  • Amelie Vanderstock, a PhD student and science communicator researching pollinators, native bees and environmental education in cities. Amelie is interested in the role of native bees in community gardens of Sydney and just completed a project codesigning experiments with high-schoolers to learn about local pollinators called Let’s BEE scientists. Amelie frequently facilitates workshops with councils and at festivals. She was awarded the OEH Ecological Society of Australia Prize for Outstanding Outreach in 2018. 
  • Dr Alex  Thomson, manager of the UTS Deep Green Biotech Hub, and a Science and Technology Australia “Superstar of STEM”. With a PhD in marine ecology and a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Honours), both from UTS, Alex has produced research papers on marine ecology and the carbon capturing potential of coastal systems. Deeply passionate about science education, Alex engages with local and regional schools to share her passion for science and biotechnology. She also leads creative science engagement projects such as the “Living Lights” algae-filled installation for Vivid Sydney (2018), and the Deep Green Forest tent at Splendour in the Grass (2019).

Here is a summary of their top tips to help researchers make the community presentations they give in National Science Week engaging, exciting and, hopefully, inspiring for their audiences.

Start with a story

Humans communicate and relate to each other through stories – we always have and always will. So, when you talk about being a scientist, tell a story. Katynna Parry gave some great examples of how to identify compelling stories to share.

It could be a story about how you became interested in your area of science or even a story about how your work affects everyday citizens. Perhaps you were once a young child that was dragged along to a library on a Saturday to listen to some strange scientist talk about their work. Perhaps you sat at the back of the room lamenting the fact that you parents forced you to go to a lecture on the weekend.

But maybe that scientist said or did something interesting, something unique, something that blew your mind. Suddenly the world of science didn’t seem so strange and scary – or even boring.

Stories are how humans communicate so start your presentation with a story. And remember, every good story has three parts – a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps your story could end by throwing the question back to the audience and encouraging them to help you answer it.

Know your audience

All the guest presenters emphasised the need to tailor a science presentation for the audience, giving examples of how they create different versions depending on who is in the room.

In the week before you are due to present your science week event, contact the library and do some research to identify your audience. Ask them questions such as – how many people are coming, what age group are they likely to be in and what other events are popular.

If you know a lot of school children are coming to your presentation, or if you have been invited to give a talk in a school, ask the person who invited you more about the children and what they may have studied.

Ask as many questions as you can to know who will be in the room. You could have the best presentation in your field, a presentation that is tried and tested at academic conferences. However, if your audience is a group of primary school children, then what has worked for a room full of academics probably won’t go down well.

Once you have this information, you can tailor your presentation to your audience.

If in doubt, grab a bunch of friends, take them out to drinks and talk about your research. Try to identify that “ah ha!” moment. Identify the point at which your friends grab on to and start asking you more questions. Use that moment as a base and work from that. If you are presenting to children, practice in front of kids (ideally kids you know and not random ones).

Again, identify the moment that they grab on to and roll with it.

Different audiences will be interested in different elements of your research, so the trick is to find the right element for the right group. What might your science week audience be interested in? Another fantastic tip from Katynna was to use the Google search function to see what kinds of searches people are doing on your topic – and answer those burning questions.

If there are less than 12 people coming to your talk, consider sitting in a circle – you don’t need to go theatre style if it’s a small turnout – make it an intimate and informal experience instead.

Be prepared

Always be prepared, know what you plan to say and have a back-up plan. Amelie suggested that if you are using PowerPoint, make sure you have multiple copies of the file on a USB, drop box, and email so that you can access it from your own computer or the library computer. Be sure to have a USB in case the internet fails, and also have a hard copy of the slides in case the whole projector gives up.

Alex and Amelie gave great examples of using props and interactive games as part of a presentation. Naomi had another great example of a spectacular prop fail. If you are using props, demos, or playing games, be sure to test them beforehand and make sure the space is appropriate. Probably not the best idea to do a chemistry demonstration that gives off smoke in a non-ventilated area with smoke alarms on the ceiling.

It’s not mandatory to use slides – in fact, science talks in community settings can be much better without them. The group agreed that slides can sometimes lead you astray, especially if you lose your thread and forget where you are up to. Naomi suggested having themes mapped out logically that you can ad lib to – with a slide image taking you from idea to idea.

What props could you bring along to illustrate your topic? Is there a specimen or piece of equipment you could pass around? Are there any interactive elements you could introduce?

Some scientists use slides to aide their presentation only to spend most of their allocated time with their back to the audience. And often showing complicated graphs that no one can read or understand.

If you do want to use slides, be visual! Do not overuse facts and stats in bullet points and reams of text. Don’t rely on slides to read from either – you want to be relating to your audience, not to a slide projector. Have just one message per slide. And try to articulate each key point simply in just a sentence or two.

Think about how you want people to feel about your research. Empathetic? Excited? Concerned? Any images, video, and even colours you might use in slides should match that mood. This will make the combination of what you are saying and showing more memorable and meaningful.

All of the above means you need to be prepared and practice. Keep your talk to between 20 and 30 minutes and allow plenty of time for questions discussion.

What’s your message?

You may be researching complex science, but for a library talk, you need to keep it simple. Over-complicated messages turn people off – if you provide too much information, you’ll lose them, especially if your topic is something they don’t know much about.

Jackie stressed that science week is not the time to tell people everything you know. Instead, think of three high-level, relatable messages you could share about your research. What might someone remember 24 hours after your talk? No matter how interesting the topic, they won’t remember much a day later; perhaps just a core message, a prop and one or two of your most compelling slides.

So – what is your core message? And how can you add personal anecdotes or stories, slides, activities or props to reinforce that? Remove any material that doesn’t add any meaning – you don’t need it!

“People are more likely to remember you – your voice, style and the passion you convey, rather than facts – so let your personality shine through!” said Jackie. “Make it your goal to offer the audience an enjoyable, entertaining experience.”

Think about a call to action

Inspire your audience to want to do something after your talk. Should they feel angry and compelled to act now? Or excited about a new idea? Is there something they could do to inform themselves further? What might that be and where can they find out more? Provide some practical tips about what they could do next after listening to you.

If your research is of interest to people with various health conditions, take along some information about consumer websites where they can find useful, evidence-based information.

Help promote National Science Week

Let your audience know that National Science Week runs 10-18 August nationally and from 4-18 August in NSW where there will be more than 400 events on offer, many of them free!

Invite them to visit scienceweek.net.au to explore the broader program and join the fun.

If you are on social media, don’t forget to promote not just your own event but also the broader science week campaign. Share posts about other people’s events and tag your uni and #scienceweek wherever you can. And if you copy in @inspiringaus and @aus_scienceweek, you’ll be sure to get a retweet.

Share your passion for science

Use your National Science Week opportunity to let the community know why scientific research is useful, important and investigates big questions in the interests of all of us – for a better world. Through your participation, you have an opportunity to influence the way those in the room think and feel about science. People will have made an effort to come out and hear what you have to say – so remember these science communication tips to make it worth their while! I’m sure your presentation will be fantastic. Now go forth and spread the science!

Read more about producing great science events

Guest post by science week volunteer and masters student Lizzie Richardson with input from Jackie Randles, Katynna Parry, Naomi Koh Belic, Amelie Vanderstock and Dr Alex Thompson. Thanks to all who participated in this training session and to the talented guest presenters.