How to present science to anyone
By Dr Amanda Bauer
Giving a presentation is your opportunity to share your passion about a topic with an audience and empower them to wonder "why?" about the same questions that fascinate you. When the audience walks away with a deeper understanding of something you’ve convinced them is important, they will remember you and what you gave to them.
Communicating complex science ideas does not come naturally to everyone, but is a skill that can be developed with a little practice and a few basic tips. The effort is well worth the reward the first time an audience member gasps at what you say or you see a child excitedly explaining something she learned from you to her family.
The first step, before preparing any material for a presentation, activity, or interaction with the media, is to pause and think about three simple things. Make this process a part of your routine.
- Isolate the BIG IDEA
- Tell a story
- Respect the audience
I will describe these three things in more detail and then give some practical suggestions to use during your presentations later in the article.
Isolate the BIG idea
What is the main thing you want your audience to walk away from your presentation understanding? This is a single statement. Say it to yourself out loud. “I want the audience to go home understanding how big the sun is.”
It is not true that adding more facts and sharing a large list of information during the brief time you have your audience’s attention is doing them a favour. Quite the opposite! As you add more facts and numbers to your presentation, the audience will start to forget the early items, their attention will drift, and they might even lose the Big Idea, which means you’ve wasted your time and theirs.
Identify the Big Idea and then 3 key points that you will use to convey your Big Idea to the audience. The rest of your interaction with them, whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, will be bringing the audience along the journey of understanding the Big Idea and why it matters.
Tell a story
Start your science story with a hook that will instantly grab their attention. Maybe you start by asking a provocative question that might relate to their lives. You can ask them to raise their hands if they have experienced a particular thing or ever thought about how long it takes light to travel from the Sun to Earth – at the speed of light. (Eight minutes.) You can tell a quick anecdote about a person who experienced your Big Idea and how it made them feel or how it applied to their life. Try to share the human side.
Telling the story of your Big Idea will need to be presented differently for different audiences. It's not appropriate to recycle the exact same talk or activity for everyone. You should adjust presentations and activities to make them relevant to the group you are trying to reach. Have a conversation with them.
Respect the audience
This is where you consider your audience. Remember that your presentation is not about you, it’s about your audience and what you are bringing to them. Giving a presentation is your opportunity to share your fascination about a topic, leaving an audience feeling empowered by the deeper understanding of something you’ve convinced them is important.
Be mindful of the language you use: avoid jargon, get to the point, skip the details. Jargon consists of technical terms that help experts talk to each other efficiently, but is not used in everyday conversation. To a colleague you could say the sun’s diameter is 2 orders of magnitude bigger than the Earth’s. But to a general audience you would say it’s 100 times bigger. Remember, you want the audience to understand you and the words you use.
Think about what the particular audience needs to understand your story. More visuals? Interactive participation to demonstrate a concept? Talking briefly to each other about their experience? Empathise with your audience to help them get the most out of your interaction with them.
Visualise concepts and avoid using numbers
As a general theme, if you find yourself writing a lot of text on a slide in a presentation, especially numbers or equations, think again. Find or create a visual way you can present the concept instead.
For instance, you could write on a slide that the Sun’s diameter is 1,391,684 km. This number has no relevance to our every day experience and is therefore meaningless, other than the audience knows it’s big. You could simply say that 100 Earth’s fit across the face of the Sun. This is a better way of sharing the size because it makes it relevant to a scale the audience knows: the Earth.
Better yet, if you’re giving a visual presentation, you can show an image of the sun from a space telescope and then insert an image of the Earth next to it at its relative size. This visualisation is much more memorable for the audience than a large number. Always minimise the numbers you share and try to visualise the concept instead.
Also be mindful of the colour choices you use on your slides. Blue text on a white background is difficult to read. Small text is impossible from the back of the room (you should use at least a 20 point font, but usually bigger). And remember that some people in the audience will be colour blind.
All content should convey meaning
The content of your slide should be useful and informative for the slide’s main point. You should not read the text (there should never be that much text on a slide!). Practice so that when you look at your slide you can recall your main point. You can use notes in any presenter tool to give yourself clues, but you (and therefore your audience) should be able to identify the main point from the visual clues. Otherwise, rework your slide or practice more!
Practice your presentation
Even the most experienced presenters take time to rehearse what they will say before they say it in front of an audience.
- Give yourself a confident start
Memorize your opening and closing lines - they make the most impact. Really practice the introduction to give yourself a confident start and allow yourself to relax into the rhythm of the presentation. Your closing line will also make a strong impact. Practice your final summary statement and then afterwards thank the audience for their time and attention. This gives the audience the helpful cue that you are finished and welcomes them to applaud.
- The shorter the talk, the more you need to practice
Memorising every word of an hour-long talk is time consuming and not practical. When giving a 50-minute presentation, practice by going through each slide one-by-one and recalling the main point.
When giving a 10-minute talk, practice at least 5 times. When giving a 5-minute talk, practice enough times that you finish in 5 minutes every time without saying “um.”
- Ask for feedback
Practice your talk in front of friends, colleagues, or mentors and listen to the constructive criticism you receive.
- Record yourself
It is challenging and can feel embarrassing to watch yourself speak, but the practice is so useful! You might find that you need to look up at your audience more, or that you say “um” too often, or you make a clicking sound with your tongue that you didn’t realize you made. You’ll notice your posture and whether you talk too fast, or discover that you do a very strange thing with your hand while you talk! This is a tough but rewarding practice.
- Stick to time
It is disrespectful to the audience and makes you look unprepared if you go over time. The audience will become restless when you speak longer than the time allocated and they will not retain the information you rush to fit in at the end. It is important to practice your presentation so you can stay to time and leave your audience feeling inspired and respected.
- Use technology wisely
When deciding how to present to a certain group, it is not a question of “How can I use this fancy new technology?” You know your Big Idea and the three key facts you will use to tell your story. Now identify which technology will best help unfold this story. It’s finding the most appropriate tool for the job.
You can use the technology to put cues in your talk that only you can see to remind yourself to take a breath and speak more slowly or to regain your audience’s attention when you notice it inevitably drifts.
Human beings have attention spans of roughly 10 minutes, and probably less than 20% of the audience will be paying attention at any given moment. This means it will be helpful for you to remind the audience of your main points throughout your presentation or try a few other tricks.
To regain the audience’s attention, change your focus every few minutes: vary the tone of your voice, use audience participation, <pause>, use the keyboard’s "B" key to provide a blank screen and bring attention back to you (try it out, it works!).
- Speaking with young students
Young students are an active audience and they will be very eagre to share their stories with you! They want to show how something you’ve said relates to their life or how their mom read them something in a book once that kind of sort of relates to the topic. While being interactive with the students by asking them to raise their hands or vote throughout your presentation is useful, they will want to stop you during the presentation and ask questions, which often turn into long-winded stories once they’ve been given the attention.
An option is after you introduce yourself, tell the students that you know they’ll have a lot of interesting questions and stories to share with the group, and they will get a chance, but you have so much exciting material to get through that they should wait until the end of the presentation to ask questions.
Then at the end, start at one side of the room and hand a student an object (either ask the teacher for an object, or bring in something related to the topic). The student can ask ONE question, or not, and hand the object to the next student. This way every student gets a chance to share if they want, and you don’t accidentally call on the same student who keeps raising his hand while neglecting a potentially shy student unwilling speak up. Only a few students will pass the object without commenting.
This works for a classroom of up to 30 students, but will take at least 20 minutes. If you have an hour with the group, talk for 30 minutes and then begin this activity. If the group is a lot bigger, it won’t work. If the students are older than about 11 years old, they usually have the attention span to handle a 45 minute presentation with a few questions at the end.
Talking to media
Always make a list of three things you want to convey to the journalist. Practice saying them out loud before the interview. Also write down a few items that you do not want to talk about if such items exist. If the journalist asks those things you can say “I prefer not to comment on that at this time.” Or “That is not relevant to the results I’m presenting today, so I won’t comment now.” Or even “That is not my area of expertise, so I won’t comment on that.” You can suggest other scientists who are experts in the area, if you want, or you just leave it and wait for another question. Or you can start talking about one of your three main points again.
Relax and enjoy
Finally, if you’re feeling particularly nervous before a presentation or interview, stand up, stretch your arms up out to the corners of the room and look up at the ceiling. Take a few deep breaths in this powerful posture. Also, a tall stance with broad shoulders will give you more confidence as you’re speaking.
Remember – have FUN! This is your opportunity to share your passion with an audience eagre to hear about it and understand why it’s important and so exciting to you.
Amanda Bauer is a Research Astronomer and Outreach Officer at the Australian Astronomical Observatory. She was named among the Top 5 Under 40 Australian researchers and science communicators in 2015 and was a Fresh Science finalist in 2013. She has been invited to give science communication talks at Gemini, dotAstronomy 5, Harley Wood Astronomy Winter School. Follow Amanda on Twitter @astropixie
Watch Amanda describe her research and why it’s relevant in 30 seconds in this Radio National video produced as part of Top 5 Under 40.
Watch this dotAstronomy 5 talk: Communication Strategies: How Do You Organise a Party in Space? You Planet