How to effectively communicate science

Hi everyone! I am (finally!) back with a new blog post. Now I have settled into my new role as Postdoc a bit more, I will hopefully be getting back into the blogging again.

In this post I wanted to talk a bit about what helps to make a successful science talk. This is going to be focused on talks specifically for non-scientists, which is a very different audience, and which some of you may not have had much experience of.

Over the last few years I have given a few talks to the ‘general public’, as well as writing articles focused more towards non-scientists (check out my latest article with the JIC). Most recently, I talked about my research as part of Pint of Science in Norwich. For those of you who don’t know what pint of science is- it is a global science festival where over the course of three days, scientists talk to the public about their work in local pubs, bars and cafes.

Me giving my talk at pint of science Norwich

As you can probably tell, this is a very different environment to present your work in (compared to research seminars, and conferences) so I thought it could be useful to share some of the things I have learnt about making a successful science talk for a non-science audience.

Keep it simple- and remember your audience. I can not iterate this enough- you as a scientist will know a lot, and when talking constantly to other scientists you forget that what you know isn’t commonly known, or what you think of as simple isn’t simple! Strip it right back- think about: what are the basics of your research? what are the key concepts? and then think about how you can talk about this simply, how would you explain it to your for example, grandma?

What is the story you want to tell? In scientific talks you probably won’t think of a start, beginning and end- but this is really good to have in talks to more general audiences. It gives the talk a flow, some background and relevance. It also helps you determine what things should be put in a talk, and what should be left out. Think: How, What, When, Why- if you cover these points you should be onto a winner.

Background is key. Think about how you would talk to your friends and family about your research. Would you just launch into your data? No! Spend some time going over the basics which makes up the foundations of your research. For example I gave a talk about starch- so I started with where starch is found, what starch was and how starch is made by photosynthesis.

Don’t show all the data. Again, think about the story, and your target audience and tailor what you want to show accordingly. Sometimes, no data is the best way…. In my last talk I didn’t actually talk about any data, instead I talked more generally about the uses of starch in industry, importance in the diet and then tied that in to a few key things we are looking at in the lab. If you do show data, make your data simple- only show the data points which help your talk, think about cropping down figures or tables to focus in on those key points. When talking about complex enzymatic pathways show the enzymes in a more illustrative way, i.e draw as a train network, or plumbing line- something more easily conceptualised.

Less is more. Keep the slides simple. I like to use slides with very, very few words, or even no words (see some example slides of mine below). You know how you zone out of someone’s talk to read all the information on slides in seminars?!- you don’t want that happening for you! Have images and data on the slides that act as reminders for you about what to talk about and illustrate the point you want to make, but keep it to the minimum. If you want to show something like a complex pathway, think about covering up parts of the pathway initially, and only showing them when needed- this helps to draw the audiences attention when needed.

Don’t over-practice. Run through the slides, make sure they make sense and are in a coherent order, and check your timings- but don’t keep practising and practising and reading a ‘script’. It flows a lot better if you are more free to say what you want as you go- and stops you panicking if you use the wrong word or something. And, when you practice always practice out loud! This is how you will give your talk, and so will give a better reflection of timings ect. Also whilst practicing out loud it will quickly become obvious when you need to re-jig the order, or put in a extra image.

Make it relevant. This may not always be a easy thing to do based on your area of research, but I find if you talk about how your research could be used/ relates to something your audience regularly interacts with, it really helps.

Interact with the audience. Again this may not be easy depending on your research, but its a nice to engage with your audience if you can. For example, a few years ago I did a talk about medicinal plants, and so put a few images of plants on the screen and asked the audience if they knew what medicine they made. Its simple, but super fun and effective.

Hope this has been informative and helpful! These are just a few of my own tips which work for my style of presenting, but hopefully they give you a useful starting point when thinking about making a presentation for a non-science audience. What are your tips and tricks? Or maybe you have been a audience member at this type event- what do you wish more science speakers did? Please do comment 🙂

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