Recently, I participated in FameLab, the world’s biggest science communication contest, organized by the British Council. It specifically targets early career researchers, challenging the participants to give a scientific talk under 3 minutes and excel in the 3 Cs - content, clarity and charisma. Since I won the Zurich regional finals, it allowed me to join a masterclass taught by experts from the UK, before taking part in the Swiss national finals (You will find the Video in the end). Although I did not win the nationals, I am extremely happy to have undergone the experience of constantly learning and honing the skill of communicating research effectively. I would, therefore, like to share some of the tenets I learnt to make talks for both live and in this pandemic age – virtual audiences.
• Simplify your content and make it jargon free
Being in the field day in and day out, we often take concepts, technical terminology and abbreviations as common knowledge. But these are not, and we need to be cognizant of this fact. A recent study showed that the use of jargons serves as a status compensation function. The Nobel Laureates I have listened to have often been the simplest and easiest to understand.
• Know your audience and pitch accordingly
Over simplification can also make the audience think you’ve judged them below their intellectual capability. Einstein said “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”. He didn’t say explain to a toddler who hasn’t learnt their spelling yet.
• Simplification doesn’t have to cost accuracy
When presenting a complex topic, analogies help initial understanding a lot. For example, comparing electricity to water flow. At the same time, as scientists, it is our job to not spread false or inaccurate information that could lead to unintended public conclusions. So, it is important to mention and concede what we don’t know for sure, but always stress the best information that we have available.
• Structuring your speech is key
Starting with a hook, and ending with a wow-able statement is important. All the other information goes in between. Nobody listening will retain every single thing uttered. So, it’s useful to make byte-sized impact lines, and repeat them as take-away messages.
• Make Pace and Pause your allies
Allow the listeners to digest the information, and this has to happen at the right pace. Choose the speed according to the language demands, content complexity, and audience ability. Pause when it has to sink in, and speed up when it is only building on what came before.
• Voice and Movement
The art of speech comes with both body language and vocal modulation. This can show the speaker’s conviction, passion, and importantly content corroboration. Non-verbal messaging is a silent orchestra. Studies have repeatedly confirmed the causal role of gestures in perception and persuasion.
• Be yourself, but bring the “Uber You”
At the end of the day, when following the above suggestions, do not try to be somebody else. That is counterproductive. Certainly be yourself, but you could be a toned up version of yourself- the Uber You. By bringing your true self, and adding your personal anecdotes, etc., you can strike empathy. Audiences don’t buy just the science; they buy the scientists.
• Balance composure and enthusiasm
When presenting, we have to make the listeners be engaged with the talk. That needs energy. But too much of it could seem nervous and also the loss of steam. It is, therefore, important to balance your enthusiasm and composure.
• Be prepared and own the stage
Be prepared with the speech. Period. Know the start thoroughly so that you can set into your rhythm, and the rest can follow seamlessly, even if only through pointers. Be it a live stage, or virtual platform, know your surroundings – familiarize yourself with the hard and software.
Adapting to Virtual Settings
For virtual and online talks, on platforms such as Zoom where we are increasingly engaging in, most of the above suggestions apply. A few additional ones could help:
• Familiarizing yourself with the software and its functions
• Have good hardware – internet, camera, microphone or speakers
• Be aware of your surroundings – your clothing, background, lighting and noise
• Reduce content to 60% of live equivalent. Zoom is tiring.
• Prepare slides with consideration – not too much text; keep the right-top free for placing speaker videos; not too long or with that many animations for those with slower connections.
These are only guiding suggestions and, according to one’s own context and preferences, the talks could be customized to meet the needs. Ultimately, communicating science needs to be enjoyable and edifying for both the presenter and the listener.