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A Six-Pack of Tips and Tricks on Science Communication

I'm attending a science communication summer school in Brussels this week, called Let's talk Science! Today, during the plenary session on science and the media, I gave my first ever Pecha Kucha in which I shared my personal top six of tips and tricks on how to effectively communicate science to non-experts. (In case you're wondering at this point: "What the hell is a Pecha Kucha? ", a Pecha Kucha (Japanese for chit-chat ) is a relatively new presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each, good for six minutes and 40 seconds of fast-paced presenting.) You can have a look at my slides here, and reread the text of my Pecha Kucha below.

A pretty remarkable thing happened in the city of London at the beginning of the 19th century. Albemarle street, less than a mile from Piccadilly Circus, became the very first one way street in the metropolis. The decision was taken after Humphry Davy had started a lecture series at the Royal Institution, which became so hugely popular that Albemarle street got blocked by enormous queues of horse drawn carriages, filled with aristocrats and rich intellectuals who wanted to go and see the great Humphry Davy talk.

A view of Albermarle Street and the Royal Institution at the beginning of the 19th century, when Humphry Davy was giving talks and demonstrations on his latest chemical discoveries.

A view of Albermarle Street and the Royal Institution at the beginning of the 19th century, when Humphry Davy was giving talks and demonstrations on his latest chemical discoveries.

Humphry Davy was one of the greatest chemists of all time. He became a true pioneer in the field of pneumatic chemistry, where he used to test the effect of gases on people. Laughing gas, for example, turned out to relax the muscles, which made people laugh and giggle (and, as you can see below, also tended to relax the lower muscles). Davy also discovered numerous new chemical elements (among which the famously reactive alkali metals) and he became the inventor of the miner's lamp.

Humphry Davy testing the effects of laughing gas on the rich aristocrats of London at the Royal Institution.

Humphry Davy testing the effects of laughing gas on the rich aristocrats of London at the Royal Institution.

But above all, Humphry Davy was a gifted and inspiring speaker, a charismatic personality, and (it has to be said) a pretty good-looking and handsome guy. In that sense, Davy became the very first science communicator, the first popularizer of the latest cutting-edge science, by giving amazing talks and demonstrations at the Royal Institution.

Davy's lectures were the talk of the town; science was just the coolest thing around. All girls in London fell in love with Humphry Davy, and they treated him like a movie star. (And no, I'm only slightly over stating the point. There's this funny anecdote that when Davy fell ill, his female fans were so worried the nurses were forced to set up a blackboard outside Davy's house carrying medical reports, temperature charts and an up-to-date account of his health.)

Humphry Davy (1778–1829)

Humphry Davy (1778–1829)

Unfortunately times have changed. Today, most people feel sorry for me when I tell them I studied science. They would rather go to a soccer match or a rock festival, than to attend a scientific talk. And that's why I think we should go back to being scientists like Humphry Davy, who had the courage to leave his ivory tower, and to go into the streets to share his passion for science.

About a month ago, I took part in the Benelux finals of FameLab, which has become one of the largest science communication competitions in the world. The aim was very simple: we were given exactly three minutes to explain a scientific concept to the general public. Being on stage and trying, in my case, to explain how we can teleport people around thanks to quantum mechanics, was a really big challenge, but it also was an amazing learning experience.

So without further ado, here are my personal top six of tips and tricks on how to effectively communicate science to the general public.

 

Tip 1: Enjoy yourself!

I’m sure you’ve all been to scientific conferences where professors were trying to bore you to death, by being as dull and incomprehensible as possible. The problem is that the audience always tends to mimic the speaker. It really works like a mirror: if you are smiling and laughing, the audience will smile as well, whether or not they got your nerdy joke. If you only sound revolutionary enough about that crazy experiment you performed in the lab, you will electrify the audience, and they will hang at your lips.

The audience will always mimic the speaker. If you smile, they will smile!

The audience will always mimic the speaker. If you smile, they will smile!

 

Tip 2: Distill your message

Distill your message until you're left with the bare essence. Don't say too much, but rather stick to the one essential message that you want to get across. As scientists, we desperately try to be as accurate and complete as possible, because that is how we are trained. But next time you're on stage, remember the overflowing beer glass. The audience is really happy to learn something new about science, but their brains have only limited capacity to take up new information. So if you keep on pouring more and more information, their brains will overflow, and you will confuse the audience, and fail to make the impact you were hoping to make.

Distillation

 

Tip 3: Learn to be bilingual

Leave the academic talk for conferences and scientific journals, and focus instead on the cocktail party talk whenever you are communicating science to non-experts. Just imagine that you're talking to your mother. Avoid all technical language, and try instead to use metaphors and analogies as conceptual bridges to make abstract ideas more concrete and easy to understand. Try also to visualize as much as possible by using pictures that speak for themselves. After all, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Bilingual

 

Tip 4: Tell an engaging story!

We all like good stories, with an element of love or intrigue, with the tension building up to a climax and unexpected plot; stories that sparkle our imagination. So don't present your research as something completely impersonal and sterile, stripped from all its emotion, but give it a human face, by telling the audience about your personal struggles in the lab, or by sharing some funny anecdotes. As a fellow FameLabber once said: "Imagine holding the hands of your audience as you walk them through your story."

Story

 

Tip 5: Play tennis with the media

My next tip concerns interviews you might have one day with the media. Although it can be very nice to just have a cosy chit-chat with the journalist, you should always go to an interview knowing exactly which message you want to get across. The way to do it, I recently learned from Malcolm Love, is by playing tennis with the journalist. The journalist is going to throw a whole number of questions at you from different directions, and in order not to let the journalist rule the entire game, you should catch those questions and answer them in such a way that you can redirect the conversation in the direction you want to go into.

Tennis

 

Tip 6: Talk your talk!

Finally, I've learned that the most efficient way of preparing a talk is to talk your talk. Most of you probably start by making a PowerPoint or writing down a text. Next time, try to resist it, and start by telling your story to your cat or your mother, as it will make your talk much more natural and nicely flowing.

The most efficient way of preparing a talk is to talk your talk.

The most efficient way of preparing a talk is to talk your talk.

To conclude, remember (in the words of Claire Martin) that "science communication is like sex: at first, you don't know what you are doing, and it can be pretty terrible for both parties. But, as you do it more and more, you get better and better at it." Be the voice of science and go share its magic!

 

Pieter Thyssen

Whereas his left brain was trained as a theoretical scientist, his right brain prefers the piano. At work, Pieter builds time machines (on paper) and loves to dabble in the history and philosophy of science. He often gets stuck in another dimension, contemplating time travel and parallel universes, or thinking about ways to save Schrödinger's cat (maybe). He explores the world on foot, and takes life one cup of (Arabica) coffee at a time. Follow him on Twitter @PieterThyssen or at thelifeofpsi.com. You can reach Pieter via email at pieterthyssen@gmail.com.

  6 comments for “A Six-Pack of Tips and Tricks on Science Communication

  1. s.
    July 3, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Talk your talk to your cat...or to your girlfriend :)

  2. Padraic
    July 3, 2014 at 10:14 pm

    Very nice Pieter

  3. Roalndo
    August 6, 2014 at 2:07 am

    Thanks, good job Pieter!! and very useful

  4. August 12, 2014 at 9:41 am

    A nice overview of what scientific communication is about and some tips. I think the main thing in communicating science is that it is not about you the speaker, but about your audience. You should think like the audience when creating your presentation, text, ... . What would they like to hear. What would captivate their attention, ... . How do I become a rockstar of science :).

    • August 14, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you for this Martijn!

      You're absolutely right. Adapting to your audience is key. After all, one should always ask oneself: "what do I want the audience to do as a result of my speaking/writing?" And since audiences vary enormously (both in size and background), it's crucial to know your audience.

      For instance, a scientific audience will likely want more detail, and is used to technical jargon, whereas a non-scientific audience typically prefers the bigger picture, and requires a simpler vocabulary.

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