Talking science with the public (part 1)

I have had the pleasure of helping organize the Pint of Science NL festival over the last 2 years. The festival takes place from May 20th to 22nd this year, and we will have at least 85 scientists talking about their work across 8 cities in the Netherlands. All the information can be found via this link.

PoSAs part of a speaker’s package we put together for the festival, I wrote a few things about how people can make their presentations more engaging for the public. Explaining complex science is sometimes a difficult thing to do, so below are a few suggestions to help scientists make their public talks as good as their scientific ones!

Know your audience!

A talk for college educated professionals will be very different to one for school kids. Try to aim your talk appropriately. Most of the time these kinds of talks will be for people who are pro-science, so luckily there is rarely a need to persuade people that evolution is real or that the earth is round. However, don’t be surprised to be asked when we might finally meet aliens, or to explain telepathy.

This is not a conference talk!

There are a few simple things you can do to make your presentation better and more engaging for your audience. Remember, unlike at a scientific conference, people are not there to see all your data. The concepts and ideas that underlie what you do are fascinating, and describing them should make up most of your talk. Once you have introduced these concepts to people, you can personalise it a bit more, but it is still worth avoiding presenting a lot of data. Keep it relatively simple and easy to follow.

Pointers for making a good talk:

Everyone designs their talks differently, but here is a simple example structure that people find easy to follow:

Big picture; why people should care?

Main points (3 at most), kept simple and interesting

How your work is helping build a better future


Big picture; why people should care?

Start by showing the audience why they should care about your topic. Show them the “big picture”, so they can put your work in the context of their own lives. This helps people relate to the work.

Three main points

What do you want the audience to remember from your talk? People have short memories, so stick to 3 main points at most. Focusing on a small number of main points helps you keep the talk easy. Remember, the people attending have little or no exposure to the concepts you are describing, so think about that when you are writing your talk. (If the talk is shorter than 15 minutes, you might want to limit it to 2 main points.)

Get to the point

Scientists are used to the “Background → Results → Conclusions” structure of a seminar. That should be flipped for a public talk, with the important conclusion coming early, and then expanded.

How your work is helping solve the problem?

Finish off by emphasising how your work will change things. You want the audience to have a basic understanding of the problem and your solution, but also to have some of the enthusiasm for science that led you to dedicate your life to it! Paint them an optimistic future, and show them how your work is helping us move towards it. This is a balancing act however, as we really want to avoid is over-selling the work. We all hate the “Scientists cure cancer!” headlines that we see in the newspaper, so try to make sure you provide enough realism into your talk!

Other practical tips:

  1.     You should aim for one slide every 2-3 minutes of presentation at most. This is one of the big differences between a public talk and a scientific one. Talk to the audience; if you have too many slides you will end up talking to the screen.
  2.     Use plain language, and try to avoid jargon. Again, remember that the audience don’t know anything about your field. Avoid technical terms or acronyms as much as possible unless you have enough time to properly explain them.
  3.      Use visuals. A good image, video, or even live experiment can make it far easier for an audience to follow a complex topic. Be careful with figures from scientific publications, these are often too complex for a general audience. Making your own “cartoon” illustration helps to simplify and keep visuals consistent throughout your presentation.
  4.     Metaphors are also a very useful tool for explaining complex ideas. Just try to be consistent and don’t fall into the trap of mixing metaphors!
  5.     Convey your enthusiasm. You work on a fascinating topic! The aim of the game is to show the audience how interesting STEM is!
  6.      Take your time. As an expert it is easy to get carried away and fly through an basic talk like this. Take it slowly, and remember that people won’t be able to keep up if you are going too quickly.
  7.     Speak up, even if you are using a microphone. This sounds obvious, but during a talk there may be a lot of ambient noise, so make sure those people in the back can hear you.
  8.     Have fun! Everybody has different ideas when it comes to speaking to the public, so what I have detailed here are just tips to help you out. As you practice you will come to know what works for you and what doesn’t. Science is incredible, and that is what we are trying to convey to people! Enjoy it!

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series (Part 2 can be found here), and was written as advice for speakers at the Dutch Pint of Science festival. The 2019 edition of this international event takes place in from May 20 – 22, across 8 cities in the Netherlands. The festival hosts events in 24 countries. More details about your local festival can be found here.


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