Yesterday I was privileged to be invited to help judge the Postgraduate Research Forum Speakers at a 3-minute thesis pitch event at the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (UNSW BEES). What a fantastic event! During this jam-packed morning, I got to hear about the amazing and highly varied research that is being conducted at UNSW BEES and to listen to post-graduate speakers articulate their findings to a general audience. From investigations in morbidity found in Tailor populations through to discussions on ancient bacterial fossils found in West Australian sediments, the competition centered around the heart of science communication!
Joining me as fellow judges was the producer of the Sydney Science Festival and Science in Public's Frankie Lee as well as Catherine Polzc, Program Producer from the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. On watching all of the presentations, a few trends became apparent when it came to what made a compelling scientific presentation...
Engage your audience early
Open strong! The best presentations instantly grabbed the theatre's attention. It's all about stating the purpose of your study in plain language and using a vibrant image or question to make the audience want to know more. In some cases, break out of tradition and bring along a prop (love your work Hayden Shilling, the fish grabbed people's attention!). Do whatever it takes to make people sit up and take notice.
It's all about emotion
Make a connection with your audience, as early as possible and sustain it! Why are you studying this topic? What makes it so important? How is this research relevant to the audience? The best presentations made this connection, using simple language that stayed true to the science but also made it highly accessible to a general audience. They also made their research relatable, using analogies to everyday life or shared common experiences to explain abstract concepts.
Above all, many were authentic. If you're a little bit quirky... go with it! If you want to get a laugh... do so! If you're passionate about what you're researching... show it! What you want is to be memorable. Your aim is not to be beige.
One of the most powerful speeches ever recorded was by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, where a speech he had made many times was delivered with such passion and emotion that the world has forever remembered his legacy.
Keep slides simple and few
This is very much the case of 'less is more'. If your presentation is only for a few minutes, it is far better to have only a couple of slides with a single image or photo that you talk to rather than a whole bunch of slides filled with text. By having less information on your slide the audience can concentrate on you as a presenter, rather than you as a narrator of text. No matter what, keep in mind that there are very, very few people who are ever remembered for their slides.
How to use graphs effectively
It's so tempting to cram as much data and figures as possible into a PowerPoint slide, however doing so can actually detract from your overall presentation. Think about your audience's point of view; they may only have three minutes to understand your concept and as such, they have to digest the tables, figures and graphs whilst also listening to your presentation. If you need to include graphs or equations, explain what each component of the graph or equation actually represents, otherwise, you are just hoping that your audience has the background to understand the information presented. A laser pointer here can be handy, but again keep your language simple and directed towards the overall scope of the presentation topic.
Engage the audience with the past, present and future
As your presentation progresses, your audience should feel that they have a strong grasp of what you are presenting and why you are presenting it. Critically, they should get a strong feel for where the world was sitting before your research began, where you are now after your research and finally where are there other avenues for further research.
In the last 30 seconds of your presentation, summarise the overall project and ram home the message that you're conveying. Why is this research so critical? How does this research impact the audience and why should the audience care? Where have we been and where are we heading next? You want to leave your audience with a lasting understanding and impression of your research and more importantly, a thirst to want to know where it's going next.
When it comes down to it, a three-minute presentation on your research is really a pitch. No different to entrepreneurial shows such as Shark Tank or Dragons Den. The presentations at the UNSW BEES session were awesome and I highly commend the efforts that all the presenters put in. Congratulations to Claire Brandenburger for taking out the competition! Find out more about Claire's research on "To what extent is evolution in introduced plant species generating unique biological entities? A study using two Australian weeds."
UNSW's Claire Brandenburger presenting at the Australian Museum Science Festival
Let's face it, science communication from a stage is yet another skill that takes practice and as such the more you do it, the better you get. The good news is that as you get better at presenting in front of an audience, your opportunities will grow as you will find that you will attract interested parties toward your research, which could mean potentially funding!
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