An inspirational day last week at the British Science Association, working with the winners of this year’s BSA Award Lectures. The BSA has presented these lectures since 1990; notable past winners include Professor Brian Cox (2006), Maggie Aderin-Pocock (2008) and Richard Wiseman (2002). This year’s speakers are absolutely in that league.
The lectures embody the BSA’s vision of a world where science is at the heart of society and culture. They recognise and promote the work of early-career scientists in the UK. Each one aims to engage a broad audience, without at any point diluting the seriousness or complexity of its material. Somewhere in the tension between those two imperatives is born the sense of wonder that makes a lecture zing.
Here are seven ideas that I took away from the day, and that any science presenter might find useful.
Let the material find its own shape. Every theme, every topic, every message, demands its own structure. But we can lay down three broad principles.
- First, the structures that succeed are always dynamic: they arouse expectations, and then fulfil them. Many scientific presentations are static: they’re all fulfilment. (‘Make your point, then give the evidence.’). Instead, look for the points of arousal – the moments of mystery, choice, uncertainty, conflict – and arrange your structure around these turning points. (Charles Crawford calls them ‘hinges’.)
- Second, narrative isn’t everything. Sure, standard narrative structures can help. (Cue the Freytag Triangle; ‘SPQR’; and Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.) But explanations can generate points of arousal, too (‘Why did that happen?’ ‘How does that arise?’). And if you’re bold enough to make an argumentative claim, then that will almost certainly arouse your audience.
- Third, let your intuition help you. Caroline Goyder suggests factoring in dream time. Create a loose framework “as soon as the invitation goes in the diary.” “Once you have that frame,” she says, “your unconscious will get to work and the idea will grow, even while you’re doing other things.” I’d also suggest talking your material through with a (preferably non-scientific) friend. Where do their eyes light up? What fascinates them? Those moments are potential hinges.
Create a mystery. The more intriguing, the better. It doesn’t have to be a burning controversy. A life cycle with intriguing gaps; a manufacturing process that remains a mystery to this very day; a mismatch between theory and findings; all of these can give you the narrative hook that will capture your audience’s attention. You might find the suspense you’re looking for in the gap between hypothesis and results in your own research.
Give us meaning, not just information. Your audience will appreciate simple explanatory models – either physical or mental. We’re not very good at appreciating statistics (how big is a trillion?). We are extremely good at deriving meaning from examples – even if they’re not exactly representative. Analogies and metaphors are useful. Another powerful technique is to talk about physical elements as if they’re characters in a story. “The particles get really hot and want to get as far from each other as they can.”
Involve your audience in the research. The speakers in the group were brilliant at this. They had dozens of ideas for creating mini-experiments in the hall: asking the audience to stand and asking a sequence of questions that filtered out sub-groups as respondents sat; using mobiles to conduct polls; offering a choice of experimental paths and asking the audience to choose one; asking the audience to explain surprising findings. Test out these procedures, if you can, before the big day. And give them lots of time.
Make it relevant. Of course, you may want to show the social, economic or political effects of your research. But imagination is just as relevant as utilitarian outcomes. If you can make your audience feel awe, or wonder, or intrigue, you’ve strengthened their bond to the natural world, to their fellow humans or to the scientific project. No bad thing.
One very obvious way to do that, of course, is to –
Invoke the ‘wow’ factor. Every subject will offer its own ‘wow’ opportunities. It might be a spectacular demonstration, a dramatic visual analogy or a mind-blowing statistic (“for a few moments, this is the hottest place on the entire planet.”) Potential applications for an untried or forgotten technology will often create a tingle. The point about ‘wow’ moments is that they make us see things differently. If you can shift people’s perceptions in some way, the shift in their thinking will follow.
Embrace controversy. This is the toughest one. Some issues are inherently controversial; others may provoke unanticipated emotional responses.
We had powerful conversations in our group about how public expectations of scientists can frustrate their plans to communicate their ideas. We (lay members of the public, like me) want scientists to give us definite answers; and we distrust them when they try to do so. We want scientists to solve moral and ethical issues for us, and then criticise them if they dare to do so.
The best thing you can do is show that you, too, are a human being. Demonstrate the implications of your research, good and bad. Point out how far the science can go, and where morality or law must take over. Don’t be afraid to take a stand, if you believe in it and can justify it. Above all, show us why your material fascinates you. Excitement is contagious.
Here are the 2015 winners and their respective awards.
- Katherine Woolf, from University College London, is the Charles Darwin Award Lecture winner for agriculture, biological and medical sciences.
- Jill Stuart, from London School of Economics and Political Science, is the Margaret Mead Award Lecture winner for social sciences.
- Julie Wertz, from University of Glasgow, is the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture winner for science and the arts.
- Hazel Gibson, from Plymouth University, is the Charles Lyell Award Lecture winner for environmental sciences.
- Alex McLean, from University of Leeds, is the Daphne Oram Award Lecture winner for digital innovation.
- Radu Sporea, from the Advanced Technology Institute, University of Surrey is the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture winner for engineering, technology and industry, supported by Siemens.
- Ian Chapman, from the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, is the Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture winner for physical sciences and mathematics, supported by Siemens.