'So what?': the conundrum of scicomm
Presenting science: finding the structure

What's your message?: finding the foundation of a great science presentation


This is the second of three posts.

What makes for a zingy science presentation?

In my previous post, I highlighted the need for scicomm practitioners to answer the ‘so what?’ question. How can we produce a science presentation that’s truly meaningful for a non-specialist audience?

The sessions that I’ve seen in the last two days all delivered simple messages. It was the clarity of those messages that made them satisfying and enjoyable. We took them away with us. They were truly take-home messages.

The message depends more on your audience than it does on your subject matter. Every ordinary presentation talks about something. Every extraordinary presentation talks to its audience.

So how do you find a good message?

It's a matter of pulling focus. Start broad and narrow your thinking down.

Invention diagram

Start with your subject. What are you talking about?

Ok. Now put that question behind you. You're not going to talk about anything. You're going to find interesting and meaningful things to say to your audience.

Now ask: who's my audience? Think about their likely demographics. Think about their general beliefs and attitudes, especially about the subject you’re tackling. (Vaccination? Climate change? Masculinity? There will be attitudes, beliefs and prejudices swirling around…) Think, too, about how they might think about you. And think about the hidden audience: on social media, in the press, or around the festival or event where you’re speaking.

You’ll be able to use all of this information in the presentation itself. For example, you can use it to help you identify – or seem to identify – with the audience. You could use information about the audience itself in the presentation. And you could use questions or statements generated by the audience themselves at some point. But all this is for later. Let’s come back to the message.

So: now identify your objective. How do you want to influence the audience? The simple answer is almost certainly that you will want to either explain or persuade. You can do both, but not at the same time! Try to decide which of these two is your overall objective.

And now, identify your topic. This is your position on the subject, where you stand in relation to it in the presentation. (The word comes from the Greek word topos, meaning ‘place’.) A quick short cut to a topic is to write down a phrase beginning with the word ‘how’ or the word ‘why’. One session today had the topic: “why our approach to obesity is wrong”. Another had the topic: “how we can strengthen our immune system’s ability to remember pathogens”.  A third was: “how brain training might help people living with Huntington’s disease”.

Now put the topic and the objective together. (They should of course make sense already in relation to each other.) Find the sentence that expresses your message, and delivers your objective, as simply as it can. In the cases I’ve mentioned, we can simply remove the initial words.

Our approach to obesity is wrong. [Persuading]

We can strengthen the immune system’s memory. [Explaining]

Brain training may be able to help people living with Huntington’s disease. [Explaining]

Your message is the foundation on which all the rest of the presentation will be built. And if you’re wondering where to put the message – At the beginning? In the middle? At the end? – then you’re ready to move on to the next stage of constructing a meaningful and entertaining science presentation: you’re thinking about structure.

And we’ll deal with that in the next post.


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