Communicating science: a selection of blog posts from the British Science Association
Six patterns of explanation

How to submit a proposal for a scicomm presentation


[image via with thanks]

The British Science Association is calling for applications for sessions at the 2019 British Science Festival, to be held in September at the University of Warwick. Maybe you're interested in applying. Maybe you're applying to another sciccomm event somewhere. Maybe you're just starting out planning one. Whatever your interest, these notes will help you hone your application.

We'll go through  a series of six questions. At this stage, you need only simple answers. You’re not planning your presentation yet, only putting together the proposal. If you can be clear about this key elements, your proposal will be more convincing and attractive.


What's your goal?

A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the US suggested that science communicators typically have one or more of these five goals. I see them sitting on a spectrum with 'pure' science at one end and more or less strong social advocacy at the other.

Notice that all five goals relate to your audience - not to your subject. As we move along the spectrum, think about how - and how much - you might want to involve your audience in the presentation.

Sharing the excitement of science

Nothing wrong with that. We can all get far too hung up on relevance and social impact. Science is amazing. Celebrate it.

To increase appreciation for science as a useful way to make sense of the world

Perhaps you're assuming that, once your audience understands more about a subject, they'll be more willing to act on that knowledge. Not an unreasonable assumption, although the NAS report says that it's not yet been fully tested.

To increase understanding of the science related to a specific issue

Similar to the last goal, but in this case, you're tackling a specific issue and trying to educate your audience about the relevant facts. At this point on the spectrum, controversy raises its head - and not just from the audience's side. We're talking here about the 'deficit' model of scicomm, which assumes that “the science” of a controversial issue is settled, that the experts accept it without question and that the task of communication is simply to explain the facts to an ignorant public. Many scientists hold this as a mental model. And, as the report points out, it's false. You want to increase knowledge and understanding of GM foods by simply presenting the facts? You may face resistance.

To influence people’s opinions, behavior, and policy preferences

Moving further along the spectrum, at this point you want to do more than present the facts. You want to influence. You have scientific evidence clearly showing that certain choices or policies have more positive social consequences. You'll need to relate the facts to the audience's priorities, values and beliefs. You need to translate information into ideas, and evidence into meaning. You need to start advocating. And that means, in part, countering misinformation.

To engage with groups from within society, to acknowledge their views on the science of a specific issue, in pursuit of solutions that everyone can accept

Similar to the last goal, but now your audience is more distinctly defined. Maybe you're talking to young people about sexual health; or parents about vaccination; or faith groups about evolution. At this point on the spectrum, your presentation must definitely be part of a dialogue.

Goal wordcloud

Another way of thinking about your purpose is to ask: What do I want my audience to think, feel and do?

  • Think

What do you want the audience to know by the end? What do you want the audience to think about as they leave? How do you want them to think differently about the topic? What’s the ‘aha’ or the ‘so what’? What information or ideas do you want to reinforce – or demolish – in the audience’s mind?

  • Feel

What emotion or response do you want to evoke? What feeling do you most want to associate with your topic? Do you want people to feel hopeful? Angry? Provoked? Confident? Scared? Do you want them to feel motivated, energised or inspired? Presumably you want them to feel entertained throughout – and not baffled or bored. And presentations that deliver unmitigated doom and despair are probably not going to be very motivational.

  • Do

What specific action do you want the audience to take? Do you want them to change their lifestyle? Is there a specific “to-do” or next step? Is there something they need to change? Do they need to demand change from their political representatives, or their employers, or their families? What do you want people to go out and share with others?  The best calls to action are clear and simple.

Think feel do

[Thanks to Linhart PR for some inspiration here – and for the cool image.]

Now focus on the specific rhetorical aim of your presentation. What do you want your presentation to do? My guess is that it will do one of two things.

It will seek either to persuade or to explain.

Persuade explain

Try to pick one - and only one - of those options.

If you think you want to persuade your audience of something, then you will need to construct an argument and then support it in various ways. We can argue in two ways. You'll also need to think about how to persuade using means other than logical argument.

If you think that you want to explain something, then try to decide what type of explanation you want to use. There are six types of explanation.

You can think about all this in more detail later, when you start planning. For now, focus on the key question: persuade or explain?


Who's your audience?

Think about and define your audience as clearly as you can. The festival or organisation you’re proposing to should be able to give you a reasonably clear profile of your audience. The BSA profiles the audience for the British Science Festival as

non-specialist adults (16+) with a broad interest in science

Which is pretty broad. You may have a more specific audience in mind: parents, perhaps; teachers; children; people with a particular need; faith leaders; community leaders; other scientists.

What are likely to be your audience’s preconceptions about the subject you’re presenting? Can you pin down those preconceptions any more tightly than using anecdotal evidence or your own hunches?


What is your message?

We’re aiming here for a single-sentence take-away.What's the 'so what' here?

Imagine an audience member being asked by an outsider as they leave: “What was the key message of that session?” What would you want them to say?

Try to sum up the take-home message of your presentation in a single sentence.


What's the title?

If you are asked for a title, it should be a compressed version of that message. The title should be intriguing and attractive, but it shouldn’t be vague or baffling. Titles are hard. Don’t feel, at this stage, that you have to come up with a brilliant title. Take a look at the titles of the posts on the BSA blog. You could also consider a two-part title. For example:

'You go first': public perceptions of risk in an uncertain world

Who's in the driving seat? managing epilepsy at DVLA

Magic mushrooms: how fungi can save the world


What's your structure?

Remember, at this point you don't need a detailed plan. But you do need a rough idea of the shape of the presentation.

Think about this in two stages.

Divergent thinking first: gather loads of ideas and map them out. Tke your time over this stage, and enjoy it. You can indulge in the luxury of not having to decide on a final structure.



You might want to think about specific types of information. The application form might ask, for example, about the new areas or trends in your area of research; about whether your work is being sponsored by anyone; about any publications or other ways you have promoted your work.

But think also about some of the key elements you'd love to include: any 'wow' moments you might want to deliver, or brilliant examples; images or stories; one-liners that have worked for you in the past.

At some point, transform your divergent thinking into convergent thinking.

Civergent convergent thinking

Look for the end point of the presentation: where do you want your audience to arrive when you finish?

And the start point: where can you imagine your audience standing in relation to this subject at the beginning?

Then think about the journey. How are you going to take the audience from start point to finish point?

Now at this point, as you might imagine, storytelling comes in. But I don't want to get into detail about that - not here.

But let me leave you with just a hint.

The journey is the audience's journey.

Not yours.

Your task is to show the way and help them when the going gets a bit tough.

And at this point we shall take a pause. You’re not required to plan your presentation in detail right now. Your task is to sell it to the festival organisers. The simplest outline of your presentation’s structure is enough. And it’s likely to change as you develop the idea, anyway.


What's the blurb?

You may well be asked for a blurb as part of your application: 50 words that give an impression of the presentation and what it will be like.

This blurb will probably be used for marketing your presentation. Use all your work up to this point to create that 50-word summary. Don’t feel that you must include every element of the structure in that summary; blurbs should entice and intrigue by indicating the questions to be asked or the mystery to be solved – without including the answer or the solution.

Here are some blurbs from recent sessions at the British Science Festival, slightly adapted. They tend to follow predictable patterns.

First, a blurb that begins with a simple statement of fact.

Statistics supply vital evidence to shape public policy. Laura Bonnett has been working to influence DVLA policy on granting licences to drivers who’ve suffered seizures. In the Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, she will take us through the process.


Robots are set to play an increasingly important role in our lives. What is the future of robotics? Greg Toland from Innovate UK will show us a world that's stranger and less frightening than we might think.

Or you might start by simply stating your name and what you're doing.

Dr Emma Yhnell is looking for ways to build brain resilience in people living with Huntington’s using computer games. She explained more in the Charles Darwin Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival.

Your blurb might begin with stating a problem.

Detecting brain damage in newborns is notoriously difficult. Gemma Bale of UCL is helping to develop an innovative method for investigating brain activity – using infrared light. Her area of research that promises to give new hope to babies and their families.


Biodiversity is under threat around the planet. Claire Burke is helping to pioneer a new field to help prevent poaching and possible future extinctions – and it’s called astroecology. In the Daphne Oram Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, Claire will introduce and illustrate her work.


In today’s social and political climate, the idea of ‘fake news’ is on everybody’s mind - the idea that the lines between truth and lies are being blurred by higher powers. But how do we define a lie - or the truth? In this session, Jennifer Parrott will seek some answers.

Your blurb might challenge received wisdom.

Being fat is unhealthy, yes? Well, not quite. And it certainly isn’t an ‘epidemic’. Dr Oli Williams believes that we need to rethink our approach to weight. In the Margaret Mead Award Lecture for social sciences at this year’s British Science Festival, Oli will challenge some of our most fundamental assumptions about obesity.

If you want to go further, this post looks at messages in more detail; this one and this one explore how to structure the presentation; and this one lists seven ways in which you can bring your ideas to life.

I work with presenters at the British Science Festival each year, helping them to develop their ideas and design their presentations. If you'd like to do the same, contact me by posting a comment on this site, finding me on LinkedIn or sending me an email.



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