Communicating science

Don’t fake it: five steps to beat imposter syndrome in science communication

SketchplanationsImage: Sketchplanations

Does this image ring any bells?

If so, welcome to the club. You, too, may be experiencing imposter syndrome, a key barrier to effective science communication.

And, if so, you’re in very good company.


On 1 October 1861 – two years after he published On the Origin of Species, and by now world-famous – Charles Darwin wrote in a letter to his friend, Charles Lyell:   Charles-robert-darwin-62911_1280



But I am very poorly today + very stupid + hate everybody + everything. One lives only to make blunders. — I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am | Ever yours | C. Darwin.



Darwin displays three qualities that are regularly associated with imposter syndrome.   

  • A feeling of never being competent or knowledgeable enough
  • Consistent critical self-talk
  • An excessive focus on failures and mistakes

But his letter lacks one element essential to imposterism, which didn’t appear until 1978.

In that year, two psychologists – Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes – published a paper entitled The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women. The 150-plus women they studied all reported symptoms similar to Darwin’s, with one crucial addition.

They said that they felt like frauds. Untitled

According to Clance and Imes, they were particularly prone to “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and lived in perpetual fear that “some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.”


Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes

image via

By 1982, a journalist in Vogue was referring to “the ‘impostor’ syndrome” – a phrase Clance and Imes disliked and never used. In 2011, Valerie Young published her bestseller, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women; since then, the topic has generated over 3,500 papers and a heap of self-help books.

(Incidentally, ‘impostor’ and ‘imposter’ seem to be more or less interchangeable spellings. If you’re interested, check out this article. I shall continue to favour ‘imposter’ in this post, except when I quote other writers.)

Whatever it is – phenomenon or syndrome – imposterism seems to be widespread. One much-repeated statistic, apparently originating in a 2007 article by John Gravois, suggests that 70% of us – men and women – experience imposter syndrome at some point. I took the Clance Test while researching this post. I scored 61 out of 100, indicating that I ‘frequently have Impostor feelings’. Which seems reasonable.


According to Sandeep Ravindram, imposterism “seems especially common in competitive and creative fields, and those where evaluations are subjective. […] The feeling of being a fraud is also common in fast-changing fields such as technology or medicine.”

What about academia? As May Merino points out in a revealing post for The Oxford Scientist, measures of success in the post-grad, post-doc arena are much more nuanced than in undergraduate education, where grades and test scores offer seemingly clearer metrics of achievement. “The shift to being surrounded by scientists at the top of their game can be a challenging one,” Merino continues, and can “even evoke feelings of not deserving a seat at their table.”

Imposterism also thrives on feelings of isolation. After all, as Merino says, “every researcher’s path is unique.” The problems you face on that path – failed experiments, ambiguous survey results – “will not,” she says, “exactly mirror those that others face.” When things go wrong, you may feel trapped, ashamed as much by the sense of failure as by the prospect of giving it all up.

Stressed scientistimage by jcomp on Freepik

All of these feelings might be amplified in a competitive, ‘publish or perish’ culture, dominated by grant applications, citation scores and high impact factors. Heaven forbid that your peers might engage in back-biting or bullying to promote their own research…

In a recent article, Kate Munley writes: "the prevalence of imposter syndrome may be grossly underestimated in academia, particularly because mental health is considered a social stigma in higher education."

Now put science communication into the mix.

Is it possible that, in a research-intensive environment, showing an interest in public understanding of science might mark you out as a not-entirely serious researcher? That getting involved in science outreach or science engagement makes you feel somehow unworthy to be a scientist?

Well: I’ll assume that you’re willing to counter such negative thoughts. After all, you’re planning to make a presentation. Good for you. So: what to do?


Let’s focus, just for now, on the presentation itself.

  1. Observe your feelings.

Whatever they are, those feelings are not you. They’ve appeared from somewhere else and have chosen to visit. Bid them welcome.

It’s not so easy to view these thoughts objectively if you’re nervous. So take a few moments to breathe deeply – 7-11 breathing is a great technique here – and then let these feelings in through the door.

Write a few calling cards for them: one card for each feeling. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Who do you think you are?” “They'll find you out." (Use the word ‘you’ – not ‘I’.) There they are, sitting on the desk in front of you. Don’t tear them up. Take a look. Say ‘hi’. And be kind to them.

Flat 750x 075 f-pad 750x1000 f8f8f8image via Redbubble

  1. Ask yourself what you can learn.

These feelings are a sign that you’re challenging yourself to do something new. You’re stretching yourself, taking a risk, stepping outside your comfort zone. And that’s good. Who wants to do the same thing day in, day out, for the rest of their life?

Nerves are a sign that you care. That you want to do a good job in this presentation.

So, what can you learn from the experience? How can you use it to become a better speaker, to explain your ideas more clearly, to construct more effective arguments?

Set some clear goals for yourself. And then think about what you can do to achieve them.

  1. Focus on your audience.

Next, set some goals for the presentation itself.

I’ll guess that your focus so far has been almost entirely on your material. You’ve spent hours on the slides. You’ve tried your utmost to cover every base, every angle. You feel that you need to include everything. You don’t want to be found out, right?


Now change your focus. Think about your audience. Think about how you want to influence them. How do you want them to leave your presentation?

  • What do you want them to think (or know, or have an opinion about)?
  • What do you want them to feel?
  • And what do you want them to do?

All three goals matter. But the dynamic between them will shift, depending on your audience.

  • At a conference, you might want your audience to know a lot but not necessarily do anything.
  • If you’re presenting to policy-makers or government officials, you might want them to take specific actions.
  • If you’re talking to young people at a science festival, influencing their feelings might come to the fore.

Now you need to decide how to achieve these goals. So:

  1. Find the narrative.

Your goals for the presentation describe where you want your audience to be at the end of the presentation.

Now think about where they are at the start.

What do they already know and feel? If you’re not sure, then make a reasonable guess: what are they likely to be thinking about and feeling in relation to this topic?

Your presentation needs to take them on a journey from where they are to where you want them to be. That journey is the narrative of the presentation.

There are lots of ways of creating this narrative. You might want to tell a story. But stories are only one kind of narrative. Two narrative structures that I find consistently helpful are the And, But, Therefore structure, and something called Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.

(Image Source)

By this point, you’ll probably realise that you need to reorganise your material. Go ahead.

  1. Practise and get detailed feedback.

Rehearse. In real time. With a real audience, if you can possibly do so.

Choose someone whose opinion your trust: preferably not a close colleague or someone who’s familiar with your research. Ask for specific, detailed feedback. What did they understand? Where did they get lost? How are you coming across?

Use this feedback to identify your strengths as a presenter. Build on those skills. Don’t worry about eliminating your faults. They’re probably not faults, anyway.


It is possible that impostor syndrome is not actually a Thing. Or rather, it could be as much the result of external factors as of mental activity. Increasingly, researchers are looking for the roots of this experience in social structures, systemic inequalities and what historian Christy Pichichero has called discriminatory gaslighting. All of which deserves another blog post.

Meanwhile, one final thought. It’s not mine; it comes from Professor Jessica Collett.

“Impostorism,” she writes, “is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.”

So, if you do feel assailed by imposter syndrome, it’s probably because you are extremely knowledgeable and competent. If you were a real imposter, you wouldn’t feel like one.

If you want to read more about preparing a great science presentation, check out these three posts on my blog.

So what? The conundrum of science communication

Whats your message? Finding-the-foundation-of-a-great-science-presentation

Presenting science: finding the structure

Storytelling for Scientists: the ebook accompanying my webinar

In 2019, 3M invited me to present Storytelling for Scientists, a live webinar. So far, it's had almost 5000 hits.

51 minutes in, I mention an ebook that I wrote to accompany the webinar. As far as I know, it was never published by 3M. Here it is!

Download Storytelling for scientists ebook v5




Keeping the light on: communicating science in 2020

The seven 2020

I've been working with the British Science Association for over six years. The 2020 British Science Festival, of course, has been cancelled, but the directors of the festival have nonetheless made seven Award Lectures, as they do every year. Hopefully, they will deliver their lectures next year.

I've interviewed all seven, and you can read the posts on the BSA blog. Scroll down and enjoy insights into cutting-edge science with brilliant early-career researchers.

Dr Meera Joshi is the 2020 Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture winner for Engineering, Technology and Industry.

Mortality rates from sepsis can be as high as 25%. Spotting the signs early is critical to improving a patient’s chances of survival. Meera Joshi is working on a project to provide vulnerable patients with wearable sensors – and the results so far have been dramatic.

Read Beating sepsis with wearable sensors – the future

Dr Xinyuan Wang is the 2020 Daphne Oram Award Lecture winner for Digital Innovation.

Xinyuan lived for fifteen months in a factory town in China, learning how young people are using social media to craft new identities for themselves. More recently, she has just finished field work in Shanghai, exploring how older people are embracing digital in surprising ways. What can her work tell us about the way the online and offline worlds are interacting in our lives?

Read Life online: the new authentic?

Dr Richard Tyser is the 2020 Charles Darwin Award Lecture winner for Agriculture, Biological and Medical Sciences. 

Richard is investigating how embryonic heartbeats begin. What he’s found is extraordinary, and could have enormous implications for the treatment of heart disease.

Read Finding the first heartbeat

Dr Carolyn McNabb is the 2020 Margaret Mead Award Lecture winner for Social Sciences.

How important is friendship and how can it change the way our brains behave? Drawing on her work using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the relationships between friendship, stress and the brain, Carolyn is exploring the ways social networking might help develop healthy adolescent brains. 

Read The relationship between friendship

Dr Chris Pak is the 2020 Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture for Science and the Arts.

Chris is fascinated by terraforming. He thinks that science fiction is a kind of laboratory for thought experiments that might help us rethink our strategies about climate change, the environment and a whole lot more. 

Read Terraforming in the science fiction tradition

Dr Daniella Rabaiotti is the 2020 Charles Lyell Award Lecture winner for environmental sciences.

Working out of ZSL – London Zoo – Dani is using sophisticated tracking technology and big data to quantify the effects of climate change on one of Africa’s most endangered species. It’s tough work and it’s got to be done if African wild dogs have a chance of surviving.  

Read How big data is tracking the impact of climate change on the African wild dog

Dr Euan Allen is the 2020 Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture winner for physical sciences and mathematics.

Working at the Quantum Engineering Technology Labs at the University of Bristol, Euan works in silicon photonics – and is investigating how to apply it to the construction of quantum computers. This emergent technology could offer unprecedented computing power. But how easy is it to develop, and who will reap the benefits?  

Read Constructing quantum computers

And here are some of my posts from the 2019 British Science Festival.

The Light of Understanding: the 2019 Presidential Address by Dr Alice Roberts

Pocket blood tests by Stuart Higgins

Interview with Stuart Higgins

The dark heart of the ocean by Diva Amon

Interview with Diva Amon

21st century nanomaterials by Jess Boland

Interview with Jess Boland

When children became evil by Laura Tisdall

Interview with Laura Tisdall

Unwell in unrest by Mohammed Jawad

Interview with Mohammed Jawad

Are we alone in the universe? By Sarah Rugheimer

Interview with Sarah Rugheimer

And you can also check out posts from previous years on this page of my blog.

At the cutting edge: the British Science Festival Award Lectures, 2019

Mid-September, and it’s time again for the British Science Festival.

For the last five years, I’ve been working with the winners of this year’s Award Lectures, the festival’s flagship events. In July, we met in London to share and develop our ideas; now, as summer gives way to the stimulating nip of autumn, I’m at the University of Warwick to see cutting-edge science celebrated and witness some of the best science communication around.

The Award Lectures have been presented by the British Science Association (the BSA) since 1990. The awards recognise and promote pivotal research being carried out in the UK by early-career scientists. Notable past Award Lecture winners include Professor Brian Cox (2006), Maggie Aderin-Pocock (2008) and Richard Wiseman (2002).  The awards cover the full spectrum of scientific endeavour; the names of the awards themselves honour eminent scientists in each field.

I’ve already interviewed each lecturer. (Click through on each name to find more.) This week, I’ll be blogging about the lectures themselves on the BSA blog, exploring not just the sheer excitement of the science but also the lessons the lectures offer about best-practice science communication.

Take a look at what’s covered at this year’s festival – and then book your tickets.

Tuesday 10 September, 1100

Are we alone in the universe?

Sarah Rugheimer 2Dr Sarah Rugheimer of the University of Oxford, is the Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture winner for Physical Sciences and Mathematics. Dr Rugheimer is an astrophysicist and the 2018 Caroline Herschel Prize winner for Promising Female Junior Astronomer in the UK. She uses ultraviolet radiation to seek out signs of life on exoplanets. Her work may help us answer the ultimate question: “Are we alone in the universe?”


Book tickets


Wednesday 11  September, 1100

Unwell in unrest

Mohammed JawadDr Mohammed Jawad, of Imperial College London, is the Charles Darwin Award Lecture winner for Agriculture, Biological and Medical Sciences. Dr Jawad uses big data to probe the long-term and often hidden effects of war and conflict on public health. Just about half the world’s population is affected in some way by war; yet,beyond the obvious violence, surprisingly little is known about how conflict damages us. Dr Jawad’s work could have profound implications for the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and advocacy.

Book tickets


Wednesday 11 September, 1300

When children became evil

Laura TisdallDr Laura Tisdall, of Queen Mary University of London, is the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture winner for Science and the Arts. Dr Tisdall’s lecture delves into the curious phenomenon of evil children – although Laura prefers to call them ‘extraordinary’ – in post-war horror films and popular culture. These fictional children seem to reflect society’s anxieties about childhood, child-rearing and – intriguingly – educational policy during the period. And those anxieties may still colour our attitudes to childhood today.

Book tickets


Thursday 12 September, 1100

Smaller, smarter, better

Jess BolandDr Jessica Boland, of the University of Manchester, is the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture winner for Engineering, Technology and Industry. Dr Boland studies nanomaterials, which have properties at the sub-microscopic level (think one billionth of a metre – if you can). These materials is managing to probe the very odd ways in which these materials behave, in pursuit of new technologies that could transform food production, medicine, pollution control and wireless communication.


Book tickets


Friday 13 September, 1100

The dark heart of the ocean

Diva AmonDr Diva Amon, of the Natural History Museum, London, is the Charles Lyell Award Lecture winner for Environmental Sciences. We know less about the deep ocean than about the surface of Mars. Dr Amon wants to put this right, not least because this extraordinary environment is increasingly vulnerable to destruction by deep-sea mining. By discovering and examining new species, Diva is paving the way to a better understanding of this remarkable landscape and ultimately, its management.

Book tickets


Friday 13 September 1300

Pocket blood tests

Stuart HigginsDr Stuart Higgins, of Imperial College London, is the Daphne Oram Award Lecture winner for Digital Innovation. Many complex medical conditions demand complex diagnostic tests. Dr Higgins is using bioelectronics materials to create innovative technology that might perform several diagnostic tests simultaneously – opening up the possibility of self-diagnosis via an app on your smartphone. One size fits all? Stuart will look at the potential and the possible risks of this exciting idea.

Book tickets


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.


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



I've been blogging for the British Science Association for about three years. Here is a selection of my posts. Please browse.


The AI Revolution: Jim Al-Khalili’s Presidential Address 2018

Don't take my word for it: Dame Uta Frith's Presidential Address 2017

What are universities for? Dame Nancy Rothwell's Presidential Address 2016

In the driving seat: what’s the risk with epilepsy?

Resilient reefs BSAblog

A future divided?

The weight of expectation

Shedding light on baby brain injury

Hunting for a Huntington’s treatment

Getting in the neural groove

From kings to keyholes

Will you be my friend?

The acoustics of nature

Can astronomy save Earth’s species?

OCD: living with a monster

Can music change our immune system?

Reaching for the stars with George Abbey

The calculus of contagion

I work with the Award Lecturers at the British Science Festival each year, helping them hone their presentations and develop their skills. If you're interested in working on similar scicomm presentations or projects, I'd love to hear from you.

Then again, you might be interested in hiring me to write a blog post. I'd love to.

Email me:

[email protected]

Cochlea of the inner ear, Dr David Furness Wellcome Images, 2011


Presenting science: finding the structure

Road[image: Harish Krishna on Flikr]

In the previous two posts of this series, I’ve outlined some of the challenges facing scientists presenting to a non-specialist audience, and the need for a clear message. Once you've clarified your message, you need to find the structure that will work best for it.

The thoughts in this final post arise from my work with the seven Award Lecturers at this year’s British Science Festival (2018, at the University of Hull).They were consistently inspiring.

When I’m working with scientists on scicomm presentations, creating the structure is usually the most exciting part of the job. Every presentation takes its own shape, and our task is to discover that structure together.

So making rules about structure is pretty well impossible. But I think we can lay down three broad principles.

First, the presentation structures that succeed are always dynamic. They move in some way from beginning to end. That movement might be a straight line; it may be a tortuous meander; it may be a journey that suddenly changes direction.

Wineglass_model_for_IMRaD_structure.Now, you could present your research as a journey. Simply adapt the structure of a research paper:

  • Introduction (what was the problem?)
  • Methodology (what did you do?)
  • Results (What did you find?)
  • Discussion (what did you think about it?)
  • Conclusion (what have you proved?)

This is the classic IMRAD structure. And it might work for the audience in a scientific conference. That’s to say: it’s likely to make them feel comfortable and safe and maybe a bit sleepy…

But IMRAD is unlikely to work with a non-specialist audience. The problem is that the place where your research starts is unlikely to be a place that non-specialists would recognise or understand.

You have to start somewhere the audience finds familiar.

And then you have to entertain them.

Deep down, every audience wants a performance. Think of a simple tune, or a joke, or a magic trick. (Good science demos, of course, are very like magic tricks.) They all arouse expectations, and then fulfil them. Many scientific presentations are static: they’re all fulfilment.  (‘Make your point, then give the evidence.’). Your structure has to set up an expectation - and then fulfil it. For many researchers, this realisation is often an 'aha!' moment.

The structure you're looking for, then, is dynamic. It must move. It's not the structure of a paper; it's the structure of a performance.

All gripping performances contain moments of suspense and surprise. Create a mystery.  The more intriguing, the better. (Think of all those science documentaries in which, about halfway through, the narrator’s voice deepens and we hear the words: “And at that point they discovered something utterly astounding.”) It doesn’t have to be a burning controversy.  A life cycle with intriguing gaps; an ancient manufacturing process that remains a mystery to this very day; a mismatch between theory and findings; all of these can give you the hook that will capture your audience’s attention.  

Or think of a story. Every story follows a similar structure.

  • Situation: which everyone in the audience recognises.
  • Problem: which complicates the situation and makes in interesting, adding tension.
  • Question: how is the crisis going to be resolved?
  • Response: “…and they all lived happily ever after/… and the beast was slain/ … and the hero discovered something new about himself/herself/the world.”

FreytagpyramidThere are plenty of models around to help you develop a narrative. Take a look at the the Freytag Triangle, ‘SPQR’; and Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. The trick is to ask what would work for your audience: what stories work for them? Look for the points of arousal in your narrative: the moments of mystery, choice, uncertainty, conflict. (“Why did that happen? Why did that fail? How can we fix this?”)

Arrange your structure around these turning points.  (I sometimes call them ‘hinges’.)

Second, narrative isn’t everything.  Scicomm practitioners and consultants can become obsessed with storytelling. But other kinds of discourse can perform. Some kinds of explanation, for example, are inherently dynamic. Think of contrast (the difference between then and now, here and there, us and them). Cause and effect, too, can be gripping, especially if the effect is surprising. (Science demos, again...) A process, by contrast, might be dynamic but it probably lacks suspense or surprise (and a process that involves conflict probably isn’t a very effective process). Lists of examples and carefully organised categories tend to be utterly boring. (Especially on slides.)

Argument, of course, is packed with drama. Make a striking or controversial claim, and your audience will be gripped.

Third, let your intuition help you.  Caroline Goyder suggests factoring in dream time.  Create a loose framework, she says, “as soon as the invitation to present 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.

Discovering the structure that makes a science presentation fizz is one of the most exciting parts of my job. We never know what that structure will be when we start exploring. But we always know it when we find it.

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.

'So what?': the conundrum of scicomm


[image with thanks to]

This is the first of three posts. Links to the other two are at the end.

This week, I’m at the British Science Festival in Hull, which offers hundreds of exciting events creating a conversation between science – and scientists – and everyone else. It’s a great place to observe the challenges facing science communication, and the thrill when good scicomm successfully engages its audience.

Jim AlKThis year’s festival is likely to be dominated by artificial intelligence – not least because the British Science Association’s new president, Jim Al-Khalili, will be devoting his Presidential Address to that topic.

It’s hard to keep up with the advances in AI: only three months ago, IBM unveiled Project Debater, a system capable of debating with humans on complex topics in real time. Project Debater seems to bring AI squarely into the rhetorical arena, perhaps for the first time. Does Project Debater automate persuasion?

The history of AI begins with attempts to replicate logical thinking: Simon and Newell developed Logical Theorist, widely considered the first AI program, in the mid 1950s. Classical AI, based in part on the work of Alan Turing, later developed algorithms using heuristics to make reasonable choices in pursuit of a goal. Classical AI now helps systems in logistics, in manufacturing and construction to plan and execute processes in highly controlled environments.

Machine learning – arguably the next stage in the AI story – creates systems that hunt for patterns in data. Neural networks take AI still further, mimicking to some extent the neurological structures of the brain. Systems like IBM’s Watson and AlphaGo (developed by Deep Mind) seem to be able to go beyond regurgitating knowledge and running logical deductions: they give a very good impression of discovering new strategies for solving problems and even generating new ideas.

But even these most advanced forms of AI lack the ability to think conceptually. As Professor Al-Khalili demonstrated in a recent TV documentary, we can train a program to recognise a dog, but it doesn’t know what a dog is.

So, at the heart of AI sits a conundrum. It’s known as Moravec’s paradox. AI is becoming ever more effective at the kind of complicated rational thinking that humans find hard, but it can't yet replicate the kind of perceptual and conceptual thinking that toddlers find effortless: recognizing a face, moving around in space, and catching a ball; paying attention to what’s interesting, setting goals, and planning a course of action.

Moravec famously explains the paradox in evolutionary terms:


Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. […] We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it

There’s a further paradox here. Those older, unconscious cognitive skills include the most sophisticated thinking skill of all: the ability to generate meaning. The question that AI has yet to learn to answer is: “So what?”

Scicomm faces the same paradoxical challenge. Scientists – inheritors of a rational method barely 2000 years old, which Moravec calls "the thinnest veneer of human thought" – need to be able to communicate with human brains that are highly evolved meaning-making systems. They need to engage the emotions, values, aesthetic judgements and social skills that shape our perception of reality. They need to tell us, not just what they know or how they’ve come to know it, but what it means.

In short, they need a rhetorical method to complement the scientific method.

In the next two posts, I’ll be exploring two key elements of that method: finding a message and discovering a structure for your presentation.

The best lack all conviction

Mark Thompson: Enough Said Thompson

The Bodley Head, 2016

ISBN 978-1847923127


The simple answer to the question Mark Thompson asks himself  – “What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?” – is that it has split in two. 

On one side, “the weirdly affectless and dehumanized style in which many public policy documents are written.” 

On the other, “honesty of emotion and at least the appearance of being willing to engage with the lowliest members of [a] chosen community.”  Thompson labels these two rhetorics rationalism and authenticism. 

“Something has gone awry with our politics,” he says; but it’s a mark of his intellectual sophistication that he resists simplistic explanations.  Instead, he places public language “in the centre of a causal nexus”: “our institutions and organizations,” he writes, “are living bodies of public language, and when the rhetoric changes, so do they.”  He quotes George Orwell (whose Politics and the English Language he submits to a nuanced analysis): “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

The dichotomy between gutless rationalism and the “punctiliously immoderate language” of authenticist politics is hardly a new phenomenon. As I read this book, I kept hearing Yeats's words from 1919: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst  / Are full of passionate intensity.”

In our own day, rationalism is evidenced in the impenetrable policy wonkery of government departments and NGOs, which Thompson traces to the gradual breakdown of technocratic consensual politics in the post-war period.  As data has become ever bigger, it has become harder to explain or justify policy decisions clearly.  (Deciding on a third runway, for example, is far more difficult than deciding to build Heathrow in the first place.)  Decision-making must involve compromise, but compromise hardly figures in political campaigning, which has by now become more or less a continuous process.  “The zone of ambiguity and flexibility,” writes Thompson “– that zone where almost all political progress takes place – has become rhetorically insupportable.” Instead, rationalism fetishises dialectic (and evidence), while the authenticist foregrounds narrative.  The rationalist venerates facts and evidence; the authenticist dismisses both as 'factoids', preferring greater, fuzzier, 'truthier' truths.

From a longer perspective, Thompson seeks the roots of both rhetorics in the Enlightenment. 

Rationalism derives from the empiricism of Hume and the positivism of Comte, and authenticism from the counter-Enlightenment writings of Johann Georg Hamann, through Hegel and Kierkegaard to Nietzsche and Heideigger (in whose work it connects explicitly to nationalism). 

Authenticism fuels the contemporary distrust of the political class.  Nietzsche, along with Marx and Freud, figures large in what Thompson calls “the school of suspicion”: all three “detected a layer of falsity and deception in human utterance that must be stripped away before the truth can be revealed.”  The meme of ‘false consciousness’ proliferated in the (very authenticist) counterculture of the 1960s and has now gone mainstream.  The presumption of bad faith in every politician (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”) also colours the investigative and analytical journalism that forms such a major part of Thompson’s own career (DG of the BBC, CEO of Channel 4, CEO of the New York Times). 

His analysis of these two competing rhetorics thus spirals, like a widening gyre, to encompass the media, celebrity advocacy and all the other components of an increasingly complex public space.

At every turn, his deep understanding of rhetorical principles – from Aristotle onwards – is leavened by vivid stories drawn from his experience.  He discusses Thatcher and Reagan, Berlusconi and Putin, Clinton and Trump.  He describes the parabolic adventure of spin from Campbell to Cameron.  All the big stories are here – the notorious Belgrano phone-in on Nationwide, Jo Moore’s “a very good day” email after 9/11, the David Kelly tragedy – and, in substantial chapters that repay repeated study, Thompson explores how a failing public language affects the discussion of three contentious issues: the presentation of scientific research, the decision to go to war, and the boundaries of free speech. 

How, then, to address the crisis? Thompson calls up our capacity for prudence – what the Greeks called phronesis – to help us “perform a sense-check on anything that sounds too good to be true.”  One way to develop prudence, he suggests, is to put public language “at the heart of the teaching of civics.”  It’s a tall order: “the humanities as a whole,” he writes, “stand at low tide, judged less economically valuable … than the sciences.”  But if the most important question confronting any society is how we are to live with each other, then becoming skilled in public language must be a first step in addressing it.  Thompson’s words should raise a cheer among all right-thinking liberals: “Let’s teach our children rhetoric.”

And where can we professional rhetoricians seek improvement, at the verbal end?   “The seeds of renewal,” writes Thompson, “germinate in unexpected places:” in the language of the immigrant, the refugee and the marginalized; in satire; and – intriguingly – in hip hop.  And he sees a promising new bud within political discourse itself.  “Though it is often spoken by the weak and dispossessed,” he writes, “there is something unstoppable about the language of fairness.”

Mark Thompson’s remarkable – and remarkably readable – book bulges with useful information and ideas.  For anyone who contributes to public language, Enough Said is essential reading.

Arouse, Withhold, Fulfil


Houston, We Have a Narrative:

Why Science Needs Story

Randy Olson

University of Chicago Press


978 0 226 27084 5

$20; £14.00


Scientists urgently need to use narrative well, and Randy Olson has developed a set of tools to help them.  But the tools can easily become empty formulae, so Olson offers a strategy to help scientists develop an enhanced understanding of narrative: what he calls ‘narrative intuition’.

OlsonThat summary of Olson’s new book a model he calls ‘ABT’: and, but, therefore.  Olson borrowed it from Trey Parker, one of the writers on South Park. Hollywood, claims Olson, is the place to go for such models. 

(He gives short shrift to humanities departments, who are so busy ideologising that they wouldn't know a narrative if it...  Olson is not polite about humanities academics.)

Olson has developed this material in the years since publishing Don’t Be Such a ScientistThat book offered five key principles of good science communication (I discuss them here); this one develops practical, useable techniques.

Why does science need narrative so badly?  Partly, says Olson, because scientists tend to communicate by offering “piles of facts”.  Partly because science is signally failing to engage a non-scientific audience.  (He is especially good on the conundrum of communicating climate change.)  And partly because a lack of narrative awareness is damaging science itself.  Journals are increasingly publishing research that’s ‘significant’ rather than sound: according to scientists Olson has spoken to, many papers in Science and Nature are overstated in their conclusions.  “Most of the claimed statistically significant effects in traditional medical research,” claims John Ioannidis of Stanford, “are false positives or substantially exaggerated.”  (Olson noticeably avoids discussing the role of Big Pharma in all this.)


The other reason scientists need to understand narrative is that they’re so hostile to it.  This storyphobia, Olson suggests, is the result of a profound misunderstanding of the terms narrative, story and storytelling.  He quotes Yarden Katz, in a paper called Against Storytelling of Scientific Results: “Great storytellers embellish and conceal information to evoke a response in their audience.”

Not so, says Olson: Katz and other scientists are confusing content with form.  True, stories can deceive, fabricate and exaggerate; but they can also be “accurate, honest, true and reliable”.  Storytelling itself is as value free as E=mc2.  

“The bottom line,” asserts Olson, “is that I fail to see anyone taking [a] critical approach to these terms.”  

So, in this book, he sets out to do just that.

He defines a story as “a series of events that happen along the way in the search for a solution to a problem.”  Given this definition, Olson can link narrative to both explanation and argumentation.  He claims, for example, that the IMRAD structure of experimental papers – Introduction (I), Methods, Results And Discussion – “is the structure of a story, which has a beginning (I), middle (M & R), and end (D).” 

Sleight of hand?  IMRAD is surely an explanatory structure, designed to help other scientists replicate an experiment.  My own experience of working with scientists suggests that they tend to offer, not "piles of facts", but over-elaborate explanations.  Our task as science communicators is surely not just to find the core narrative, but to help scientists explain better.

THeySayOlson goes further.  He compares ABT to the argumentation structure offered by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in their book They Say, I Say (present what your opponents say, then what you have to say, before reconciling the two).  The two structures are the same! What’s more, they share that structure with the Hegelian Triad (thesis, antithesis, synthesis).  Narrative encompasses, not just explanation, but argument as well.

Little wonder that Olson can claim, “in science, narrative is everywhere.”

Heady stuff.  And perhaps he’s on to something.  Maybe the rhetoric of explanation and argumentation really is founded, at some deep, intuitive level, on narrative.  Maybe narrative itself instances an even deeper, musical structure of statement, tension and Marcus-OCT-2013release: a structure that finds expression in IV-V-I chord progressions, in sonata form and the twelve-bar blues.

(Marcus Webb spoke illuminatingly on this theme at a recent conference.) 

It’s a pattern humans can’t resist: arouse, withhold, fulfil.  Maybe, if we can tap into that deeper structure, we can make our explanations and arguments more compelling.  And maybe this is useful, not just for scientists, but for anyone who wants to engage audiences in important issues.

To help us on our quest, Olson offers three tools, on three levels: word, sentence, paragraph.

ABT is the shaping tool at the sentence level.  And, but, therefore sits at the heart of his method because it embodies the narrative structure in a single, tripartite statement - and, probably, because Olson has found it the most practically useful of his techniques.  The model  bears a striking resemblance to Barbara Minto’s ‘situation, complication, question, response’ structure (which I use, substituting ‘problem’ for ‘complication’ to create SPQR as a Roman-themed mnemonic).  It also closely resembles the Freytag Triangle, although Olson doesn’t say so.




ABT, says Olson, can rescue scientists from the structures they so often use: AAA (And, And, And) and DHY (Despite, However, Yet).   ABT informs the elevator pitch.   ABT, in short, “is the age-old structure of logic that works best for the masses.”

At the word level, Olson offers us the Dobzhansky Template.  Named after a notable Russian geneticist, this template helps us in our initial efforts to “find the narrative on a given topic”.  Which sounds very like Aristotle's "discovering the best available means of persuasion;" this template brings us close to invention, one of the five canons of classical rhetoric. 

The template goes like this:

Nothing in ___________ makes sense except in the light of __________ .

Fill in the blanks.

Quote-nothing-in-biology-makes-sense-except-in-the-light-of-evolution-theodosius-dobzhansky-53-1-0183(Picture source: AZ Quotes)

The Dobzhansky Template gives your presentation a single focus.  It helps you stay on message when talking to the media.  It even helps you write grant proposals.

But this isn't quite invention proper.  The template focuses on a subject, rather than a topic.  The practical question for the science communicator is: how does subject [b] make sense of subject [a]?  Invention would suggest topics to answer that question: patterns of explanation, like comparision, cause and effect, categorisation...  patterns which simplify complexity.  None of this is quite narrative; but then, I've noticed that some patterns of explanation compel attention more than others - perhaps because they arouse, withhold and fulfil in a kind of narrative way. 

I'll try the Dobzhansky Template.  And I'll let you know how I get on.

At the paragraph level, Olson offers us the Hero’s Journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell and made famous by George Lucas.  Olson, wisely, tells us to treat this one with care.

Heros-JourneyAll three  of these tools can become empty formulae, but none more so than the Hero’s Journey.  Check out the hundreds of books on movie writing that rely on it, and the resulting proliferation of identikit movies, “as if,” to quote Peter Suderman, “a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.”  (An ironically apposite image, linking Hollywood to science in just the way Olson doesn’t want.)   Scientists can go to Hollywood for technical help with narrative, but they must resist “bending the science to tell a better story.”

(Olson recommends a good TED talk by Matthew Winkler on the Hero's Journey.  Find it here.)

Olson’s wisdom consists in precisely this: understanding that we should use his models perceptually rather than mechanically.  They help us see the structures inherent in our material, but we should resist imposing them unthinkingly.  The Hero’s Journey – that most seductive model of all – works best as an analytical tool, not a creative one.  “If you get to know it well,” he writes, “you’ll end up spotting the elements, by themselves, in real world situations.”

And, when you do start to spot those elements, you’ll develop narrative intuition: “the ability not just to know the basic rules of narrative but to have absorbed and assimilated them so thoroughly you can actually sense them.”

Narrative intuition helps you decide how much narrative to include; it helps you find the specifics that bring a narrative to life; and it helps you develop what Olson calls relatability: of character (“You’re just like me!”) and narrative (“That’s just what I did!”). 

But – and here Olson displays his wisdom once more – narrative intuition doesn’t come quickly

CampbellThis book, like all Olson’s work, will benefit presenters of all kinds – not just scientists.  He mentions Nicholas Kristof, for instance, who dares to suggest that NGOs should embrace the dark arts of marketing to get inside people's brains.  And John Yorke, whose book Into the Woods delves into the fractal nature of stories.  And Karlyn Campbell, who writes in her book, The Rhetorical Act:

"Truths cannot walk on their own legs.  they must be carried by people to other people.  they must be explained, defended and spread through language, argument and appeal."

"This is a source of irritation for many scientists," claims Olson, "but it's the real world."  Hear, hear.

And there's more: hints and tips, examples and case studies, drawn from his own practical experience as a trainer, from real scientific papers and elsewhere. You’ll find yourself scurrying off to all the other books he’s read, and the TED talks he’s watched (and given).  

Olson is on to something.  I think he understands that narrative has some irreducible core of mystery; it can't ever quite succumb to rational analysis.  When it works, something magical happens.  That magic is what we rhetoricians are hunting for.  Olson's book will help us.  I for one will be using his ideas in my own quest, not least in my work with scientists.

I help scientists develop their communication skills, including - well, yes - their narrative intuition.  Find out about my work with the British Science Association here.  Contact me if you'd like to discuss training or coaching in science communication.