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Werner Karl Heisenberg

Theoretical Physicist

He was a pioneering German physicist renowned for formulating the uncertainty principle and making significant contributions to the development of quantum mechanics.

How to give a memorable science talk

Have you had a lecture or a conference session that you attended ages ago that is still instilled in your mind? In 2018, a guest lecture was organized by the Environmental Club of our university. I do not remember the guest lecturer nor what he looked like but I remember his talk on climate crisis, especially when he gave us statistics of his personal carbon footprint since he landed in Sri Lanka; he detailed us on how much of carbon dioxide was emitted since his travel by flight to the Sri Lanka until his arrival at our university. He showed us how one wiser decision a day of taking the more environmentally friendly choice is able to impact climate change as a whole. I often recall his talk during a traffic jam. 

What makes a speech memorable? Is it when you’re able to identify with it? Or is it when a hilarious joke is cracked in the middle of the talk making it unforgettable? Personally, I find it really memorable when I listen to talks from which I’m able to draw  experiences from within. After all, doesn’t it make you feel heard? While scientific talks provide more insight than closure, it’s possible to curate a scientific presentation in context and delivery that will leave people recollecting. Giving a science talk doesn’t necessarily need to be towards a  target audience. How good your delivery was is based on how many people ,regardless of category, were able to digest the information relayed. If your audience found your speech valuable and worth giving time to listen to, then that would definitely be a talk to remember.

To execute it well, here are a few tips (not exhaustive) on delivering a memorable science talk

  1. Tell a story

For communication to be memorable a question should  be posed and left either answered or unanswered at the end. Typical of ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘Happily ever after’ phrases you’d find in a story book.This would leave the audience pondering and give them the opportunity to actively participate in the talk. It would also be helpful to build up suspense with your question. For instance, ’Why was it so difficult and lengthy to eradicate malaria?’. When posing the question, show your curiosity to depict how bewildered or lost you feel towards the dilemma. Avoid a plain expression that would give away the idea that you already know the answer (well, of course you do but that’s not how suspense is built). Engage with your talk just like you’d engage with the audience and be enthusiastic. This helps keep themselves on the edge of their seat, rapt with attention.

  1. Keep facts to a minimum

With misinformation constantly on the rise,one would inherently feel inclined to include every nook and cranny of their research. Sometimes I feel the need to mention each and every detail because of how important it seems. When giving a talk, time constraints exist and the aim is usually to deliver the general idea to the audience rather than all the nitty gritty details. Personally, if someone speaks about the growing incidence of a disorder, the only thing I’ll be keeping in mind is its signs and symptoms instead of the metabolism of a drug towards the disease. The more aware you are of the topic to present, the easier it will be to highlight its key points. The audience isn’t necessarily here to engrave your speech; reiterating key phrases helps them to not lose track and recall your aim.

  1. Context

 Depending on how much you know about the topic, forming analogies helps emphasize relationships and fulfills an easier understanding for the audience. I have the habit of forming analogies for fun during conversations to enhance the understanding of the point I’m trying to get across and it does have an impression on who I’m speaking with.  It reflects on how familiar you are with what you’re speaking to associate it with simpler terms. So, whenever you feel like the audience is lacking in understanding, you have enough knowledge to come up with an analogy and form coherent connections.

To keep the mood of your talk fun and lighthearted, don’t be afraid to crack jokes once or twice. After all, doesn’t everybody remember a good joke? Humor helps me recall  conversations and speeches really well. I’m sure we can all relate. This is scientifically proven too: Humor activates the brain’s reward system including happy hormones such as dopamine. Dopamine successively helps in retention of information and therefore long term memory. Though there’s nothing wrong with a bit of humor now and then, keep in mind that when giving a scientific talk, it’s important to draw the line between something being objectively and subjectively funny. Science is sensitive and when used incorrectly, your humor might seem insensitive.  Something intended to be funny and consoling can make someone feel even worse.

  1. Presentation 

Of course,your audience isn’t going to be fixated on you the whole time. Their eyes will constantly flick towards the screen you’re presenting. Keep the information slides as consistent and neat as possible and make use of minimalism : 

  • Choose a decent color palette,
  • Stick with a maximum of one or two font styles 
  • Limit use of animations and if you must, keep them simple and less distracting.
  • Avoid complete sentences and use short bulleted points instead.

When presenting, one would like to use a pointer to often locate key information on the screen to direct the audience. While it could prove to be useful, it’ll be very distracting. There is no need to conquer the whole area of technology and its fancy gizmos and gadgets. Plus, it helps keep your hands free for adequate gestures!

  1. Delivery etiquette

To convey information well, you need to make sure it isn’t going from one ear to the next. You have to actively participate in delivering your talk. Before your presentation, avoid memorizing it from word to word. Or if you simply must, make sure your delivery is executed well. Make good use of body language and facial expressions. Move your hands (perhaps not too excessively to resemble a flailing bird), raise your eyebrows and keep eye-contact; albeit not with everyone in the audience. 

The flaw with memorization is that you get hooked on uttering each and every word. You then tend to speak monotonously and your information becomes lost and less meaningful. A monotonous voice connotes no variation in a speech, making it hard to recall as there appears no ‘distinguishing factor’.  Allow yourself to vary your pitch as your talk ensues. It depicts how you feel about certain issues or the context in general helping the audience to connect as well. 

If you struggle with being expressive, practice speaking to different types of audiences like children. Don’t we all somehow dramatize things when entertaining them? The more expressive you are when talking,the less likely your  audiences’  eyes will start drooping. Again, speak as if you’re telling a story! 

  1. Knowing your audience:

Before constructing your talk, have an idea about your audience. Are they schooling, university students or the general public?  Then you can cater your talk based on the audience. If it’s the general public, limit the use of jargon terms like scientific terminology. No one is going to remember Propionibacterium freudenreichii; it’s either bacteria or fungi. Additionally, avoid being too technical and scrap the use of percentages. Substitute them for phrases like ‘more than half’ or ’almost half’. The more technical your talk becomes,the less grip you have on your audience. 

  1. Practice:

This one is pretty obvious isn’t it? Every self-help article ends with the practice tip for good reason. The number of times you practice your talk is directly proportional to your confidence. Have someone familiar in your subject material assess your speech based on whether it’s factually correct. Rehearse in front of family and friends to let them make an unbiased critique on your delivery, tone and how memorable it was. Is it something they were moved by? Did it feel like a valuable piece of information was conveyed -something to recall and bring up after a long time?

Any skill takes time to be perfected. If your first time giving a science talk was not up to your expectation, don’t be too hard on yourself. Privately ask well-versed members of the audience to provide you with feedback on how you could improve yourself for your next opportunity. Learn more about receiving feedback from our blog post on “Getting over the fear of feedback”. We wish you the very best for your talk. You’ve got this! 


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