You can accomplish a lot in mere minutes if you are well organized, have clarity of thought and prepare extensively to produce and confidently deliver a compelling story.
— by Dan Csontos & Nellie Linander
The 2018 finals for the Forskar Grand Prix are taking place on Nov 27. Organized by Vetenskap & Allmänhet, this event is Sweden’s most prestigious science slam, pitting talented scientists against each other to capture the imagination of lay audiences with their science in mere minutes.
What can you possibly say in a few minutes? A whole lot if you prepare extensively! Here we would like to share the advice we offered at a recent speed-presentation workshop we gave to LUCCI1: we hope this would help would-be participants at the Forskar Grand Prix (and other budding science communicators) to make the most of their valuable minutes.
So, what makes for a compelling speed-presentation? In short, an engaging story and delivery. To quickly tease out some key principles from our workshop, let us pick apart a 3-minute presentation given by one of us (Nellie), who is an accomplished science slammer in her own right: among other science slam accolades, she placed third in the national final of the Forskar Grand Prix 2016, and has won other prestigious slams2.
Here, Nellie deftly employs story-telling techniques by carefully selecting and organizing information, and adapting it to her audience.
She deliberately selects key elements of stories – elements that our brains use to process information quickly:
- Character/topic (bees and their behavior)
- Story question (can tiny brains lead to complex behavior? Can they teach us anything about ourselves?)
- Motive (we can learn a lot)
- Goal (understanding the neuroscience of behavior)
- Actions (studying various behaviors of bees)
- Point (bees can indeed teach us a lot!)
She then organizes these elements clearly using essential story techniques. There are various ways in which stories can be organized and understood: at Elevate we’re fans of Freytag’s pyramid. According to this five-act structure, Nellie’s story can be understood as:
- Exposition: sets the scene, immediately grabs the attention of the audience, introduces the topic/character, the story question and the motive
- Rising action: examples of studies of bees’ behavior to build up to the climax
- Climax: despite tiny brains, bees do indeed manifest complex behavior
- Falling action: what this means to us – helps us understand cognition and develop robotics
- Resolution: key take-home message (we can learn a lot) that ties back to the very beginning of the story, closing the loop and answering the story question
But Nellie also skillfully adapts the story to the audience and creates an immediate connection (bees – they can be annoying). Then, she uses simple, accurate and informative language to convey meaningful messages that are coherently linked in a cause-and-effect chain leading logically from the story question to the story resolution. And she employs analogies (twerking the address of the supermarket) to trigger the imagination of the audience and deepen the connection.
In this way, Nellie is able to captivate the audience using story from start to finish and convey quite a bit of information despite the limited timeframe.
A well thought out story and structure are vital, but a confident delivery is equally important for connecting with the audience and getting their full attention. How do you accomplish this? First of all, “practice makes perfect”. There is no room for mistakes or improvisations on the stage. You need to know every word, and every word needs to mean something.
Second, use your body language – the very first language you learned. Babies can expertly communicate so many things without uttering a single word. As adults, many of us have supressed that language. But it is time to pick it up again. In the speed-presentation we recorded for this blog post, I deliberately use my body language to clarify and aid the understanding of such concepts as optic flow. I also add dynamism to my delivery by adding accompanying movements, for example when I describe how bumblebees solve problems, but also more subtle gestures to emphasize enumeration and provide the audience with a road map.
The third powerful delivery tool is, of course, your voice. Use it wisely. Try to strike a balance in how you pace your speech. Whereas speaking slowly is good for articulation and not running out of breath, it can easily become monotonous and be perceived as dull. To counteract this, in my presentation I used my voice in a contrasting manner by speaking faster to create a feeling of excitement and slower when making an important point.
Non-vocal pauses are also very effective since it gives the audience time to absorb information. In the presentation I work a lot with pace and rhythm, for example when I slow down in the opening and closing sentences while saying, “bees can teach us something…”. In addition to slowing down, I deliberately lean forward and use my whole body to engage with the audience.
Finally, smile and the world will smile with you. An old saying, but it really does work. Smiling activates mirror neurons, which fire both when observing and doing. Thus, if you smile, you stimulate the audience to smile as well, leaving it with a good feeling. Hopefully my smile had that effect on you!
These techniques are relevant not only for speed-presentations and science slams, but also for any type of presentation, be it at conferences or seminars and while teaching, as well as for all types of outreach and engagement.
Of course, these techniques are not all-encompassing: we provide more in our workshops and will do so in future blog posts. Meanwhile, we hope that our tips will serve as inspiration for not only the participants in the Forskar Grand Prix competition, but also the junior and senior scientists among our readers. We wish you the best as you seek to make an impact with your research by connecting with and reaching out to diverse audiences.
“Fantastic workshop! So much knowledge that was shared” - PhD student, LUCCI, Lund University
 Nellie has longstanding experience in science outreach and has won accolades for her performance in many science slams. For example, she won the national 3MT (3 minute thesis) competition and was highly commended by the judges in the international final. She won again in Almedalen (an annual, week-long political jamboree in Sweden). Nellie also won the regional Forskar Grand Prix in 2016 and finished in third place at the national finals.