Adventures in Famelab

Every year a large number of researchers and students around the world pour in hours of work into just three minutes. They present the science or engineering concept behind a topic often close to their hearts, to a lay audience. And let me tell you, competition is tough. Check out Vicki Burns in the 2014 regional finals.

cyprus-famelab-logo[1]I was asked to join the judging panel at the regional heats in the Midlands and I leapt at the chance. I’ve spent a long time encouraging colleagues to undertake public engagement and outreach activities as a way of highlighting their research interests and also to inform their teaching practice. As a professional science communicator, I can’t take part, but I got just as much from the process. What follows are my tips for those wanting to think like a Famelab contestant.

What are you going to talk about? You’d better know it well. If you try to bluff your way, it will be obvious so don’t make it up. Remember that content rules and the accuracy of what you say will be considered most important.

But content is also about the structure of your presentation. Think about your introduction. Does it hook the audience in, while painting a clear enough picture of what you are going to cover? It doesn’t need to be a vast landscape, you only have three minutes so get to the point. Your main topic will have a number of lines of enquiry, pieces of evidence, or aspects that need to be covered to get to where you want to go. Don’t go overboard. You’ll only have time for maybe one or two examples.

Language? Be clear in what you are saying. If you have to use long words then make sure you explain them. A word you use every day might not likely be understood by all. I know what you’re thinking and you are wrong. Explaining clearly is NOT dumbing down. You can bring a prop if it helps, as long as you can carry it onto the stage. Make sure of two things, it works every time and that it actually brings something to the presentation. It has to give added value or it’s not worth it.

Now if you are thinking this might sound a little formulaic, then you’re wrong. In order to accomplish these things you need to be yourself and be passionate using your own voice. Charisma is the third pin on which your success hangs. Whatever personality you have, there is room for you to communicate accurate science with clarity. Obviously, this has to be appropriate to your topic, so don’t be grinning and enthusiastic if you’re intending on highlighting the plight of disaster victims. Alternatively, if your topic is fun, then smile, enjoy it and make it a little light. Your audience will want to be entertained as well as learn something. In fact, the most successful talk should leave the audience desperate to hear more.

By taking this approach and applying it to three minutes, you can learn to pitch to any funding body, public audience, stakeholder or student and win them over. Let’s hope you can do the same for the judges. After narrowing down during the heats, each regional final puts through one winner and a wild card. A national panel assess the eight wild card videos and one will join the winners in the UK finals at Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The UK winner will then go to face 25 countries at the International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Excited yet?