nie reminds us.“So keep your talk tight, distill the essential, convey it, and build on that with detail if required, not
the other way around”.
Set the Frame
The frame is the opening and closing. At the start of your
presentation, take a moment to describe your subject in
the larger universe of science. Has an aspect of your subject been in the news? If so, include that.
As a closing, you may want to speak about the application or future of your work. There are no rules for closing
except one: don’t introduce anything new.
Resist the temptation be simplistic, even when things are
complex, but do try to simplify. Simplicity allows the audience to follow what you say and stay with you.
Simplicity is also respectful. The audience are ignorant
of your subject but rarely unintelligent, and most are
investing the time in order to gain a complete picture.“A
good strategy is to alternate simple and complex material”, Leonie says.“That gives audience members a chance
to think for themselves about the complex ideas, and stay
Use Metaphors, Similes, Personification, Gestures and
“Years of work in my lab has shown that one of our
favourite proteins binds to DNA in different ways during
the cell cycle”, Leonie explained.“After showing the data
I describe it this way: imagine it binds during interphase
with its elbow, and it digs in with its fingers during
“This fits the idea of loose and tight binding (which
we have shown with biophysical measurements) and
that the two parts of the protein (elbow and fingers) are
at opposite ends of the molecule. I always find myself
showing this visually when I say it, with my own hand
and elbow, and I see people in the audience nodding
and even thinking about more questions as they get the
idea. Everybody has hands and elbows so they can make
a kinesthetic connection.
“Some subjects lend themselves to interactivity. When
I address students or a non-scientific audience—my
favourite challenges—I try to involve the audience. When
I explain epigenetics, sometimes I ask people to form
ropes of chromatin and play parts as methyl groups. If I
am going to ask for volunteers, first I ask everyone in the
audience to stand up and shake hands with one or another of their neighbours. This breaks barriers and makes
people more likely to volunteer”.
Jump Right In, But First at the Shallow End
Of course you understand your subject. Yet standing
before an audience of students, colleagues or journalists
may produce stage jitters. Best to practice with something
relaxing, Leonie says. And that’s just what she asks her
students to do.
The first step is planning a talk on something pleasurable, something fun and entirely outside your scientific
life. Each trainee has a flip chart and aims for a two-minute
talk. How to barbecue the perfect steak, how to make a
cake, telling stories to children, the offside rule in football,
how to change a wheel, and how to train for a race have
all been among the quick-talk topics. There is only one
success factor: really liking the subject.
“At this stage everyone is nervous at first”, Leonie says,
“but that dissipates in a flash as you start speaking about
something you enjoy and enjoy knowing—and the moment you see that the audience members are attentive,
smiling, nodding maybe leaning into the talk”.
After each person has given a fun talk, participants un-bundle the elements that make it successful and discuss
applying these principles to a talk about science.
You Will be Your Best Self
Juxtaposing science and lively may seem a contradiction in terms, but it actually means relax, just as you did
when you explained how to make that perfect steak.
“Even if you are tense in the first few minutes, the
tension will melt as you explain the complex concepts
you worked so hard to communicate simply”, Leonie
reassures us.“You will find that you are lively; that you
become your best self.And for those so disposed, a bit
of acting never went amiss”.
See Leonie in action at http://vimeo.com/80875188
Bernstein, Rachel. Spontaneous Scientists. Nature. 1-2-2014.
Vol 505 pp 121 - 123. http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/
Duarte, Nancy. Resonate: Visual Stories that Transform Audi-
ences. Wiley; 1 edition (September 28, 2010). http://www.
Helen Kelly is an ALN World Contributing Editor reporting on news in biomedical science, health and management worldwide. HelenKellyLtd@aol.com