Speaking science on my birthday
I spent last weekend in London for my birthday. Besides going to recordings of the Museum of Curiosity and the Infinite Monkey Cage (a pair of excellent BBC Radio 4 programmes), I told a story as part of the first [eta: regular] UK edition of the Story Collider. I will make sure the recording of my story makes it online if you're interested (though it's not at all about words or languages and only tangentially about science... but it will still fit on this blog on the basis that it's me, speaking).
Meanwhile, I've been thinking a lot about science demonstrations recently, and the importance of the words used during such a show. As it happens, I once made a video as part of a job application, wherein I pretended it had recently been my birthday. So I thought now would be a good time to show it to you:
Largely by coincidence, at the time of applying for the job in question I had been visiting my friend Camille (whom I had met through the British Interactive Group (BIG) - more on them below) in Grenoble. She had access to the local science centre and I had thought I might make my application video in there - how perfect would that have been?! Unfortunately, the centre was closed for works that particular weekend, so we took to her kitchen instead.
The point of the exercise was to show presentation technique, rather than an ability to write a full show, let alone video production skills! As you can hopefully tell from the video, I imagined this particular demo as part of a longer set on the various properties of air. I make reference to previous ideas, so by this point I take it for granted that the audience already knows what "carbon dioxide" is, although I would normally expect it to be a potentially jargonous term, of the particularly tricksy variety (i.e. people may think they know what it is, but may have an incomplete or imprecise idea).
As this excellent and cringetastically hilarious "how not to" report by Elin Roberts illustrates, there is a lot that can go wrong in a science demo. Getting this stuff right is hard. Even to put together a 3-minute clip, Camille & I had to put in a considerable amount of work. From the initial idea, through scripting, re-ordering, rehearsing and refining... not to mention having only basic equipment for filming, music etc - I hate to think how much time was involved (by the way, my thanks are also due to Camille's housemate Harriet for skillfully fading the music player). Of course, we both enjoy this kind of thing, so it was fun to do. I wrote up my thoughts about the differences between presenting live and on camera on my blog at the time. (See also this proper wisdom on the subject in a comment from Jonathan Sanderson.) [edit to add:] In this excellent post, Alom Shaha gives an overview of what to take into account when running demos. Although itw was written for teachers, I think a lot of the advice extends to demonstrations generally. Note that there are a huge number of issues raised, but that noneconcerns the words used during the demo! [/edit]
It's worth bearing in mind that the demo I presented is fairly run-of-the-mill for people in the industry. Despite the effort and thought that I had to put in, as a relative beginner even I know that these things get easier with time. By contrast, here's one of my all-time favourite demos (and not just because it's also about air and carbon dioxide and so on). It's Huw James' entry to the 2012 BIG event demo competition (this year's edition is in July in Glasgow). I've heard talk that this demo was a bit too innovative for the BIG crowd, which is why it didn't quite win. That being said, I've also seen the actual winner's demo, which is visually stunning, if a little "pedestrian" by comparison (I'm sure Karl won't mind me saying so). Whatever the case, here it is to enjoy:
I would hate to have to think of the preparation that went in to this (here's Huw's take on the whole adventure, well worth a read). Although on stage Huw had no lines to deliver, picking the right words for the video must have been very difficult. How do you make sure you keep the audience's attention focussed on the science, when they are so shocked by what's going on below?! And talk about being concise...
So from simple birthday party tricks through to death-defying stunts (via Radio 4 science comedy), it's important to pick the right words to get the job done.
Over to you:
- What do you think of my demo?
- Would you have offered me the job? [yes, I'm being knowingly cheeky here and no, I won't tell you whether I was successful]
- Do you present science demos? If so, how do you pick which words to say while presenting? Do you memorise a script, or improvise, or do something else I haven't thought of?
- Is a visually impressive and well-executed demo more important than the words used to illustrate it?
- Are you going to the BIG event? Will you enter the demo competition this year?