Speaking science on my birthday

27 June 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

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.

La Casemate science centre in Grenoble

La Casemate science centre in Grenoble. Photo: CCSTI Grenoble via Flickr

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).

Science is vital demostrators with placards

Not that kind of science demo. Photo: Peter Arkell via A World To Win

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?

12 Responses to “Speaking science on my birthday”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    I look forward to watching the recording of your story! Although, that can't have been the first UK edition of Story Collider. I was at the first one in September (or October, can't remember)!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      The recording was only audio I'm afraid, though I think there are a few pictures available too - I'll see what I can put together.

      As for previous Story Colliders in the UK, it seems there was one in November: http://storycollider.org/shows/2012-11-11. Odd that it wasn't mentioned before.

      • Marianne Reply | Permalink

        I will send pictures when I get around to the next photodump from my camera.

  2. Jamie Gallagher Reply | Permalink

    Hi Alex,
    Great post as ever. Very important topic! Word choice is so important especially in a short clip. Having been through the famelab and the 3 min thesis mill I am well award that every single word must be spot on to paint a picture.

    I believe it was Timandra Harkness who pointed out some of the subtly of presenting to me. For example saying "as we all know...." may leave a few of your audience feeling a little left out or worse- stupid if they didn't know. Simply rephrasing this as "as some of you might be aware..." makes it far better. The second is a more inclusive phrase and not likely to subtly undermine your audience. Clever stuff.

    On this note in your demo I would be reluctant to refer to your previous video you say "do you remember earlier" but I didn't.

    Another interesting point is to notice your two distinct phases. It takes you 36 seconds to hit your comfort zone. You become noticeable more relaxed and the speech becomes more comfortable and flowing, before this you sound like you are talking in a slightly artificial way. In particular you sound like you are talking to a child- beware of talking down to them as an adult watching that clip I fear the first 30s may have put them off.

    Once you get cracking everything is much better!

    I'd restructure some of the words, but I imagine phrases like "its not just pressure you can do with CO2" just came out a little unusual under the glare of the camera.

    Goodness I'm a harsh critic am I not. You know I love you and think you are wonderful therefore it is all fine.

    On your how I pick words, I find that pretty easy as I only get a handle on a topic when I can picture it, visualise it in a clear and simple way. I'm a simple guy. I just explain the little picture that I have in my head.

    I am a massive fan of words over demos. My latest show aimed at family audience had basically no demos but lots of interaction with the audience which was great fun for me. That said combine a beautiful demo with an elegant explanation and you create a compelling work of art! Get the words wrong, sacrifice them on "the alter of demo" and I will mercilessly destroy you.

    Shame you won't be at BIG neither will I'll be at the dinner and demo comp if nothing else!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Jamie - always good to get feedback from someone more experienced!

      I made a conscious decision to refer to a previous demo - as I tried to explain in the post, this video is somewhat out of context here. In the emai accompanying the job application, I made it clear that this clip was not meant as a stand-alone piece.

      I also cringe when I hear the phrase "its not just pressure you can do" - that was slightly lazy improvisation on my part. Perhaps something along the lines of "pressure is just one of the things about air that you can see using CO2" would have been better.

      As for feeling like I was talking to kids... good! That was who I was aiming for. Unfortuantely, as you point out, that leaked into how I spoke to start off with. that was extreme nerves and perhaps over-concentration at trying to get the introduction right. I had also been trying to speak slowly, because before I had been blitzing through (a common problem in public speaking). Naturally, in previous takes this had been where i had struggled the most - once I got to the actual "doing stuff" part of the video, it all got a lot more natural and ran relatively smoothly." You hit the nail on the head by spotting the 0:36 mark though!

      I hope to catch one of your shows someday!

  3. Eloise Reply | Permalink

    It's been a while since I've done open science demos, but I do teach and science practical demos. Different skill set to some extent because I know my target audience better than you.

    But planning for them, I make sure I have my ducks in a row in terms of the points I want/need to make and how they build from one to the next. Once I'm sure I've got that sorted and the order right, I think about how to link them together.

    For me, that's the most important bits - the key points I need to make, and how I move from one to the next in the right order. The other bits I will look at and consider how to present but I will largely leave them to how I see the class responding in the moment.

    I used to write a script, but I would find students would ask questions (often very pertinent ones highlighting bad assumptions of mine about their understanding of other concepts) and I'd struggle to pick the script up again. Having a more limited set of key points and links to run through, it's easier to divert when needed and get back on track, at least for me.

    One thing I address that perhaps you don't have to is any unusual vocabulary. I pull out new and unusual words into a list. Depending on the class I might do any of several things with it - add it to a class wiki, write it on a white board before the class, email it to some or all of the students before or after the class or make a handout of it with definitions are the commonest ones. It's often good for all the students but it's often a good way to help those with dyslexia without pointing it out to the whole class.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment - the classroom is indeed an environment with its own specific requirements.

      It's an interesting point about having a skeleton plan rather than a rigorous script to stick to. I guess in a show-type demo you don't typically have room for spontaneous questions along the way, so that aspect of improvisation is perhaps less needed.

  4. Naomi Foster Reply | Permalink

    I posted this to BIG Chat, but thought I'd put it here too:

    In answer to your questions:

    1. What do you think of my demo?
    2. Would you have offered me the job?
    3. 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?
    4. Are you going to the BIG event? Will you enter the demo competition this

    1. Your choice of demo is great. It's something simple that someone could do for
    themselves in their own kitchen. I like the way you've laid out the table with
    the wide tray of coloured candles. I've often see in done in beakers, but being
    able to view it from the top is nice. And the colour contrast is important.
    You've clearly thought about this.
    In terms of delivery, I like that you've used a personal story (true or
    otherwise), but it does come across a little forced. Not surprising when you're
    being filmed for an interview, but I feel like you need to relax a bit more and
    make it sound a bit more...genuine. Currently I don't feel like I believe it.
    Also, if it was me, I would wait to allow them to see what happens rather than
    telling them precisely what they will see, both before they see it and as it
    happens. I think an audience would engage better with `let's see what happens
    when I tip the jug over the candles' than `this is going to put the candle out,
    and oh yes, look, it did.' You could be discovering it along with the audience.
    Also, sit still! You're rocking around and it's distracting. I think I'm
    particularly sensitive to it because I know I'm as guilty of it as anyone is...

    2. That's not to say I wouldn't necessarily have offered you the job. Obviously
    it would depend on the other candidates! You've got potential there. You've set
    it up nicely, and you explain what's going on clearly. I do think you'd need a
    fair bit of practise and training though, so it would depend what the job was

    3. I do indeed present demos, and write shows for other people to present too.
    The words you choose are really important. It's not a `trick', because you're
    being open and honest about it and not trying to hoodwink your audience. `Have a
    look....but of course it's invisible' is something of a contradiction. And CO2
    isn't heavy, it's denser than air. If you're presenting science to members of
    the public, whether in person or on screen, they will assume you're right about
    everything. Make sure that's true! If your audience think they're being tricked
    or they know something you don't, they're not going to trust the rest of what
    you say. I've been that pedantic teenager!
    I would say I usually fall somewhere between memorising and improvisation. You
    need to be able to make use of both. I work from a script (or from a plan in my
    head of what I want to say) and often say things in the same way every time I do
    a show or demo. Sometimes the talking out loud comes first before it gets
    written down. I find talking to an empty room quite useful! Memorising is
    helpful because then you don't blank completely when the audience arrives. My
    ability to decide on the spot what I'm going to say is very limited! (This
    becomes most apparent when I go to an interview.) Trying different arrangements
    and showing it to colleagues, or filming yourself and watching it back would be
    really helpful, to find the best way before anything becomes too ingrained in
    your head. It's important to remember that your audience are hearing and seeing
    everything for the first time. When you get a live audience, sometimes you can't
    stick to a script. You need to adapt to who's sat in front of you. I don't use
    the same words when I'm talking to a class of reception children as I do when
    it's half a dozen quiet adults. So there's always an element of improvisation

    4. Yes, I will be at BIG, and thoroughly looking forward to it. I took part in
    the Best Demo competition last year (my BIG debut) but not sure if I'll be
    entering this year.

    There you go. My honest answers!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Naomi!

      As it happens, I hadn't really thought about colours much, it was serendipity - clearly Camille just has great taste in candles. One more thing for the list of demo design considerations!

      With respect to feeling forced... as I mention above, it was. Jamie pointed it out in his comment too. I've moved on a lot since

      The job question is very much meant tongue-in-cheek. Obviously no-one apart from the science centre in question is in a position to judge, and they also had access to a separate interview and their own selection criteria against which to judge me. I'm glad you think I've got potential though!

      I think I would have said "trick" in the sense of "nifty solution in a sticky situation", i.e. being at a loss of how to extinguish the candles.

      I also agree that it's important to let the demo "speak for itself", as it were - the particular story I had set up didn't really allow for a big surprise at the "reveal", though. If I were to do it again I might set it up differently.

      Enjoy BIG!


  5. Elin Roberts Reply | Permalink

    Hi Alex
    Well done on the bravery! Asking for open constructive criticism is a very courageous thing to do.
    First of all, thanks for your kind comments – I clearly hit the cringetastic nail on the head for a few people.
    On to your demo; you asked a lot of questions, which means comments get a little convoluted. Apologies for the ridiculously long note, I’m trying to keep it short, honestly.
    1- I like the demo
    2- As to whether the job would be yours, it rather depends on what the post was!
    3- I present, write shows and train presenters. I’ll make sure I know exactly the point I want the demo to make before I present and usually have an idea of the turn of phrase. More often than not, I’ll rehearse the demo even if it is only in front of a few people. I usually write a script for others to follow, but am not strict on it being presented verbatim.
    4- Let me sit on the fence: Sometimes, but not always. Visually impressive demos are great, but I love some very simple demonstrations where the wording works, or a twist on a classic demo. It doesn’t have to be visually impressive for it to be intellectually impactful
    5- Yes and yes. It has been a while since I’ve entered, but I have a new favourite demo at the moment and want to share it.

    More generally:
    As others have mentioned your tone is slightly affected to me, it doesn’t feel genuine. On the other hand, your aside of ‘frankly, I’m getting a bit old’ feels much more improvised and off the cuff (accidental or deliberate), so I’d have been tempted to riff off this. It’s a good line.
    Sometimes it’s tempting to write a script in the order you think of it, but put all the things you want to say on post it notes and shuffle them around to how the story works best. For me the end result is rarely how I first envisage it.
    It looked to me as if vinegar dripped out on at least one of the candles, but you didn’t mention it. It might be thought that you were ‘cheating’ it. A close-up would have dismissed that thought cleanly. That combined with the use of ‘trick’ made me feel a little uncomfortable – perhaps you’re trying to hide something? There are ways to avoid this:
    At Best Demo last year Rosy Hunt (now Ansell) decanted CO2 from one vessel to another to extinguish a flame. It was really clear that it was only gas that could be transferred. It was very nicely done and added a layer of verisimilitude when viewers might not have been able to see clearly.
    As for Huw’s demo at last year’s BIG event, it went down very well with the audience – totally captivating and unique. We were all on the edges of our seats. I heard a few people afterwards saying that they didn’t vote for him not because it wasn’t spectacular and engaging or well crafted, it was, more that it felt more like an athletic feat than a demonstration. The audience voted and you can’t argue with the result, even if you don’t agree.
    I hope some of that’s useful.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Hi Elin,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I keep seeing "ask for feedback" as advice about lots of things, so I thought I'd stick my neck out. The video is nearly a year old anyway and I think I've come a long way since this particular demo.

      I tend to ask a lot of questions at the end my blog posts, on the basis that some people will answer some of them and that will give me some coverage - I'm all the more appreciative when people go for all of them!

      There is a little spillage at the end of the demo, which does contribute to the last flame going out. In the case of the video for the interview, I felt that enough candles had been extinguished by the gas to make it clear what was going on. I take your point about the word "trick" though; as others have also pointed out it doesn't feel very honest.

      As far as I can remember, the comment about getting old was spontaneous. The video was meant for a family/kids audience, so I think the gag could have a double effect. It's something I picked up as a counselor in summer camps - belonging to a generation half-way between kids and parents can make for some intriguing interactions.

      Thanks for the advice about re-ordering, I'll keep that in mind! It's similar to what I sometimes do for writing blog posts, so I'll try to apply it for demos as well.

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