It’s NOT about you. Reminders for the academic presenting research to the public.*
So you’ve been asked to give a public talk on your research or other expertise. If you’ve ever been to one of these, be it a Science Cafe, career day, local conference, you no doubt know the myriad ways things can go awry.
Academics engaging with the public often approach their audience like they do a classroom. But at a public event you’re not there to get through a certain amount of material before an exam. Instead, you’re there to get people interested in the kinds of research you do and show them that scholarly research is important and worth funding. Your talk could convince someone that the humanities and social sciences are valuable endeavors. Or convince a kid to apply to college. Your public engagement can actually have a positive impact on someone’s life — but you have to do it right. That’s why it’s important to remember that a public talk is not about you — and you can be a great presenter if you remember the following:
- You do not need to work to establish your authority. Everyone knows you’re an expert or you wouldn’t have been asked to give the talk. Work on being friendly, relatable, and accepting of the different kinds of people who might show up. If you can’t be friendly and relatable, think hard about whether or not you’re the right person for the job. Seriously. If you’re not going to work on these skills, pass along the opportunity to someone who will.
- Do not give an academic talk. They’re boring. I’m an academic and I find them boring. They’re too long, too technical, designed for a completely different purpose, and utterly irrelevant to public outreach. Don’t even use the same notes you’d make for an expert audience. Start from scratch. It will help to begin by answering the following questions: Why am I here today? How did I become an academic in this field? How does this field or project contribute to how we understand or relate to our world? What are some major questions people in my field ask? What are some outcomes of projects like mine (this can be immediate or looking far down the line)?
- If you have to use technical language, explain it. Leave out any jargon you possibly can— don’t try to impress people at the risk of intimidating them. It’s one thing to teach everyone a fancy new word or phrase they can bust out at cocktail parties, quite another to hand out a vocabulary list. If you must use a technical term, preface it by saying things like “in [insert field] we use the word [insert jargon] to describe…” You MUST be able to finish that sentence.
- Enjoy the unstructured environment. If you’re in a bar or cafe, there will be noise and you’ll need to get over it. Cappuccino machines are loud and, inevitably, someone will order one in the middle of your talk. You might lose your audience for a moment if there’s a distraction, you have no authority to tell people to be quiet if they’re chatting, so find a way to embrace the chaos. Walk around, ask someone a question and hand them the mike for a second, laugh at the absurdity; put the focus back on you by being engaging, not authoritarian.
- Bring the excitement. Gesture, laugh, tell a good story — whatever fits your personality. Always be yourself, but at least try to be the version that seems happy you’re there and convinced that what you do is interesting and important.
- Keep it short. Again, you’re not trying to show your audience everything you know. Give them the highlights and leave room for them to ask the questions they actually care about. If you write a talk, time it. If you go over that time, cross out a block and instead say something like “I could tell you more about [insert long aside] but if anyone is interested, feel free to ask during Q&A/after the talk.” Leave them wanting more, not digging out from an avalanche of information.
- If you’re lucky enough to have Q&A, be sure to answer the question that people are asking, not the one you wish they were asking. Saying “I don’t know the answer to that” might feel like a small humiliation, but it’s an important reminder that we don’t and can’t know everything.
- If there are no questions and you’re over your time limit, invite people to talk to you afterwards or send you an e-mail. If you have extra time and no one raises a hand, take a vote on whether people would like to hear more about “that time when [a]” or “the story of [b].”
- Come prepared with at least one accessible resource the audience can follow up with — a good website, a popular book, etc. (Don’t refer them to a journal article that they might not have access to.) Depending on the age group, you can bring a handout with resources, although if you’re speaking to a younger crowd in a bar or coffeehouse, just jot down some notes and tell them to snap a pic of the titles with their phones. (I can’t tell you how much paper I’ve recycled because people snapped photos and left the handout on the table.)
- Stick around and talk to people after your presentation and Q&A. Listen to their questions and comments and think about how you can use them to hone your talk for the next time.
- Wrap it up. This means pay attention to time, be respectful of your audience, hosts, and the venue you’re in, and give everyone the gift of a clear ending. When it’s time to go, depending on the circumstances, you might say “I’m sorry that we’re out of time, but thanks so much for having me, goodnight” or “I’ve had a great time chatting with you today and welcome your e-mails, thank you.” A “goodnight folks,” “thank you” + wave, even a mic drop/”peace out” is necessary to get things done. Don’t make people sit there and wonder if it’s over. Get off the stage.
*The public is, granted, a problematic term. I’m an historian, but if a nuclear physicist is giving a talk, I have just as much expertise as the welder or mailman sitting next to me, so I won’t be helped by an academic talk. In many cases, “non-expert” may be a better phrase to describe and understand your audience.