5 tips for public outreach

How to get (and keep) people engaged?

I believe this is one of the most important questions a speaker must constantly come back to when designing or preparing a talk: “How am I going to get my audience to keep listening to me?”. Make it your responsibility to keep people engaged. It doesn’t matter what awesome science you are telling people about: If they’re not paying full attention, it can all be for naught.

In the past few years, I have given — and seen — my fair share of outreach talks. This page summarises the most important things I’ve learnt into 5 tips that will help you, whether you are just getting started, or are trying to take your public engagement game to the next level.

If you want a fun twist on this, checkout my blog Outreach: How to do it wrong.

 
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INSPIRE

Don’t teach. Inspire.

Now, the “don’t teach” part may seem counter-intuitive at first, be hear me out. I am not saying that the public should come out of your talk having learnt nothing. I would just like to encourage you not to make the teaching aspect your main goal.

Something I have seen a lot were speakers cramming as many concepts into their talk as they could. Although it may seem at first that you might as well maximise how much information you deliver in the time you are given, you need to understand this: Delivering more does not mean that people will take away more.

Public engagement talks are not lectures. (Unless they are public lectures…)

The most important thing to communicate is not your knowledge, it’s your passion for science. If you are passionate, you will more easily capture the attention of your audience, and they will take away more from your presentation.

 
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FOCUS and SIMPLICITY

Focus on few concepts and keep it simple.

“How simple” depends on who you are talking to. Know your audience. Making sure you focus on a few ideas gives you more time to dedicate to each of them. That means that the people listening to you won’t need to ingest too many new concepts at once.

You must shy away from jargon as much as possible. Focus on giving people an intuition for the main concepts of your talk, rather than trying to teach them the lexicon. You should favour relate-able analogies and avoid stating definitions.

There is only so much information that people can ingest in a few minutes.

 
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VISUAL DESIGN

As a group, scientists have a tendency to neglect the visual aspect of presentations. Here, I am talking both about the plots as well as the style of the slides. It is a whole topic in and of itself, but I’ll keep it short.

Few words. No sentences. Your audience cannot read your slides and listen to you at the same time.

And if you are thinking: “Well the sentences on my slide are basically the same thing I’m talking about”, I would question the utility of this particular slide and encourage you to think about how you could make better use of it. You don’t have to create fancy artist impressions. Have you tried using only keywords and arrows to help people visualise processes? Is there a nice sketch you saw in a book or paper? Have you checked google for some cool images in the public domain that you could use (don’t forget to give credit)?

It boils down to this: Your slides should support your talk and explanation. Simple graphs or visual aids (which, of course, can contain keywords) are some of the best ways to do that. People process visual information much better, and too much text can be overwhelming or plain boring.

It can be appropriate to write a summary sentence or the main take home message of the slide, particularly if that message is the main focus of your talk. But generally, the fewer words, the better.

 
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TIME MANAGEMENT

It is highly likely that you will be given a time limit. Abide by it.

It is disrespectful to other speakers and the organisers to take more than your share. Besides, if your talk drags on, the audience will switch off.

You should also make sure that you have enough time to deliver your material without rushing. Again, you don’t want to overwhelm your audience and lose their attention.

Speak slowly, pause for emphasis, or to give people time to absorb an important concept. You can’t do any of this if you are feeling rushed.

Speaking of time management, it goes without saying that you should prepare your talk well in advance. This way you’ll have time to…

 
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PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE

Practice out loud, with your slides and a timer, repeatedly.

Practice speaking slowly enough, not saying “hum” too often, transitioning smoothly between slides, emphasising and repeating the most important points. You should also try to practice your body language.

Engaging people has more to do with the way you deliver the material than its content.

As you are rehearsing, you might notice some slides don’t work as well as expected, and you can tweak them ahead of time. Also, give yourself the opportunity to think about where there is room for you to expand or cut-down. This will allow you to better respond to unexpected situations: e.g. someone asking a question in the middle of talk, or if you have less time to speak than anticipated.

Don’t learn your talk by heart, but know it like the back of your hand.

And I know, listening to yourself talking alone in a room is weird at first. But I highly encourage you to push yourself to do it, I promise it’ll feel less weird over time. Being prepared is not just a courtesy to the audience, it is really going to make your life easier, especially if you feel anxious speaking in public, or are just getting started.

If you have really taken the time to master the material you will deliver, it doesn’t matter how many butterflies are swarming in your belly: you’ll know exactly how to start your talk, and get in the flow. Also, if something unexpected happens, you’ll have the ability to bounce back and improvise.

To give you an idea of what “mastering” the material means for me, here is how I tend to go about it: For brand new talks I will practice alone about a dozen times before I give them in front of an audience. A talk I’ve given several times before will obviously not take so much effort - but I’ll still give it a couple of practice runs ahead of time to refresh my memory. Now, you should note these “numbers” are very personal, and you might need fewer or more runs to get comfortable.


A final piece of advice…

Don’t forget to have fun!


If you have any feedback or comments, hit me up on twitter @Sydonahi.

I hope you found this useful :)

Good luck!