Outreach: How to do it wrong.

Public engagement is an enriching part of the life of a lot of scientists.

Whether it’s a talk in a school or a public lecture, you may have already participated in a couple of outreach events. If you haven’t yet, I highly encourage that you do, no matter how junior. I gave my first public seminar in the first year of my PhD, and I am so grateful for everything that followed.

Since that first event, I haven’t stopped looking for occasions to engage the public, and I’ve been lucky to participate in a great many events, often including other scientists.

This means I’ve had the opportunity to learn not only from my mistakes but from those of others (no shade, I promise).

So, without further ado, here are my top tips... on how to do it all wrong.

Warning: Chasm of sarcasm ahead

Teach your audience as much as possible

Be sure to tell your audience as much as you can in the 15 minutes you’ve been allocated. If you don’t have time to talk about everything, you can double down by putting a lot of supplementary, tangentially related and only marginally interesting information on your slides. Your audience has eyes after all, they can read and listen to you at the same time!

Make sure your presentation covers as much material as possible, and do not repeat yourself! That would be wasting precious seconds that could be spent talking about some secondary result or detail in the method. The public will have no problem keeping up with your rapid pace. What you are talking about is far too interesting for them to get distracted for a second, and get completely lost half way through your talk.

If you need to shave a couple of minutes off to insert more of your results, just shorten the introduction and conclusions! Your audience will instinctively understand the context of your science, know what results are the most important, and why.

On that note, do away with simplistic and relate-able analogies. This is science! Your science! Give them the proper data and numbers. And don’t forget to use the appropriate jargon — using big words makes you sound like you know what you are doing. To help the public along, why don’t you give a few definitions on the introductory slides? Your audience will definitely have the time and ability to digest and remember all that information 10 minutes down the line.

Visuals are secondary

This talk is about your science. You don’t want to slides to outshine your results, do you?

All they need to be is functional. Words and sentences are the most efficient way to densely pack information into your PowerPoint. Plus, it’s easier to write a slide than design a clever plot or visual. Your audience will surely be able to picture it from your monologue anyway, so why bother?

Leave time management to others

You were given 15 minutes, but we all know it’s a soft limit.

If it takes you 18 and a half minutes to finish the complete description of your analysis, who’s going to stop you? They’re not going to jump onto the stage and interrupt you, are they? And if it really mattered so much that you finish on time, the chair/organiser would surely give you stronger hints to give way.

Ignore them frantically trying to catch your attention by waving at you or brandishing a sign. Wait until they stand up and start invading your personal space before considering skipping to the final slide. In any case, you’ve also had to deal with speakers over-running in the past, so if you do it too, you’re just getting your fair share on average. It’s the circle of life; the cycle of academics being fully able to produce some of the most complex analysis known to man, but somehow absolutely incapable of counting to 15 when it comes to timing their own presentations.

Practice is more effort than it’s worth

So you’ve written your slides, probably at the last minute, because you followed my previous piece of advice and left time management to somebody else.

You’ve heard that some people practice their talks, but really, is it that big a deal? I mean, you are super busy anyway. And if you’re not, watching the entire series of “Friends” for the 15th time is certainly more fun than going over your slides again and listening to your own voice (shudder).

You’ll probably be fine. After all, you know what you’re doing, and people who know what they are doing don’t need to practice.

And like we said earlier, the audience will instinctively know what information is most important, so it’s no big deal if you get a little confused. There is no chance they will disengage…


So there it is: How to do outreach wrong. Just cram as much information into some densely packed slides, and turn up having read them once.

What could possibly go wrong?

And don’t forget to speak too quickly and run over time!

Can you think of anything else?

If you have any more tips that I haven’t mentioned above leave a comment below, or hit me up on twitter @sydonahi!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts :)

Wait! Check this out!

For some real tips, check out my page: 5 tips for public outreach!