Your Dog and Pony Show: Presenting a Dynamite Public Lecture

Do you remember the first time your interest in science was piqued? Maybe it happened when you were watching a science program on TV. Maybe it was the result of a lecture you attended. Or perhaps it came as you gazed at some amazing specimen in a museum. However it happened, the chances are that for most of you, the spark that drew you to science glowed first somewhere other than your classroom.

Despite the obvious importance of "informal" science education (the term used for all the science education that takes place outside the classroom), few graduate students and postdocs get an opportunity to communicate directly with the public. Graduate programs and research institutions typically emphasize teaching in their own classrooms. And in any case, most young scientists think that acquiring university teaching experience is more valuable than giving lectures to the general public.

But in reality, delivering a dynamite public lecture can really boost your profile--you might even garner some local press coverage--and it can make an eye-catching addition to your resume. Plus, the skills and experience you gain in developing and presenting a popular talk will make you a better speaker--guaranteed. Better yet, you're bound to find that the audience for your lecture is much more motivated and interested than are your scientific peers!

But I'm Not Carl Sagan!

Many young scientists have a great interest in communicating science to the public. After all, we LOVE science! Despite grinding away for years in graduate school, most of us still find science exciting and fascinating, and it is only natural to want to communicate some of that enthusiasm to others. Communicating science to the public also helps bolster support for science funding. Leaders in the scientific community, such as Rita Colwell of the National Science Foundation (NSF), continue to urge scientists to interact more with the public. And there is always the possibility that our enthusiasm might spur some other kid to pursue a scientific career.

However, despite their interest in communicating science to the public, most scientists feel somewhat inhibited about presenting a popular science talk to a general audience. For starters, a popular lecture must be well-constructed, well-delivered, and interesting, features that you won't always find at scientific meetings, where the quality of the talks is ... well ... lower.

Some scientists have told me that they are too young and too inexperienced in science to give a popular talk. "Who'd want to listen to me," one person asked, "I'm just a lowly grad student!" But you need to remember that from the perspective of the outside world, you have a level of training and experience that far exceeds most high school science teachers. Believe it or not you ARE an authority, even if you don't have years of experience and a long list of publications to show for it!

Who Wants to Hear From Me?

You might be surprised by how many opportunities exist to present a popular lecture to a general audience. Science teachers in secondary school are always looking for bright, energetic people to speak to their classes. Community groups such as the Rotary often want to hear about science and technology developments, especially when they involve research institutions in their community. And you might also find amateur science clubs, especially in fields such as astronomy, zoology, and environmental science. Scientists and engineers are also popular guest speakers at investment clubs, where they might be invited to discuss future trends in science and technology. Many of these groups have regular meetings and they are eager to find good speakers.

Four Steps to Building a Terrific Popular Lecture

Building a popular lecture will likely take you more time and effort than a regular science talk. Here are some important time-saving tips for developing yours:

  • Target the right audienceDecide at the outset what type of audience you would like to lecture to. Obviously, the content and style of your presentation will have to differ if you're speaking to adult members of the community or to an elementary school science class. For example, if you're planning to speak to students you might check with their teacher to see what material they've covered recently. But whoever is listening, it's fine to include some advanced concepts--just be sure to provide the right foundation first. In fact, the best talks present some material that is familiar to the audience and some material that is new.

  • Think broadly Young scientists often feel that they should stick to a lecture topic that they have studied or are actively working in. However, when giving a popular talk it is best to think broadly. Your audience will not care if your talk is entirely a review of other people's work--it's all new to them!

  • Tell a story Delivering your popular lecture in a narrative style often works well with general audiences. People like stories--especially those that have some drama or tension. People like to hear stories of discovery and they like finding out about the personalities behind the science. Also, try to find catchy analogies--like "tectonic plates move at the same speed as your fingernails grow"--that will help your audience to grasp difficult concepts. And feel free to weave popular culture into your talk--citing examples from movies and TV shows will help to keep your talk buoyant.

  • Show and tell Never underestimate the power of an artifact! Most audiences LOVE touching, feeling, and holding STUFF. If there is interesting material that complements your presentation, don't be afraid to pass it around. Just make sure that you get it back at the end of the talk! Demonstrations can also be effective, provided you have the procedure down cold!

Once the Invitations Roll In

If you do a good job with your first lecture, other invitations are sure to follow. That's OK. ... One of the nice aspects of preparing and presenting a popular lecture is that you can give it over and over again--and it usually gets better each time. Best of all, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you've done your part to make science more interesting and accessible to the public. Carl Sagan would be proud!

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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