Wooden spoons

How not to present science

A few weeks ago I was part of a crack team of science presenters (James Piercy, Debbie Syrop  and Matt Pritchard) presenting a session at the Science Communication Conference, How not to present science. It consisted of our favourite pet hates, brought to life, and a number of people have asked for notes on the session. I thought I’d provide my ‘script’ on one section, titled The World Cringing Championships.

The premise had my co-presenters on a sofa with ‘buzzers’ commenting on my cringeworthy performance, whilst I attempted to break every ‘rule’ in the science communicators’ handbook. This was very peculiar to put together, as I was deliberately trying to insert comments and foibles that I’ve spent over a decade deliberately minimising, or intentionally inserting comments that don’t come naturally. It was joyfully liberating, however, to know that whatever went wrong on stage I could assert was my intention all along.

Hover over the link text for a note on the ‘mistake’.

Enters stage slowly. Looks around sheepishly. Look back to door, continue to centre stage.

Oh, crap. This is much more intimidating than I thought
Suddenly changes to being a bit too extrovert, but uncertain.

Hello!

OK, so well,

I want to talk about dinosaurs because I really really like dinosaurs, so you should all really really like dinosaurs too. ‘Cause they are really cool and stuff.

In a statistical survey, 73% of Daily Mail readers, said the most important dinosaur was the Tyrannosaurus rex, but I don’t want to talk to you about the T. rex I want to talk about my favourite dinosaur which is the Parasaurolophus.

That’s a funny name, isn’t it? Parasaurolophus. Could you all say it with me,
after three,

One,

Two,

Two and a half,

Three.

Pa-ra-sau-ro-lo-phus

I can’t hear you…

PA-RA-SAU-RO-LO-PHUS!

I’ve got a really funny joke. You’re going to love this.

How did the dinosaur stay dry in the rain? He used a parasololophus.

Ha! I’m so funny.
That’s brilliant, that. It’s a parasol, a bit like an umbrella, but used in the sun.

Do you get it? Parasololophus!

The Parasaurolophus was a dinosaur from the Jurassic period, I think. Maybe it was the Cretaceous. I’m pretty sure it was Jurassic.

At this point I saw a colleague who is knowledgeable about dinosaurs in the audience, so I asked him. He said Cretaceous.

I’ll just check my script.

I was right and you were wrong. indicating to audience member.

The Parasaurolophus was from the Cretaceous.
Just before they all died out. Maybe it was one of those hit on the head by a meteor. I must look that up on Wikipedia.

The Parasaurolophus was a herbivore, so it was just like a cow.

Oh no. I forgot something. OK, just ignore that and I’ll come back to it in a bit What I wanted to say was that the Parasaurolophus was a special dinosaur because they had these special long crests on the back of their special heads.

I should really have brought a photograph for you to see, but you all know the one I mean, don’t you, it’s been in Jurassic Park and everything.

Anyway, Dinosaur scientists worked with other special scientists who did CT scans of the skulls and found that inside there were tubes and passages and hollows. Other scientists thought that maybe these passages were used like a nose trumpet to make noises.

Struggle to pick up, then wear a large ‘parasaurolophus’ skull.

Play badly through trombone mouthpiece.

Jesus Christ. This is harder than it looks.

Do we have any trombonists in the audience who don’t mind sharing my spit?

I think I’m over the worst of my cold last week, I’m probably not contagious anymore, anyhow.

Nobody? I’ll give it another go myself, then.

But that’s just one theory of what the crest might have been for. I have my own ideas.

So, Parasaurolophus was a herbivore, as I mentioned earlier. Just like a cow. And we all know that cows produce a lot of methane gas. Well, imagine if, instead of coming out one way, the gas came out the other. Now, imagine that the crest is full of methane gas. That could be really dangerous if there was a lightning strike nearby.

Safety first. Of course, this is a dangerous experiment , but I’m a qualified professional, it’s not as if I did a humanities degree.

I have taken all the necessary precautions. Does anyone know where the fire extinguishers are?

I burned the risk assessment when I did this last. The venue didn’t ask for one anyway. Some people take this Health and Safety malarkey all too seriously.

Anyway. Who’d like to be my volunteer?

Indicate volunteer from audience,  Jamie Gallagher volunteered, as he was half way to the stage: 

No, not you. I need someone a bit more normal looking.

Jamie then went to sit back down. Unsurprisingly nobody else volunteered. I searched the first few rows for people I recognised that I could pick on. There was nobody, so I called Jamie up after all.

Took volunteer name. Stood inappropriately close. Put arm around them. Called him love/darling.

Right, Tristan, I want you to hold this tube.

Placed tube for maximum opportunity for inappropriate banter. Began to blow bubbles into glass. Continued slowly for maximum comedy value. Took a handful of bubbles.

OK, so now I need to light it.

Oh. I can’t find my lighter.

Does anyone have a lighter?

Take lighter from co-presenter.

By now the bubbles have all burst..

Oh cock. This never works for me.

Go back to refill. Smile inappropriately at volunteer. Indicate to gas bladder:

Have you got any more in there?
Attempts to light fail.

Yup. So this never works. But you can all imagine a big flame in my hand, right?

A huge big thank you to my wonderful volunteer Godfrey who has done an amazing job holding that tube. It’s much harder than it looks. Good job!

And there’s so much more I could tell you about the Parasaurolophus, but we’re out of time, so I’ll just remind you that dinosaurs are really really cool, right. And they might have made noises like those funny bagpipe things the Scots like to play when they are not too busy stuffing their pasty faces full of deep fried Mars bars.

Turn to judges:

No, no, I’m not racist, I once had a one-night stand with a Scot.

Jamie, a Scot, still standing on stage starts to shake his head.

She had a thing about deep fried mars bars.

Look around the stage. As if lost.

OK, That’s me done.

Walk off stage leaving volunteer floundering.

Of course, we’ve all been guilty of one or another of these no-nos, sometimes they have even turned out to be the funniest bits. But we should also hold ourselves to higher standards. Consideration and preparation are key in maintaining high production values, which is what science communicators should strive towards, isn’t it?

Clearly, there are very many comments of significant cringeworthiness in this post, so many that I lost patience in highlighting them all. How many did you find?

10 thoughts on “How not to present science”

  1. Well done, that’s probably the most cringeworthy script I have ever seen. So much so I nearly gave up half way through.

    I’m also ashamed to say that I have actually done a couple of those things before, although they were all early in my career (of just 20 months so far) and I quickly recognised them and put a stop to them, I hope.

    I suppose the most basic error is to not be prepared, not have all your equipment checked, brought, and laid out in order so they are all there when you need them. I don’t think you can ever 100% guarantee that you’ll never forget something, or that something will fail on stage. In that case, some quick thinking is in order. It’s happened to me a couple of times but I think I recovered well.

    The main lesson from the above script is, I think, don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally to you. I never try to be funny, it seldom works for me. Sometimes, through happy chance, something funny does pop out of my mouth. I just savour those moments for what they are and hope it happens again. But forcing humour never works for me.

  2. Hi Elin & all,

    Thanks for sharing the content of your conference session – I wasn’t able to make it to the conference, but it’s useful to be able to get a glimpse of what went on.

    I think the idea of doing everything obviously wrong on purpose is a useful tool for teaching demonstration technique.

    There are certainly a few more points worth highlighting in your example:

    * Depending on the type of fire to light, I probably wouldn’t take someone else’s lighter. You never know who might hand you something quite unsafe that doesn’t fit with your risk assessment.
    * I don’t know how you played it during the session, but there are also important points to be made about delivery of the script. Volume, speed, intonation are all easy to get wrong. Were you “A bit too extrovert” all the way through?!

    Thanks again for the post – I’m loving this blog by the way.

    Alex

    1. Thanks Alex,
      With reference to the lighter, I had asked Matt to bring one with him and we tested it before the session. In this instance, there was no risk of the bubbles igniting, so we were all OK on that count.
      During the session, my intention was to get volume, speed and intonation all wrong in different places. This is more difficult to portray in the script, but you’re absolutely right in spotting it.
      I’m glad the session notes are useful for those that couldn’t make it to the conference.

  3. I’m still standing there yet…..

    This is a fantastic piece. It was one of the highlights of the Communication conference.
    It was easy to laugh and we can see each point that Elin made but it is incredibly useful. I’m sure we are all guilty of doing such things though hopefully not to the same extremes.

    Incorrect use of volunteers is a big annoyance for me. I have seen great presenters do brilliant shows but there will be one or two members of the audience who have been sacrificed on the alter along the way.

    The more experience I get the more I am able to keep an inner monologue running, assessing myself and the audience throughout. The day we stop trying to improve what we do or learning from others we may as well give up.

  4. Thanks for your comments, especially Jamie who had to suffer the indignity of being abandoned on stage.

    One of the difficulties in highlighting these mistakes is presenting the myth that I never fall into the trap of making them myself. I can promise you that even after (well) over a decade of presenting I still make many. My hope in highlighting them is that we learn to recognise them and try to hold ourselves to higher standards next time.

    We don’t stop making mistakes, we just find new ones.

  5. What stood out for me is the missing learning objective. What, if anything, was the audience supposed to learn? And it was something “scientific”, where’s the theory, prediction, and test?

    1. If the lack of coherent scientific content stood out as being inferior or missing, then it probably worked.
      After all, on this occasion, the main learning objective was presentation technique (or an appreciation of the lack of it as demonstrated).
      It was to a hall full of adults in the field of science communication, the traditional ‘scientific knowledge’ could have been anything, as long as it was dreadfully presented.

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