Tag Archives: performance

Best Demo 2013

The British Interactive Group is somewhere between a professional association for science communicators and a self-help group. They host the excellent (as in ‘everyone who reads this blog should sign up’) BIG-Chat email list, and run an annual ‘Event.’ Which is sort-of a conference, but … well, you’ll just have to go to experience it.

Too late this year, though, as it’s on in Glasgow right now. Tonight’s shindig was the annual Best Demo Competition, which is sort-of a performance competition and sort-of a soapbox session for trotting out just plain neat ideas. There’s no more terrifying audience for a science communicator than the members of BIG… and no more forgiving an audience, either.

I’m missing the Event this year, but thanks to the lovely folks at Science Made Simple there was a live stream of tonight’s performances, and you can view it for yourself. Be warned – the audio is patchy (it gets better in the second and third segments), and there are many drop-outs. So it’s almost like being there, if you imagine yourself drinking heavily before showing up. Which would be traditional.

Some cracking ideas, some lovely performances, and some stuff that plain doesn’t work. Great combination.

Part 2:

…and the results (with a few extra demos because… because Best Demo):

Congrats to everyone who signed up to take part. Keep reading below for Elin’s thoughts on entering from last week…

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.

Continue reading How not to present science


A simple tip for any science communicator, or indeed teacher, intending to perform a demonstration to an audience:

Make sure it works.

That’s it.

It’s such obvious advice it almost goes without saying. Almost, but not quite. Sometimes we become so confident in our performance skills that we forget the basics, and this post is prompted by my having seen two prominent UK science communicators recently do demos which didn’t work.

I’m not going to mention any names and I’ll leave the details vague: this isn’t intended as a personal attack. I’m much more interested in how the demonstration failures felt from where I was sitting at the time – in the audience.

I’m going to try to do a demonstration which never works.”

One of the first bits of advice you’ll receive as a performer is: never apologise. The above line called that to mind, along with the obvious response: “Well, why are you going to do it?”. My hope was that famous science communicator #1 was joking for effect, but he proceeded to spend several minutes of an otherwise fascinating and engaging lecture on an incomprehensible demo involving members of the audience having to stand up and sit down according to a set of instructions neither they nor the rest of the audience seemed to understand.

As best I can tell, the ‘demonstration’ failed to illuminate the bit of science it was meant to illustrate. Certainly, it added nothing to an explanation which had already been provided with a diagram. The lecturer even admitted as much. So why include the demonstration at all?

Perhaps because we’re so enslaved to the notion that we must entertain our audiences with demonstrations that we’ll shoehorn one in if there’d otherwise be too much exposition. Or perhaps the lecture was simply too short otherwise.

From the audience’s perspective, all the demonstration achieved was a measure of audience embarrassment.

Famous science communicator #2 did a demo which simply didn’t work. It was supposed to illustrate that chemicals of a certain family were all good fuels, and it involved separating the wick from the wax of a tea-light. The wick was then squirted with body cream and lit: the body cream would melt, flow up the wick, vaporise and burn.

It didn’t.

The wick caught fire, but it didn’t melt the body cream and it certainly didn’t work as a candle. So, again, an under-prepared demonstration which made the audience uncomfortable, except that communicator #2 proceeded as if it had. The lecture – a team effort – carried on without him, and he distracted me as I watched him continue trying to make it work. He was clearly puzzled as to why it hadn’t.

Prior to doing the demo, science communicator #2 had joked that he had only purchased the cream a few minutes before the lecture, making light of his under preparation. And that was the problem, obviously – he hadn’t checked his demo. He’s a busy man, but I think the audience deserve better. So did the non-geek friend with whom I attended the lecture, who was unimpressed by this demonstration and a number of other shortcomings which we’ll cover in later posts.

Most science communicators are scientists themselves, and we’re accustomed to the idea that science doesn’t always, well… work. Our audiences, however, often aren’t as comfortable with the nuances of statistical repeatability. Every time a demo doesn’t work, we risk the inference that science doesn’t work. Dangerous.

In a classroom situation, however, discussing with your audience (students) why they think the demo didn’t work and – time permitting – trying to fix it can be tremendously instructive.