Flashcard Mob: Preparing for a science slam

Story by Eleanor Bath

As science communicators, I like to think that we’re performers, just like musicians. We entertain and inform the audience with science, rather than music. And like every good musician, we have to spend a lot of time getting ready before the magical moment on stage. And for me, there’s always a moment when I think, “I really should have prepared more.” Sometimes that moment happens when I’m walking on stage. At other times it’s when I’m staring at a powerpoint that solely contains the one amusing fly-related cartoon in my repertoire. And, inevitably, the feeling of being unprepared will lead to panic – how on earth am I going to give this presentation?!


Meeting the band

The best tool I’ve discovered for preparing talks isn’t a fancy app, or powerpoint – it’s the old-school flashcard (10×8 cm cards to write on). The benefit of these cards is actually their lack of size – you can’t fit very much on them, even if you write really small. When you’re preparing a 2.30–3 minute long talk, that’s a pretty useful constraint!

My first step is to write the main message of my talk on a flashcard. This is the one thing I want the audience to remember when they leave. We can think of it as the lead singer of my presentation band. It’s usually simple – for my Falling Walls Lab talk last year, it was “mating increases female aggression in flies”. Once I’ve got that down, I can work out an extra point or two that are important but not crucial to my story – the backup dancers to my lead singer. These points add depth and colour to my presentation, and give the audience some ‘bonus’ material that makes the presentation more enjoyable. In my talk, the backup dancer points were that male ejaculates seem to be responsible for increasing female aggression, but that females don’t need eggs to get angry. Because these points accentuate the central message, rather than distract from it, the people I spoke with after my presentation generally remembered at least one of them (I’ll let you guess which one was most popular).

Playing to your crowd

After I’ve decided what I want to say, I focus on what the audience wants to hear. Depending on your audience, you may tweak the language you use, the focus of your talk, the level of technical detail you go into, how you frame your research, and even your cultural references. Contrast a presentation at an academic conference with the Falling Walls Lab as an illustration. In my mind, this is like a band playing to a packed crowd of die-hard fans, compared with playing to a room full of people who’ve never heard of them. At an academic conference, you’re addressing an audience that is familiar with the basic, and more advanced, concepts and terms of your field (they know every word of your classic tunes). You can use those field-specific terms with abandon, not having to explain them or their importance. The Falling Walls audience, on the other hand, is an equally highly educated and intelligent audience, but without the training in your specific field. This requires you to consider carefully what terms you do use, and requires you to explain them in a way that makes them intelligible to the current audience. They’ll love your songs but you need to give them a bit more of an introduction.

Even more important than the language you’re using (which is pretty crucial for your audience to understand you!) is understanding what your audience is interested in. Knowing this allows you to frame the topic in the way most likely to engage your audience. With my work, for example, if I’m presenting to a group of researchers focusing on sexual selection and male ejaculates (yes, they exist!), I’ll focus on how my research fits into the repertoire of work looking at how male ejaculates influence female behaviour. For a broader audience, though, I focus on how mating leads to increased female aggression in a wide range of species, but that we don’t know why. Considering your audience early in your creation process is therefore very important for determining the direction of your presentation.

Creating the set-list

The above steps make up most of the hard conceptual work for me. Now that I’ve got the songs, I just need to decide what order to put them in. I write out each main point on a flashcard, confining each point to one card, but putting in as much detail as I need. As I further refine my talk, I’ll reduce my words to just one or two on each card to remind me of the main message for that section. I can then shuffle my main point cards around and play with the order, find a flow that works, look for logical transitions between points, and invent some interesting openings. I may find two or three different ways to organise one presentation and then test them by practicing them out loud. I don’t write out scripts or memorise my presentations. I find the way I write to be very different to the way I talk, and often the two don’t cross over very well. I have a park just opposite my office, so when I’m working on a presentation, I’ll take my flash cards and wander around practicing out loud to myself. This way I’ll find phrases that work as well as parts I struggle to explain, and keep talking until I work out the way the presentation flows best. Moving while I talk helps me keep talking even when it’s difficult (and despite occasional strange looks from dog-walkers).

Practice, practice, practice

My final stage of preparation is practicing for other people. As hard, and embarrassing, as it feels to perform for your friends and colleagues, it’s incredibly worthwhile. I’ve always gotten at least one piece of useful feedback, whether it’s “we couldn’t read the text on that slide”, or a kind suggestion to complete an entire overhaul of a talk. Ideally, the person or people you’ll practice on will be similar to your target audience, allowing you to test out your tailored language and gauge the audience’s reaction. If you can’t find anyone willing to listen to you, film yourself and make yourself watch it. As cringe-inducing as it can be to watch yourself, focus on your presentation – are you clearly explaining your main messages? Were there times where you got stuck? What is your body language like? And finally, if you were your audience, would you buy your next album?

At the risk of sounding like an outdated pop star, I hope sharing some of my tips and tricks will help you in your scientific performance career (or at least persuade you to buy some flash cards). And, hopefully, the next time you feel that moment of panic from feeling unprepared, you’ll be able to look at the steps you’ve been through and know that, actually, you’re going to rock this.

Eleanor Bath studied biology, international relations, and history at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She received her PhD in biology from the University of Oxford in 2016, studying why female flies fight. She is now trying to answer that question by investigating how mating makes female flies more aggressive as a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church College, Oxford.


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