Posted in communication and networking, education

The art of a good science talk

How do you deliver a speech about molecular biology, nanotechnology, or optical fibers interesting? How do you make a lecture about anything potentially stiff, complicated, and technical interesting?

The blog Uncertain Principles discusses this using the format of the TED talks. In case you’re unaware, TED talks are lectures presented every year at the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference. The small nonprofit that hosts TED is devoted to spreading good ideas around the world, including hosting most of the talks (presented by some pretty impressive people) online.

Anyway, back to Uncertain Principles:

Last weekend, I was talking with Ethan Zuckerman at a party, and we talked a little bit about the TED conferences and similar things. A few days later, there was an editorial in Nature suggesting that scientists could learn a lot from TED:

[P]erhaps the most critical key to success is the style of the talks. And here, those scientists wishing to inspire public audiences could take a few tips from the speakers in Oxford who addressed themes as various as biomimicry (Janine Benyus), the neuroscience of other people’s rational and moral judgements (Rebecca Saxe) and supermassive black holes (Andrea Ghez). Their videos and many others should become available over the next few weeks.

The talks have a strict time limit of 18 minutes — no interaction with the audience, and no questions except the informal ones asked in the extended conversation breaks. Academics used to talking for 30 to 45 minutes might imagine this to be severely constraining. But TED demonstrates that, for a general audience, 18 minutes is plenty for getting across context and key issues, while still forcing each speaker to focus on a message — whether it be advocacy or the celebration of new knowledge.

There is also a welcome absence of PowerPoint presentations. Instead there are plenty of images — but precious few professional scientific diagrams, which can quickly lose the audience’s attention. This forces speakers to craft talks that can engage sophisticated but scientifically untutored listeners at their level. And it also encourages speakers to try for a freely flowing, relaxed presentation style, without notes. This can take hours of practice, and indeed it should — the YouTube postings of these talks offer a potential audience of millions.

The combination of these got me thinking about what I would do for such a talk. Which in turn led to the thought that this would be a good blog topic. So:

You have eighteen minutes to talk to a general audience about something you find fascinating, and you can’t use PowerPoint. What do you talk about?

Read on.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.