Andrew Smyth is an aerospace engineer, FameLab UK judge, and finalist of the Great British Bake Off. Here are his best ingredients for explaining tricky science concepts.
You are not your audience
Generally, people who are best placed to explain a scientific concept are the people who work in that field. But when you work in a specialism, you’re surrounded by acronyms and jargon every day. It’s very easy to get caught up in that technical terminology and not realise you’re even using it.
You can turn off a casual audience really quickly if you’re not using everyday language. When you’re doing a live show, your audience can be very diverse in their backgrounds and levels of knowledge – and it’s your job to be the universal communicator.
Things that are physical are easier to explain. I’ve found my baking demonstrations work best for exploring structures, materials and other tangible ideas. It’s more challenging to create analogies for intangible concepts, like electricity or machine learning. You’ve got to be quite creative to explain less obvious ideas in a format that people understand.
My expertise is engineering, which is about the application of science to solve real-world problems. Appropriately, my demonstrations illustrate similar physical mechanisms to the ones in real-life scenarios.
For example, concrete by itself is a poor building material as it isn't as strong when in tension. By reinforcing concrete with steel, which can cope with these tensile loads, we can create a composite material where the sum of the parts is greater than the individual materials.
For my live show, I show this with a caramel bar, which like concrete is a brittle material. We then reinforce it with strawberry laces which make the bar stronger, just like steel does. The demo is entirely edible, and structural engineering is a lot less intimidating when you’re using everyday ingredients! It also uses multiple senses. People remember a concept far better when they can visualise the bar, taste the caramel, and smell it being made.
Another example is my baked Alaska demo. A baked Alaska dessert keeps ice-cream cold by harnessing the same physical principle as a thermal protection tile on a space shuttle. By engineering pockets of air in a material (like in a meringue), the material acts as an insulator to protect against high temperatures. The concept might seem complicated, but with the right physical demonstration you can help your audience reach that ‘aha!’ moment of understanding.
Balance, test, and find the hook
In my experience, there are three things you need to do to communicate an idea well:
- Get rid of the acronyms and jargon, but don’t dumb it down. You have to strike a balance between respecting the intelligence of your audience, and using language they’re familiar with.
- Test your demos on friends who don’t work in science to make sure your analogies make sense. If it works for them, it’ll probably work for your audience.
- Give people a reason to care. Think from the perspective of your audience – how has this scientific discovery impacted their life? Everything has a story behind it, so by capturing that narrative, it helps bring people on board with you.
Start with the big picture
Structure is important. If you dive into a concept too quickly, you’ll lose your audience. I’ve learned that you have to start with the big picture. Why should the audience care? What’s the point? Then zoom in and deliver the context behind the concept, then zoom in again and examine the specific detail you want to talk about.
Don’t be afraid to change your presentation structure. Even though I’ve done my live show dozens of times now, I’m still modifying it in order to improve on the delivery.
The show must go on
A lot of confidence comes from practice. The first time you do something is always going to be a little bit uncomfortable. I find it helps to remind myself on stage that the audience wants to enjoy themselves. If you relax and are comfortable, they’re more likely to do the same.
When things go wrong on stage, which happens sometimes with my live baking demos, the audience can become tense. It’s like watching a stand-up comic when the first few jokes don’t land – that viewer tension can be very hard to diffuse. But if you can laugh, acknowledge what’s happened then confidently progress with the show, everyone will relax and start listening again.
Whether it's baking or science, mistakes aren’t the end of the world.
Join us for Hall of FameLab at the Natural History Museum in London or watch the live-stream on 28 September 2018.
Hall of FameLab is part of EU Researchers' Night 2018. FameLab is the world's leading science communication competition, run by Cheltenham Festivals and the British Council. Participants have just three minutes to win over the judges and crowd with a scientific talk that excels for its content, clarity and charisma.