Explaining complicated ideas is not always easy. Dr Emily Grossman, an expert in molecular biology, broadcaster and educator, who trains contestants for the FameLab International science communication competition, gives some tips on how to do it.
What's more important: what you say, or how you say it?
When trying to explain complex information to an audience, the first task is to get the content of what you're saying right. You can’t hide poor or boring content behind a charismatic delivery technique, and expect your audience to let you get away with it. But how we communicate is also crucial. When someone is speaking, most of the information we receive comes through their body language, enthusiasm and tone of voice. It's our overall experience of the speaker that counts.
Why does this happen? Our brains contain ‘mirror neurons’ which automatically make us copy the emotions of the person we are engaging with. Have you ever noticed that if you see someone in the street smiling, you will start to smile too? If a speaker appears happy and relaxed, the audience will feel that way too, and will be more likely to absorb the information the speaker is trying to get across.
The more complex the information, the more important this is. Imagine trying to explain your latest scientific discovery in a flat, monotone voice. If you don't sound excited, the listener won't feel excited either. They will find it harder to engage with the information, and therefore, crucially, it will be more of a challenge for them to understand it.
How much technical detail should you include?
This is a tricky one. Generally, as little as possible! Try not to use technical language. If you do, make sure it is absolutely necessary in order to help the audience understand or appreciate your point – and ensure that you explain the word or term immediately afterwards.
Remember that there is a difference between using language that is simple (easy to understand), and simplistic (treating the problem as if it is not actually very complex at all). Keep your words as simple and clear as possible, and use real-life examples and illustrations where possible. But don’t patronise your audience by pretending that something is not as complicated as it really is.
How should you use body language when presenting an idea?
Good body language is crucial to keeping an audience engaged and interested. If you look alert but relaxed, your audience will mirror this and feel the same way. Stand up straight, but relax any tension or stiffness in your body. It’s a good idea to gesture with your hands in such a way that helps to make clear what you are explaining – but only do this if it feels natural, and try not to wave your arms around unnecessarily!
The best presenters do not try to emulate anyone else; they are simply a bigger version of themselves. It is important to celebrate your own uniqueness and use your own way of communicating. Think about how you would tell your friends an exciting thing that happened to you today, and what gestures you would naturally use.
Watch out for distracting movements
Pacing or moving around as you talk can sometimes add to the excitement of the story, but it can also be distracting. Always try and work out if the way in which you are moving is in keeping with the emotion or content you are trying to get across.
It is a good idea to video yourself to see if there are any things you are doing that are distracting or give away your nerves. Fidgeting, fiddling, shifting your weight, swaying or playing with a pen are classic examples of this.
Make eye contact with your audience
One of the most important areas of body language is eye contact. This can really help an audience feel immersed in the story, but can also help you, as a presenter, to feel less nervous. A few seconds of eye contact with individual audience members will actually help to calm your nerves. This will feel a lot longer than is initially comfortable, but try to allow it to feel like you’re engaging with just that person for a good few seconds before moving on, and try to make sure you include everyone in the room.
Metaphors and imagery can help convey a complex idea
They say that a picture paints a thousand words, and that’s equally true for the images we create through words. If you can get an audience to really 'see' what you’re trying to explain, they will not only be able to understand it better, but they will also remember it.
Analogies and metaphors work really well, especially if there are no real-life examples to draw on. You do have to make sure that your chosen comparison really works, but a good metaphor for a complex topic will stay in people’s minds forever.
For example, I use a horse-racing analogy to explain electricity to my students. The horses are the electrons, and the race track is the electrical circuit.
Break your presentation down into manageable parts
First, imagine your presentation as a rickety rope bridge that is being used to cross a deep ravine. Any weak points, and the whole thing could unravel at any moment, sending you hurtling towards the river below. Not ideal. Most of us have felt like this at some point when giving a talk, especially if we’re presenting something new.
However, you could instead think of your talk as a series of stepping stones, and imagine yourself hopping easily from one stone to another. If one stone becomes wobbly or is washed away, you can simply jump forwards, sideways, or even backwards. Your journey to the other side will remain intact.
If you can think of your talk as a series of self-contained mini-talks, then if one part goes wrong, gets forgotten, or simply doesn’t feel like it’s working on the day, just jump to the next part – you can always go back to it later.
Make adrenaline work in your favour
Nerves are a perfectly normal phenomenon, and are a very useful way of making sure that you are fully energised, revved up, and ready to deliver your talk. So embrace the adrenaline rush and try to think of it as excitement rather than fear. It’s all right to have butterflies in your tummy – the trick is to get them all flying in the same direction!
Exercise, music and meditation can help
I find it helpful to do some physical exercise a little while before I’m going to give a talk. I go for a quick run or even just jump about to some music. This wakes up my body, releases tension, and gets the creative juices flowing. I also like to listen to music that inspires or excites me. And then, just before I’m ready to go on stage, I try to do some breathing exercises or meditation to calm my heart rate and help me focus.
One simple breathing exercise is to breathe in a little more deeply than usual, then breathe out a little more deeply than usual. Do this five more times, trying to focus on your breath and letting all other thoughts go away for a moment. This is both calming and focusing.
A possible continuation of this exercise is to add a little meditation. Imagine you are hollow, made of glass and full of a muddy liquid. As you inhale, visualise filling your body with a crystal clear liquid that makes you feel energised and refreshed. As you exhale, imagine you are pushing out the muddy liquid, which represents fear and listlessness.
Above all, try to remember to have fun! Think to yourself: 'This is my moment, where I get to talk about something that I’m truly passionate about, so I’m going to enjoy it.'
As part of the FameLab International competition in partnership with the Cheltenham Festival, finalists have three minutes to explain a concept from science, technology, engineering, maths or medicine. The grand final is in June 2015.