In a famous quote, Einstein said that ‘If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old, you don’t understand it yourself.’ Have you ever tried to explain your research or project to a 6 year old?
Is presenting to kids all that different from presenting to adults? Not really. The tips that we discuss for an adult audience can just as well be applied when talking to children. Although, with kids you will need to go yet a few steps further. Everything should be even clearer, more visual, more engaging, more electrifying. No better learning experience out there than presenting to kids!
Every year we train groups of researchers who will be participating in the Battle of the Scientists, by teaching them how to appeal to and engage a young audience. Let us share our top tips with you here:
1. Walk in their shoes
What are kids these days fascinated with? Or what gives them stress? Respond to that. Look for questions that children are asking themselves and share examples they are familiar with.
How can you walk in their shoes? By exploring the world around you. Do you have kids in the family or in your neighborhood? Talk to them. Tune in to children’s TV channels or discover online the latest crazes and what’s boggling kids these days. The most popular online game for kids in 2017 (at least in Flanders)? Musical.ly. Maybe you can do something with it in your presentation.
2. Release your inner child
Excitement is contagious. The higher your excitement level, the more riveted your audience will be, and vice versa. And yet, when scientists begin to present their research, they often turn dry as dust. Of course they want to show they know their stuff and would hate to omit any details.
Here’s what you should do instead: Go all out! Find your ultimate passion. Make those kids feel you would rather discuss your research than be licking an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Give them a taste of your enthrallment and fascination for science. Rid your mind of any images of adults, frowning and questioning stares on their faces (like your thesis supervisor), and release your inner child. Feel free to climb on top of that table (but please, only do so if you feel so inclined, not just because you should).
3. Correct, but not 100%
When explaining your research to children, you will need to simplify things. Certain nuances will inevitably be lost. Is that a problem? Not at all, as long as your bigger picture adds up. But remember, you will need to summarize or simply drop certain connectors.
What counts is your main message, which should of course be crystal clear. What should the kids remember from your presentation? Focus on that. Don’t stress the details, just as long as you are not sharing utter nonsense.
4. Don’t dumb it down
How do you talk to a child? Without realizing it, we will often use baby language. How can you recognize this?
- You talk about yourself in the third person (‘Daddy is going outside for a second’, instead of ‘I am going outside for a second’).
- Your voice will go up a pitch, as if you’ve just taken a gulp of helium.
- Or you make things unnecessarily cute (like ‘Any more questions about how the cute little kitties have their little babies?).
Cut this out immediately! Talk like a normal person, as you would talk to any other adult. If not, your young audience may just begin acting like babies.
5. Get them moving
Fifteen minutes of one-way traffic, with children forcibly glued to their seats will be a nightmare for everyone. Pull your audience into your story and mix things up. Here are some options:
Ask questions. This could be a question they can give an actual answer to (‘Who bikes to school?’), or it could be one they are encouraged to reflect on (‘What would happen if you woke up tomorrow in a world without cars?’).
Let them do something while sitting down. Are you discussing veins? Have them pull out their arm and locate their own veins.
Or invite some kids up on stage for an experiment, or have them help out in another way. You won’t be engaging everyone, but the kids in the audience will be thinking along, as if they were on stage themselves.
6. Talk about yourself
You are a fascinating object. Did you know that? Especially to those kids. You are a real scientist, after all. They may know scientists from comic books, movies or TV, but nothing compares to meeting one in the flesh. What they want to know: Why did you become a scientist? How did you discover what you wanted to research? But also: What are your hobbies, do you have any pets, children, …?
They will love hearing how scientists are just regular people. And that they too could one day become a scientist. Spice up your presentation with interesting facts about yourself. Did you always dream of becoming a scientist? Or did you first want to be a policeman or woman?
7. Be their hero
Your science could make the world a better place. ‘Yes, but’ I can hear you think, ‘my research does not have any direct applications’, or ‘I’m not the only one working on this. Our work is a team effort, and my colleagues…’ Too many details. On that stage you are the sole hero who can help solve a problem. Does this always go exactly as planned? Not at all. Just as in any good movie the hero must overcome many obstacles in his way.
But what if there is no apparent direct problem or concrete application of your research? Just dig a little deeper. Your research is much broader than you think. You can always make a connection to a possible application. The biggest discoveries were built on basic research. Why not share an example of this?
As I mentioned before: presenting to children is not very different from presenting to adults. You will always need a sound structure, respond to your target audience and leave enough pauzes throughout your talk.
Speaking to children is no child’s play, but you will be amazed at how gratifying the whole experience will be. Have fun!
(Check out the Battle of the Scientists or de Wetenschapsbattle (in Dutch), both competitions where scientists present their research at primary schools in Belgium. Do you want to give it a try? Let us know, so that we can send you an invitation to subscribe for edition 2019.)