Speaking at Nerdland Festival: how do you get started?

A packed tent. 800 pairs of eyes are eagerly fixed on the stage where I will be speaking about dinosaurs in just a few minutes. A recognizable challenge for the over 100 speakers at the Nerdland Festival. So how do you captivate and engage this type of festival audience from the get-go? How do you keep them entertained, even when presenting complex research? And could those techniques be applied successfully during your next conference presentation (spoiler: yes!)?

The Floor is Yours is responsible for training the speakers at the Nerdland Festival. As a dedicated fan, you’ll receive the two most crucial tips from the workshop that equips them to deliver exceptional presentations.

However, if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks and should you be completely unaware of this festival, let me fill you in. The Nerdland Festival is Belgium’s largest science festival, where the spotlight shines not on music, but on science. It boasts a sold-out weekend, with an impressive 20,000 visitors, spread across six stages and the most mind-blowing shows designed for audiences ranging from 180 to 3,000 individuals. Toon Verlinden of The Floor is Yours is not only the creator and organizer of the festival, but he is also the person training the speakers before they take the stage.

Toon, tell us: what is your secret to entertaining hundreds of festival-goers with science?

A. Construct a pyramid

Construct a pyramid to ensure a clear structure in your presentation and be sure not to overstuff it. Although your audience may be interested in your topic, it’s important to remember that they are not experts. They will lose interest if you try to forcefully convey every detail of your PhD within a mere half-hour timeframe.

Let’s consider my talk on the subject of dinosaurs as an example, tailored for children aged 6 to 14. However, the technique I use is equally valuable for adults or for your next conference.

1. The first step: Determine your main message. What is the one thing you want your audience to remember? In my case, it was “Everything you know about dinosaurs is wrong”. Make a note of this at the top of your pyramid.

Which also serves as your introduction. Find an engaging way to immediately convey your main message during the introduction.

For me it was: ‘Everything you know about dinosaurs is wrong and it’s your mom and dad’s fault’. That resonated well with my young audience.

2. Step number two: Identify three supporting points for your main message. Now it’s time to flesh out your main message and introduction. Choose three points (no more!) that you want to discuss and list them beneath your main message. In my dinosaur talk, these are the three commonly misunderstood questions:

  • How did they go extinct? (It wasn’t due to a meteorite!)
  • Where are dinosaur fossils found? (Not all large fossils are from dinosaurs!)
  • Are dinosaurs still alive today? (You bet!)

3. Moving on to step three: Deepen the content. Now that you have a general understanding of your structure, it’s time to delve deeper into each point. The level of depth you choose to explore depends on the available time for your presentation.

Notice in my pyramid below that in the dinosaur talk I go one layer deeper, but I stop at the dotted line. I could go deeper and discuss specifics about the type of meteorite, for instance, but that would consume too much time and exceed the level of detail suitable for my young audience.

Never open your PowerPoint before first completing your pyramid. Only when you have a rough structure in place, should you begin working on your slides. At the initial stage, focus less on slide design and simply create blank slides to accommodate the content from your pyramid. This allows you to gain a preliminary overview and start dropping in images here and there. Further elaboration and design can be addressed later in the process.

B. Look for interaction

Look for an interactive moment to be coupled with each of the three blocks of your pyramid. This is particularly crucial when engaging with a children’s audience.

My dinosaur talk included four significant interactive moments, one in the introduction and one for each block of content. Additionally, I sprinkled smaller questions throughout the talk to keep my audience involved.

Here are two examples:

  • Part 1. How did dinosaurs go extinct? I invited ten children onto the stage and had them “drop dead” one by one as I told my extinction story. Only the first two dropped dead from the impact of the meteorite. The rest from other causes.
  • Part 2. Where do you find dinosaurs? I organized a “Dino-or-Not?” quiz, where children had to stand up or remain seated to provide their answer. This physical interaction worked exceptionally well with my young audience. Additionally, my fellow presenter Koen Stein brought actual dinosaur fossils.

So: determine your focus, construct that pyramid, supplement with interactive moments, and you are good to go!

In your next conference presentation, instead of having participants “drop dead” on stage, you can look for alternative approaches. These interactive moments can include posing (rhetorical) questions to the audience, conducting a brief exercise involving the attendees, showcasing something on stage, utilizing a red/green paper for opinions, or incorporating a relevant sound for the audience to listen to, etc.

Would you like to be a speaker at the Nerdland Festival?

You can! We will be launching an open call for ideas in December. Keep an eye on The Floor is Yours newsletter or Nerdland Festival channels and submit your idea. Who knows, you may be selected as a speaker and receive a free training to help you shine on stage May 24-26, 2024.

More info: nerdlandfestival.be

If you’re not interested in attending the Nerdland Festival but still want to benefit from our training, we have a solution for you! Check out our selection of workshops.

Why dinosaurs?

Now, you may be wondering why I delivered a lecture on dinosaurs. That’s because I authored a Nerdland children’s book about dinosaurs (and one about space travel, too, by the way).

Aftermovie Nerdland Festival 2023

Do you want to (re)live the festival experience? We have the aftermovie available for you here. If you couldn’t attend the festival, don’t worry. You’ll have a new opportunity to join us at the upcoming event happening on May 24-26, 2024 at Domein Puyenbroeck in Wachtebeke.

Translation: Leslie Van Ael