Sci Comm Stories – Owning your style

I’m going to come straight out and say that everybody should find their own presenting style that they are comfortable with. Yes, take advice from others, and even copy the best parts of other presenters that inspire you, but ultimately you need to find your own way.

Growing up I was a very shy and quiet boy who hated talking to people in general, let alone large crowds. The presenting style I have developed over time has always been energetic and enthusiastic about what I am doing, but never over the top, and not very eccentric. I don’t improvise in shows too often, and generally find a way I am happy with then consistently stick to it.

There was one occasion though where I tried something a little bit different.

It happened 9 months into my role as a science communicator at Glasgow Science Centre, and it came about after my manager had watched one of my shows and decided that I needed to bring more ‘fun’ to my presenting. Now let’s be clear, it wasn’t the case that my shows weren’t very good or entertaining enough (at least I hope not!), it was more my manager was looking for a more ‘wacky, mad scientist’ character on the stage.

I was happy to give it a shot and liked the challenge of trying to be a bit more unpredictable and spontaneous, and luckily had the opportunity to try it out at one of the next weekend performances of a show called ‘It’s a Gas!’. This involved using dry ice, liquid nitrogen and hydrogen to show the states of matter changing from solid to liquid to gas and back again, even sometimes skipping a step in the process. Lots of experiments, and lots of opportunity to adapt my style.

063_GSC_WSW_Mei_Photography WR Craig
Performing in the Science Show Theatre 2014 Photo Credit :Mei Photography http://www.meiphotography.co.uk

The show itself wasn’t until the afternoon which gave me plenty of time to set up in the morning and have a think of how I was going to approach this new style, and by the time the audience were in place and settled I was quite confident and excited about what was about to happen.

However, 10 seconds into the show that confidence was immediately sucked out of me as when I jogged down onto the stage to introduce myself I manged to catch my foot on the edge of a table cloth and decked it right in front of everyone. I wish I could say that it got better from there, but this was just a taste of what was about to come.

One of the first experiments involved throwing some dry ice into a bowl of water then using some bubble mixture and a cloth to carefully seal over the top. As the dry ice turned into a gas the bubble would expand and expand until it would eventually pop, and the gas would flow nicely across the table. This experiment is quite fiddly and takes a lot of practice to get right, but on this occasion the bubble just wouldn’t seal over the top of the bowl, and some bubble mixture even dropped into the water creating a huge froth that meant it was now impossible to do. Things go wrong in science shows all the time though, so I moved on.

The next experiment was called a buckner flask. This was a conical shape with a little arm at the side which an empty balloon was attached to. You fill the flask up with some liquid nitrogen and put a big rubber stopper on the top, and as the nitrogen heats up it turns from a liquid into a gas and the balloon gradually expands and expands until it explodes!

Well, that is what should have happened….

On this occasion the opening to the balloon had frozen over (liquid nitrogen is -196 degrees), and the resulting pressure inside the flask meant that the rubber stopper popped off the top and into the air much to the amusement of the audience. Then when I placed the stopper back into the flask it did it again. And again. And again until eventually the audience stopped laughing and you could sense the impatience creeping in. Yet it still didn’t work, and eventually I had to sheepishly apologise and move on.

Two out of two.

Now as I’ve said liquid nitrogen is extremely cold and as a result dangerous to work with, and you need cryogenic gloves to protect your hands whenever you use it. Part of the show lets the audience see what would happen to you if your hand was dipped in some liquid nitrogen. Of course, we wouldn’t put our own hand in but had a surgical glove filled with water pre prepared to dip into the liquid nitrogen. Only when I reached down to grab said glove there was nothing there! It had completely slipped my mind when setting up the show.

‘…instead I have prepared another hand to go in………… oh wait no I haven’t ……errrm, let’s move on….’

By this point I wished the ground would swallow me up, and the sheer disappointment in the faces of the audience was crushing. Three from three.

The final experiment was a simple hydrogen balloon, which if you have read one of my previous sci comm stories hasn’t been the most reliable either for me, but on this occasion I thankfully managed to explode it without any issues, and the audience then left the theatre.

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It was probably one of the worst shows ever delivered in the science centre in its 18 year history.

What made it worse was that a Senior Science Communicator had backed up the show and witnessed everything.

And what made it even worse still was that I had actually been on a few dates with this Senior Science Communicator in the weeks preceding, and her look of sheer disappointment was horrible. Safe to say any possible relationship we could have had didn’t last much longer!

The strange thing about that performance was that I had a good 50 shows already behind me, even of ‘It’s a Gas!’ where I had no issues at all.

But I was so focused on trying to be more ‘fun’ on stage that I inadvertently forgot all the things I was good at. The preparation, the consistency, the reliability.

Soon afterwards I actually recorded myself delivering the show, and when watching it back I was actually quite surprised and happy with what I was seeing. The show was energetic, it was fun, but it was performed in my own way, the way that I enjoyed and the way the audience responded to.

I continued the practice of filming myself at least once for every different show at the science centre, so I could see for myself if I was meeting the standards I was setting myself and also seeing the improvement in my performances over the years.

Ironically, a few years later the same manager made the same claim that I needed to be more ‘fun and consistent’ despite not having watched a show of mine for a few years. This time rather than try and change my style I asked her to come an watch my next show so she could see how I present for herself, and to her credit afterwards she admitted she found the show very entertaining and had changed her mind.

So to conclude, everybody has there own style, the key is making it work for them. I have seen presenters pulling off the ‘mad scientist’ to great effect, but I have also seen presenters deliver a dead pan, emotionless performance which has been equally hilarious. And I am not saying you shouldn’t try new things or take risks when presenting, just if you do make changes make sure you only change one thing at a time, because if you try and change everything at once like I did then it can snowball out of control very quickly!

I’ll leave you with some highlights of ‘It’s a Gas!’, delivered perfectly by someone more competent than I was 5 years ago!

 

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