At 108 seconds into his talk, Keïs spots his boss, somewhere in the audience, twitching. The PhD student has just told his listeners that an interaction between proteins can be thought of as a “molecular hug”. He notes his supervisor’s reaction, gives his audience a laugh, and plows on. After all, he has only three minutes in which to relate his entire PhD project, and the clock is ticking.
It’s true, the comparison might fall flat in his research lab at the Institut Pasteur, in Paris, but Keïs Nabhane Said Halidi is taking part in a science communication competition called Three-Minute Thesis. He has a strict time limit and a lay audience before him: It will take a special bag of tricks to explain his work on protein-protein interactions in the context of cell division and the implications for cancer—and make his listeners care.
Hook them and hold them
This last point was one of the big lessons the first-year PhD student took away from the coaching he received ahead of the contest’s semifinals for the Sorbonne Universities: popularizing science means sparking interest. He must have succeeded, going home that night with the public’s choice award, a particularly gratifying honor for someone whose motivation to compete was, in fact, his fear of public speaking.
“My project is actually a little more fundamental than in my presentation,” explains Keïs, who is studying at the Complexité du Vivant graduate school of the University Pierre and Marie Curie, “but I focused on the application, because people always want to know what it’s for.” Successful communication depends on knowing what emphasis will speak most to your audience.
There’s also the fact that, “in the first ten seconds, the audience decides whether to listen to you or not,” he says. Hook them and hook them fast, maybe with a question, or a statement that triggers an emotional reaction. Keïs took the latter route, announcing that cancer is the number one cause of death in his country. “We all know someone who has been affected.”
During their science communication training, participants took turns recounting a happy memory. “People who gave details that let the audience really picture the scene, their stories touched us more,” Keïs noticed. Humor worked, too. And the same is true when communicating science. Most importantly, he learned to involve his listeners. “Actors never look at the audience, but, here, your talk is for the public, so look around the room, look them in the eye. Make them feel that what you’re saying concerns them, too.”
A sure way not to make your listener feel concerned is to load your talk with too much detail. “At the beginning of the training, we did a 90-second presentation as a test. I was shocked. It was so complicated. Some people really understood nothing I’d said!” It turned out he’d gone into too much scientific detail and this is where someone gave Keïs the idea for the simple, visual, expressive “molecular hug”.
One Big Idea
In addition to the power of metaphor, he learned the importance of keeping only what’s essential to the talk, the One Big Idea, and to structure everything around this. “It hurt to cut out all the rest – you can’t show the scientific reasoning behind it, and for me that’s the most interesting part – but you just don’t have time.” While Three-Minute Thesis is loaded with an intentionally challenging (and artificial) time limit, it’s similar to any other act of popularizing science: your audience doesn’t know everything you know and doesn’t have time to catch up. You must, therefore, make the tough choices about what goes and what stays and what message you really want to get across.
“We focus so much on our science that we lose that ability to simplify it and communicate it to people outside the field,” Keïs cautions. “What we do as scientists can be interesting for everyone, we just use terms that aren’t well known.”
See for yourself his performance at Three-Minute Thesis, in the video (in French) below. If you don’t speak French, a quick translation of Keïs’s summary of his line of research – understandable, interesting and informative for all:
Cancer involves cells dividing out of control. The interaction between two particular proteins – this “molecular hug” – seems to be necessary for cell division. A promising approach to fighting cancer could be to block this interaction. No interaction between the two proteins, no cell division. No cell division, no cancer. No cancer…no cancer.