18 01 2011

This is a quiet little blog where I have started to collect thoughts about live science presenting.

I think everyone that works as a science presenter can benefit from thinking more about what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it in the first place. And reading about what others are thinking is an excellent way to start.

I hope that there are posts here that get you thinking. I’d certainly be interested to hear about what you think in the comments. Scroll down or choose a category from the buttons above. If you just have time to read one thing or if you need somewhere to start can I recommend reading this post: Evaluating shows.

I am considering opening this blog up and accepting posts from others. It would be great to hear from you if you are another thoughtful science presenter and you have something you’d like to share about what you do and how you do it.


http://www.thejugglingscientist.com  scienceshowsforschools@gmail.com

Teachers, what message are you giving?

23 11 2018

I’d like to start this post by thanking all those teachers who model good audience behaviour to their students by watching my shows together with their kids.

Not every child knows how to behave in a show. Not every child will be in the right frame of mind at that time in the school day to behave at their best. Your taking part and joining in the show demonstrates to the kids how they should be behaving. It will help them (and me) immensely.

I always sympathise with teachers who politely explain to me before we start why they’ll absolutely *have* to work quietly at the back. Of course, I’d prefer they didn’t but I can’t stop them and as they’ve asked nicely/explained the situation I will not be offended. I will explain that if I do need them to model good behaviour then I will subtly ask them to join the group but only if it’s really necessary.

If a teacher just assumes they can use my show as a chance to get their work done I’m afraid I do consider that to be terribly rude. If this happens out of sight of the children and I don’t need the teacher’s help I probably won’t say anything but I *will* be offended.

Please teachers do not be like this teacher here:

Please think of the message doing this will send to the kids [this isn’t important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to so why should you] and the message this sends to me as a fellow teaching professional.

And if you do do this please don’t be surprised if I call out what you are doing during a show, be grateful if I do it quietly by whispering in your ear and not in front of the kids and the rest of the staff, and expect to find yourself the subject and inspiration for an exasperated blog post.

Use the stage

8 11 2017

See that stage in your venue? It’s there for presentations like mine. It’s there because on a flat floor anyone seated more than 2 or maybe 3 rows back can’t see a thing.


Just because you’ve a tiny projector screen over the door or because “there’s stuff stored up on the stage” don’t sacrifice the comfort of 4/5ths of your audience by not using the stage. It really is worth taking the time to find another screen to put on the stage and/or having a tidy up.

On a flat floor the experience of those in the first couple of rows will be so different to those sat behind them it’s like they are watching a different show. If you use the stage though everyone gets to see everything that is going on.

UPDATE Paul McCrory quite rightly emailed me to say with numbers up to 120ish this flat layout can work well. I agree with him. As long as there are less than 4 rows of seats it can work. This post refers to an audience of 240+ with 8+ rows of seats.

Today I was working on a flat floor with 7 or 8 rows of seats. You can see the children straining to see the volunteer at the front and that’s with the volunteer standing on a chair.

If I hadn’t raised the child up the majority of the audience wouldn’t have seen a thing. This isn’t just unfair to those at the back it leads to behaviour management issues as well. I wouldn’t sit quietly either if I couldn’t see what was happening but my classmates at the front could see it all.

Here you can see a teacher in the same venue just visible to the audience again having to stand on a chair.

Compare the view these children had in this venue with the flat floor to these children yesterday in a venue with a stage.

Even 11 rows back (I took the photo from row 12) every member of the audience can see all of the teacher volunteer.

As Paul very correctly pointed out you loose a connection when you use a stage, you put a “4th wall” between you and the audience, however with audiences requiring more than 4 rows of seating the benefits of everyone being able to see outweigh the negatives of distancing yourself. You can always come down off the stage to reconnect if doing so is suitable.


Today I was working in a lecture theatre and I had to make a stage.

Lecturers normally just talk (often turned to face their slides…) and so these sorts of venues only make the top third of an adult visible to the audience. Why would you need to see more of the lecturer if they’re just talking?

Look at the stick figures in the picture below to 1) see how tall I would have been when I was speaking and 2) how tall my volunteer would have been.

So people could see I found a table for my volunteer to stand on. Without it he would have been basically invisible to the audience, they certainly wouldn’t have seen those two bottles hitting the table at the same time.


PowerPoint images

4 05 2017

Just when you thought Trump’s administration couldn’t prove themselves to be anymore inept today, Sean Spicer, took us to a new low. 

In his carefully prepared press briefing today he showed 4 images on the one slide..! OK, maybe it’s not quite as important as impending thermonuclear armageddon but there’s no excuse for it. 

Did you know PowerPoint was initially produced as a specialised word processor for producing acetate slides? It’s a little known fact that the world’s most popular presentation software started out as a program to help people produce physical printed slides for projectors like these. 

Old acetate slides were expensive to buy and print (if you didn’t just write with the multicoloured pens and do it freehand) and they were a pain to transport. As such, you tried to squeeze as much on each slide as you could. 

Readers of a certain generation will remember the tear-off backing to the clear acetate slide being used to block off the part of the slide the presenter didn’t want you to read yet. As presenters spoke they would slide the paper down the acetate to reveal their next point bit by bit, line by line. 

Even if you’ve never seen an old acetate slide presentation you’ve experienced what it was like. The “master slide” PowerPoint template of Title, Text and Bullet points and the presentation of information line by line is a direct throwback to those acetate slides. 

Just because the next line of text is “fading”, “appearing” or “flying in” doesn’t make it any different to someone sliding down a piece of paper over those preprinted acetate slides in the olden days!

But now we don’t have to carry slides around with us. We aren’t limited by only having 10 slides for an hour-long presentation. We can use as many as we like. And that is why Sean Spicer’s slides are so hideous. 

Each of those images should be on its own slide. Instead of 4 cramped images with tiny unreadable text squeezed underneath each image each picture deserves its own slide.

If each slide was separate not only would they be more legible and impactful, Sean Spicer wouldn’t have had to turn and point like he did. 

If you are interested in making more impactful presentations and want to avoid making the mistakes people like Spicer and even Bill Gates make…

you should check out Garr Reynolds brilliant website and book called Presentation Zen

Our job is to make the ideas we are presenting as easy as possible for our audience to engage with. Tiny, crushed collages don’t help. It costs nothing in ink or acetate to put each of your images on a separate slide. It doesn’t make the presentation any harder to transport either. 


When does behaviour management start?

22 03 2017

Imagine being a teenager on the way to a science show and seeing these chairs as you entered the room. What has just been happening in this room? What standards of behaviour have previously been set and what standards of behaviour are going to be demanded of you?

Now look at these chairs. Ask yourself the same questions. 

Behavioural priming is a field of psychological research that isn’t without its critics but it makes sense to me that teenagers who see the second, neater room set up will assume higher behavioural expectations have been and are going to be set than those who see the first. 

Behaviour management doesn’t just start as you begin to speak. Wittingly or not your audience will be making assumptions about how they are going to be expected to behave from the moment they enter your space. 

I have written before about the value of controlling the fill and owning the room. By stopping children at the door, making them line up and wait for their teacher to arrive you are giving them a very powerful message – that you are in control and that you know what you are doing.

Children who are guided to enter a room calmly, who then see neat rows of chairs easy for them to file along, are always easier to speak to in my experience than those who have rushed uncontrolled into a messy space. 

Now what about the way you are dressed? I’m not exactly sure why the uniform of a science presenter has become a brightly coloured, embroidered polo shirt but I’d guess they are cheap, hard wearing and in a science centre environment make staff stand out and easy to spot whilst fitting into the centre’s overall branding. 

I personally don’t like this style of uniform but in a science centre I can see how it can be justified. I don’t think it helps members of those institutions who do outreach. 

In every school there is a dress code. Even if the children are not expected to wear a specific uniform there will be certain expectations. And this applies to the teachers as well. 

Imagine we are back in school and you are a teenager entering the room for your science show. What impressions are you going to form about the show you are about to see when the people presenting it are dressed more casually than your school’s maintenance and cleaning staff?

I’ve just searched google images for “teacher” and there isn’t a single image of someone in a brightly coloured polo shirt. But science centre outreach staff aren’t “teachers” I can hear some people shout. Yes, I know where you are coming from but “informal education” refers to the style of pedagogy not how people are dressed. 

The picture above is a random pic taken from google but it is representative of the way the presenters I saw last week really struggling to manage a tough teenage audience were dressed.

Those presenters weren’t from the Science Museum in London but they’d been sent out to perform to S1 and S2 (13-14 year olds) by their own centre looking very similar. In the end they just had to stop their show. The kids’ behaviour got so out of hand that the teachers had to step in and take the kids back to class. 

We know science centres. If you are reading this blog you have definitely visited one, you’ve probably even worked at one, so you unwittingly understand why science centre staff are dressed like that. Through your past experiences you have been primed to expect a certain style of performance but not everyone has the same experiences you have. 

Imagine you are a teenager who’s never been to a science centre, who’s never seen anyone in their school dressed like that. What image are you forming of this person and what expectations will you have of their show and the behaviour expected of you?

I’m not justifying the kids’ behaviour but I can’t help but feel their behaviour might have been different if they’d been faced with people dressed in a way that demanded more respect. 

I performed to the same S2 group and I knew they were going to be tough. I don’t wear a science centre polo I wear a slightly more relaxed version of what you might expect a teacher to wear (shirt, jacket and dressy dark denim jeans normally). To counter the troubling environment for that performance I changed my shoes from my comfy performing black trainers to a pair of leather brogues. When it comes to behaviour priming every little helps.

One last point is about the way you start to speak. If the first thing you do is shout to get the audience’s attention then you are priming that audience to not be quiet until you shout again. The first words that come out of your mouth – and more importantly the way you say them – will set the tone for the rest of your performance. If you want the children to listen quietly then you will have to get them quiet before you speak. Perhaps the details of this are best dealt with in a separate post. 

Performing to teenagers is hard, assuming your material is up to scratch and not the real issue, remember the importance of behavioural priming. Behaviour management starts long before you begin to speak. Think about the behaviour you want the kids to exhibit and ask yourself if your set up and what you are wearing is reinforcing or undermining that message. 

Don’t try this at home…

23 02 2017

I can’t think of many more redundant things to say as a science presenter than “don’t try this at home” [DTTAH].

Replication of potentially dangerous demos is a genuine issue in our work and it’s not enough for us to try and hide behind DTTAH statements. We need to do much more. 

Jonathan Sanderson and I were speaking about this a few years back and he really opened my eyes. 

He told me to imagine a demo with a 1 in a 1000 chance of going wrong and then think of different people doing it. The perception of those 1 in a 1000 odds changes quickly. 

Imagine a lecturer showing a demo  (that the audience couldn’t recreate), once every other year, for the department open day. A 1 in a 1000 risk sounds pretty acceptable. 

Now imagine a science presenter repeating that same (unrecreatable) demo but doing it 3 times a day, 100 times per year. All of a sudden that 1 in a 1000 risk sounds a lot less inviting and that’s just risk for the presenter. 

Now imagine the demo is done the same number of times but in doing the demo the presenter gives out enough information for kids in the audience to replicate it. Let’s say 10 kids in every show try it just once.

Can you see how that perfectly reasonable risk for the lecturer becomes a totally unacceptable risk for the science presenter showing kids how it’s done?

Jonathan takes it further because he makes TV programmes. Imagine that demo done just once on TV but shown to 250,000 kids. Your 1 in a 1000 chance of going wrong demo would now be making the headlines on the 6pm news!

Jonathan and I spoke before YouTube exploded in popularity. Today I’ve been watching and annotating a video of a show that is on YouTube for the world to see. I’m not going to out the presenter here but I am going to send them a link to this post. I’m only 14 mins into the 48 min lecture but they’ve made 5 DTTAH announcements whilst showing and explaining 3 or 4 demos that are a replication concern.

Let’s be honest. If you are reading this blog you have always had a curious and creative personality. When you heard DTTAH as a kid I bet what you really heard was “listen closely because I’m going to show you how to do something that’s cool and probably dangerous” [LCBIGTSYHTDSTCAPD]. 

LCBIGTSYHTDSTCAPD is a not a message we want the kids to go away with. So far the YouTube video has only got a few hundred hits but that’s not to say it mightn’t go viral. So what do we do?

The key to keeping our audience safe (keeping yourself safe has been covered in other posts) is to only give out enough information so the science nugget can be explained. Let’s take the flaming bubbles ignited on the hand demo. 

(This is a random google image, it’s not the presenter I was watching although this is a demo he does in his show.)

Depending on why and for who you are doing this demo your nugget will be different. Perhaps you are showing that heat rises, or that water insulates you from heat, or that some gasses are flammable but some are not, in none of these situations do you need to tell your audience what your gas is or where they can get it – so don’t. 

Cover up and disguise the gas canister. Refer to the gas as a “special gas I have bought from my laboratory”. Do whatever you need to do so that a member of your audience won’t be able to work out how to repeat it without working unreasonably hard. 

And if your science nugget relies on revealing what the fuel is then don’t put it on your hand, put it on a flameproof container and make sure you show that you’ve taken proper PPE precautions. 

Replicability should be part of the risk assessment process for every demo we do. It isn’t hard to make simple changes that will make a big difference in our shows. 

Relying on a DTTAH warning which actually only serves to prick up young ears to something they really shouldn’t be being invited to replicate because it’s genuinely dangerous isn’t good enough. 

First responsibility

22 02 2017

I’m listening to a podcast that features a famous magician called David Hira.


I’ve spoken about giving away magic tricks on the blog before and David Hira touches on this subject. (He’s totally against it, like most magicians, by the way).

In that discussion however he says something that I thought you might find interesting. He said one of the reasons you never give the workings of a trick away is because:

The first responsibility of a magician is to fool their audience. People might say that it doesn’t matter if people know how a trick is done because it is all about your performance but that’s nonsense. The first responsibility of a magician is to fool their audience. 

The interviewer steps in at this point to speak about entertainment and David replies:

No your first responsibility is to fool them. If you can do a trick that fools people – that is entertainment in itself – but the fooling is your first responsibility.

We don’t need to get into a conversation about giving magic tricks away here but I’d love to know what you think the first responsibility of a science presenter is.

There are shows out there billed as “science shows” that contain precious little science. Some even take pride in that fact. I’ve argued with other esteemed presenters who’ve suggested that if your priority in a show is just to entertain then it doesn’t matter if there is little or no science in a presentation but I really disagree.


My answer to the question would be that if a presentation is billed as having anything to do with science, if you are selling your show with even the faintest promise that it is about science, then your first responsibility as a science presenter is to present science.

If you can present some science, if you can show a scientific principle in a way that your audience understands and in a context they can relate to, then that is entertaining enough in itself. Your first responsibility is to present science.

Drop me a line either in the comments or at my email. I’d love to know what you think.

Teller speaks about demo chains

2 02 2017

This video is worth watching because you get to see and hear Teller doing magic. 

In his talk Teller expertly demonstrates how magicians take advantage of how people begin to gain understanding as they see things being repeated. 

As he says in his introduction: In real life you see something repeated and you start to pick up a pattern. 

Teller doesn’t just tell us, of course, he demonstrates it. In a perfect example of Hook and Reveal we are shown the trick and then left desperate to know what is going on. He doesn’t leave us hanging for long, he moves straight into a Tell and Show explanation of what was he was actually doing with the coins perfectly illustrating the point he wants us to grasp. 

There’s a lot to enjoy about this short talk but the one takeaway I’d like to highlight is the power of the repetition. He doesn’t just reveal one coin and move onto another trick. He has built an entire piece around a simple idea. 

As the trick progresses Teller shows how at every reveal he manipulates what we think we’ve already learned so he can surprise us with the next twist. As science presenters we can use the same powerful technique to reinforce and explain rather than baffle our audiences. 

If he went straight to producing coins out of someone’s glasses the trick would be a very unsatisfactory trick. But because he builds a series of productions before we fully appreciate and enjoy what has just happened. 

When we present science if we link our demos, as we move through what I like to call a Demo Chain we can harness this same technique of repetition but instead of using it to fool your audience like a magician you use it to aid their comprehension. 

Follow the Demo Chain link or check out any of Steve Spangler’s work to see good examples. 

Facts, factoids and factlets

5 12 2016

When someone says “Did you know…” or “You’ll never guess what I learned today…” they are probably about to share a factoid with you. Or are they?

Well you’ll never guess what I learned today – it turns out factoids are not notable facts worth sharing. Despite what Steve Wright (in the afternoon) might have you believe factoids are not true facts at all. Factoids are pieces of untrue information that sound credible enough that a significant number of us believe them and share them even though they are actually nonsense. REF

A typical factoid might be that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space. It can’t. It might be very long but it’s never wide enough to be resolved without a powerful telescope. 

Another is that the thicker glass found at the bottom of old cathedral windows proves that glass is a liquid and flows. It doesn’t. If it did our museums would be filled old glass vessels that would all look saggy at the bottom and they aren’t. 

It is a FACT that liquids flow. There are no strong forces holding their molecules together. Their molecules can move freely past one another. That is why liquids can be poured, splashed around, and spilled.

It is a FACT that, like in a liquid, the atoms in glass are not arranged in any regular order. 

But it is also a FACT that, unlike in a liquid, the atoms in glass are all held together tightly by strong chemical bonds. Despite not sitting in a regular order they cannot move freely past each other. This is what makes glass rigid. It cannot flow at room temperature. 

So it is a FACTIOD to say glass flows like a liquid. It is wrong. 

But it is a FACTLET to say that old pieces of glass are not uniformly thick. Due to their production process some sections were thicker than others and it makes sense to put the thicker, stronger sections at the bottom. 

Now I know about the confusion in these terms I will henceforth refer to pieces of information with clear and accepted evidence FACTS. To pieces of oft repeated but untrue information as FACTOIDS. And to those undoubtably true and irresistible pieces of highly shareable information we should all include in our presentations as FACTLETS.

Did you know that it is a FACT that viscosity (the opposite of fluidity) is measured in poises?

It is a FACT that at room temperature, the viscosity of water is about 0.01 poise. Molasses has a viscosity of about 500 poises.


It is also a FACT that estimates of the viscosity of glass at room temperature run as high as  100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10 to the 20th power) poises. LINK

I’ll leave you with one last FACT. The viscosity of metallic lead has been estimated to be about 100,000,000,000 (10 to the 11th power) poises. 

So the next time you find yourself in an old cathedral and someone tells you the incorrect FACTOID about the flowing glass you can hit right back with the entirely correct FACTLET that

the lead holding in the panes of glass is actually a billion times less viscous than the glass!

Adverts might follow this post. I have no control over and receive no revenue from these. 

Pecha kucha demos

9 08 2016

I was privileged to attend the BIG Event this year in Belfast and I enjoyed their cheekily titled “Best Demo Competition”. 

For those of you that haven’t seen the Best Demo Competition it’s cheekily titled because they don’t limit participation to those presenters who might be considered the best – this year there were novices and early career presenters alongside some demo wrangling stalwarts. They don’t expect the entrants to show a demo – this year just under half the contestants actually performed what might be considered a STEM demo, the rest were more science cabaret or science variety acts. And despite the fact no other events are programmed against it and there’s a trophy given out to the winner at the gala dinner described as “one of the least valuable yet most highly prized honours in UK science communication” there are no voting criteria and those attending the event are told not to take the competition bit seriously (LINK). 

(It really shouldn’t work but I’d recommend anyone go and see one if they can. As long as you don’t take the title at all seriously it is great fun.)

Entrants to the “Best Demo Competition” are given 3 minutes (or so – the winner went minutes over time… another example of how loosely BIG applies the term competition!) and this year most tried to put their demos into some sort of context. I think demo presentations should always have a story but I know this lead to some comments that the best demo competition was more of a best routine competition.

I thought more of a problem was this year most entrants chose to perform single concept-single demo presentations which I thought was a shame. 

Concepts explained with just one demo inevitably end up as being either show then tell or tell then show. Unless the presenter is happy to get on and get off fast there is always large amounts of speaking either before or after we see the demo. 

The time limit is a very good idea because it forces contestants to get on with it. I enjoy watching YouTube videos of the ASTEC Live Demo Hour but I think most of the performances could benefit from a stricter time limit.

The problem with the 3 minutes allotted to the “Best Demo Competition” in almost every case it is still far too long for the presentation of just one or two demos. 

The majority of contestants this year tried to fill or pad their demos with stage business to take up their allotted time. Unfortunately this padding more often than not distracted attention and focus from the demos rather than aid our understanding. I think this was what those people who were unhappy were unhappy with – story isn’t the problem, neither is a routine, but a weak story and/or overly long routine is. 

All but one of those who managed to perform more than one demo in their allotted time performed individual demos that were loosely themed to go together (eg: involving the same fruit or that looked like drinks) rather than scripted tightly to make a single concept-multiple demo presentation or what I would call a demo chain

The contestant I personally thought should have won performed three chained demos, way under time and didn’t resort to costume, dance or song to unnecessarily jazz up what she was trying to demonstrate. 

In her presentation we were shown two demos to explain the science she was trying to communicate (thermoclines). The first demo most of the audience would have been familiar with (see picture below) but the second was new, at least, to me.  Then we were shown a third big finale that combined the previous two demos and reinforced the science underpinning the presentation that I thought was excellent. 

This brings me to Petcha Kutcha

The Petcha Kutcha (PK) format was developed in 2003 to specifically deal with the problem of speakers talking at too few slides for far too long. It was originally conceived for architects but as they say in the PK FAQ we can all fall in the same trap:

Give a microphone and some images to an architect — or most creative people for that matter — and they’ll go on forever! 

The PK format is simple. Each speaker talks whilst 20 slides play in the background for 20 seconds each. This means you avoid the problem of too few slides – everyone has 20; and you limit the time anyone can speak – 6 mins and 40 secs. 

The time limit is part of our “Best Demo Competition” format. Could our presentations benefit from insisting on a certain number of demos as well?

I have been asked to take part in a PK event and instead of talking whilst 20 slides play for 20 seconds each I thought about trying to perform 20 demos instead. 

The only way this would be possible would be to chain my demos so each linked to the demo that came before and after and helped tell one consistent story. There would be no time to explain and perform even one unconnected demo in 20 seconds. What I envisage is a series of linked demos, most using the same equipment, that can be woven together in the way series of card tricks are woven together in a magician’s routine. 

Half the time I think about this 20 seconds seems impossibly fast but then 20 seconds for many PK speakers ends up seeming a very long time when they are on stage. This very talented PK speaker shows this perfectly at 1:50.

If my PK experiment presentation works, next year at the BIG Event I might suggest as session where we explore this further. Perhaps a strict 20 seconds per demo will prove unworkable and unnecessarily rigid but it should be easy to ask people to perform at least three chained demos in two minutes – my favourite “Best Demo Competition” entrant took this long to perform her three demos. 

I’m looking for inspiration towards the work of Steve Spangler who always manages to chain his science demos and magicians like this. 

I count 11 reveals of the same “Ambitous Card” in just 2:40 mins!

I’d be fascinated to hear from you if you’ve tried something like this yourself or if you’ve any footage of someone that has. And as usual I encourage people to post any comments. 

Annotating shows

30 07 2016

This is a picture of a page from one of my numerous notebooks where I have annotated a science show.

I’m not in a position to describe my annotation system in any detail at the moment but I will soon.

If you are reading this because of a thread on BIG chat this post will make more sense…