Evaluating shows

22 01 2011

Are there objective criteria we can use to evaluate how good a show is? When watching shows I ask three questions: where’s the science? who’s the audience? and what’s the story?

Where’s the science?

A science presentation must have science content. This sounds obvious but it is easy to demonstrate an effect without referring to the underlying science. In a magic show we’d expect not to be told what is going on but in a science show that is the whole point. And it is not enough to just chuck out some complicated scientific terminology. At a specialist conference we’d not expect to have every term explained however in a science show the science should be explained in a way that the audience can fully understand it. So when watching shows we can ask ourselves- what science is being presented here and how well is it being explained?

Who’s the audience?

Science presenters should know who their audience is going to be and be able to change their presentation so that it is suitable for that audience. It is never the audience’s fault if the content doesn’t match their age or stage. Demonstrations and the language used to describe them should be suitable for the audience and this information is freely available in the relevant science curricula.  So when watching shows we can ask ourselves- is the science content and is the language suitable for the audience?

What’s the story?

Collections of unrelated science demonstrations are rarely very satisfying. As soon as you get the point behind one demonstration its off to another. The cascade of different concepts is confusing to those who understand what’s going on and impenetrable to those who don’t. We “follow a story”, a problem is “unraveled”  and demonstrations in a science shows should be related in some way. There should be a theme, an underlying connection, a story that people will take away from the show. So when watching a show we can ask- what’s the story?

Putting it all together

A show that has lots of science content might get a high mark for science. But if that science was pitched way over the heads of the audience it would get only a low mark for audience. If it was also just a collection of demos with no overall theme or path then it would get nothing for story.

You can even assign an actual mark to each of the categories. For instance, I give a mark out of 10 for each criteria when I’m assessing a show (eg: 2/10 for an poor attempt all the way up to 10/10 for hitting the nail on the head) and then add the the three marks up to give a score out of 30. Applied to my own shows I find having a score a useful (but scary!) way of seeing how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go.

What you think about the choice of questions? They were chosen because they are universal, they can be applied to any show, but perhaps there are others you’d like to suggest. Apply these criteria to shows you watch and shows of your own. It can be a brutal experience but ultimately it will be worthwhile if it makes the shows we perform better.

Thanks to Johnathon Sanderson, via Big Chat, for suggesting the third criteria “where’s the story”.

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One response

18 01 2011
Tim "Mr. Science" Perkins

Excellent points! Many times as a presenter I have to juggle several goals; pleasing the client, connecting with the audience, making sense of a complex set of variables, delivering “AHA!” moments, etc. There’s always room for improvements.
After nearly 20 years of presenting I’ve also noticed that the audiences are becoming more sophisticated in their science knowledge. This makes it more challenging to deliver cutting-edge information. When kids connect with me a decade later and enthusiastically tell me they were informed and inspired in a way that was relevant to them – that’s the bulls-eye for me.

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