George McGavin’s advice to our speakers, by Dr Louise Janna Johnson

On Tuesday George McGavin, presenter of the BBC’s Monkey Planet, met Soapbox Science speakers to share what he’s learned from being on the box that could help us when we’re up on ours.

gavinworkshopWe met in the basement of Brace & Browns pub, conveniently situated near BBC Bristol. I was a little early so was there when the Bristol contingent arrived, led by wasp-ologist Emily Bell, and arranged the furniture in a manner best suited to the imparting of wisdom (for students of Evidence-Based Feng Shui, this means one large, imposing wing-backed armchair amid a circle of lower seating). George arrived a few minutes later. After about 15 speakers had assembled, Emily explained how SoapBox works and we all introduced ourselves and our science, which spanned a range of fascinating topics from mathematical modelling to maggot mucus.

George then spent a couple of hours answering our questions. The Soapbox events are imminent, so most questions had a very practical focus: How do I deal with nerves? What if someone heckles? What if nobody pays attention at all? Some speakers were very well-prepared and had thought through their examples and analogies very carefully – chemist Charlotte Watson, who’ll be Soapboxing about handedness in molecules, had even ordered sets of scented chemicals in right and left-handed forms, to let her audience smell the difference between them. I was very glad I had another couple of weeks before the London event, to put the suggestions into practice! It was a fascinating evening and I wish we’d had more time, not only to learn from George but to learn from each other.

George was a zoology lecturer before he went into broadcasting, and that academic background showed in his attitude to communication. He was suspicious of gimmicks and of overly personality-driven science communication, and he held that we needn’t sacrifice accuracy to make our ideas comprehensible. However, he explained, this doesn’t give anyone a license to bore; communicating your science, even within academia, is a performance art and should be treated as such.

The top ten tips I gleaned from the evening were:

1. Don’t neglect the practicalities. Stay hydrated and bring snacks. Enthusing is tiring and when you flag, it shows. A day’s filming to camera is more exhausting than you’d imagine.

2. You must grab people’s attention in the first 10 seconds, so use taglines: strong, short, arresting statements, provocative questions, or astounding facts. Apparently, TV programme ideas are pitched with only a title and 10-word tagline. And we think 8 page grant applications are a squeeze!

3. Once you’ve got attention, you need to work to keep it. Make eye contact with your audience and ask individuals direct questions – but be aware that most adults won’t risk being wrong in public, so either choose your questions carefully or ask a child.

4. Aim to explain your science at GCSE level. This may be lower than you expect. (The BBC Bitesize GCSE revision webpages can be handy calibration points here)

5. Use imagery, not measurements. If you want to describe the size of bacteria, don’t use micrometres. Instead, say that a million of them could fit on a pinhead.

6. Smile and use humour – don’t necessarily crack jokes all the time, but make sure your act is entertaining.

7. Your voice really matters. Project clearly. Speak slowly, and not in a monotone. David Attenborough’s much-imitated voice works because he pauses to let the audience catch up, and emphasises key words with strong intonation. Practice all this.

8. Use props where they help, but don’t add tricks and stunts to your act for the sake of it. A contrived prop is at best confusing and pointless, and at worst goes wrong and makes you look like a numpty.

9. Blag it! Stay self-assured. If you mess something up, don’t get flustered,  try to make it part of the act, and never say sorry. However…

10. Tell the truth – the advice to blag it does NOT apply to facts. If someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer, say so. There are things you don’t know, because you’re human, and that’s the point of SoapBox. There are things nobody knows, and that’s the point of science.


I’ll certainly be taking all these into account in my Soapbox prep. and I’m sure we would all like to thank George for being so generous with his time. Good luck everyone!

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