Image: Stephanie Okeyo, a Kenyan microbiologist, giving a flash talk at Falling Walls Engage 2019.


Script Practical Guide

How to give a science flash talk

Speed read

  • A flash talk is a short presentation of your research to a non-expert audience
  • A flash talk must be clear, concise and engaging
  • Don’t be a statue but avoid dancing

By: Bernard Appiah

What is a science flash talk?
Giving a science flash talk: two case studies
Know your audience
Top ten tips for an engaging and interesting flash talk

Communication is an essential component of research. Before conducting your research, perhaps you had to convince funders or your institution to support it. And even when you have completed your research, you have to communicate it to your peers and others not in your field. Your potential to attract additional support depends on many factors including your ability to persuade institutions or people to be interested in your research.

When persuading people to be interested in your research or to even fund or prioritise your research, you often have to do so in a very short time. One way to fulfil this goal is to participate in a science flash talk.

What is a science flash talk?

A science flash talk is a presentation of your research or idea in a short time to engage with audiences who may not necessarily be experts in your field. These audiences may include judges who will be evaluating your presentation or others who may just be listening to you. Your task is to help them become aware of, or interested in, your research idea or concept.

Flash talks may be organised as a contest or as the format of a conference session. Examples of flash talk contests are Three Minute Thesis and Falling Walls Engage. Each Falling Walls Engage finalist has five minutes to present their science engagement initiative to a distinguished audience including judges.

In such contests or presentations, you become the driver to lead your audience to a destination where they will at least be interested in your research or idea. By convention, you usually will not be expected to use PowerPoint. However, in some talks or contests such as the Falling Walls Engage, you are expected to use very few slides.  

In those five minutes your aim is to inspire the audience and help them to learn about the area of research that you are presenting.

Giving a science flash talk: two case studies

In 2018 the Geneva Health Forum organised a Science Flash Talk contest in Switzerland. Bonaventure Ikediashi, a doctoral student at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland, won. In three minutes, Ikediashi convinced his audience about the need to study knowledge deficit among patients of sickle disease.

Prior to his doctoral studies Ikediashi, a Nigerian, worked at a global logistics company in Mauritius and Madagascar. He capitalised on his global health experience to give an engaging science flash talk.

Stephanie Okeyo is a microbiologist and founder of Under The Microscope, a Kenyan-based non-profit that advances science education. Okeyo was one of the finalists at the 2019 Falling Walls Engage. Like all other finalists, she had only five minutes to speak about her initiatives.

“Because of the short time, it taught me how to filter unnecessary information,” she says. “I learned to be okay with moving out of ‘my script’ as I stuck to the core points.”

But beyond filtering unnecessary information, there are several strategies to help you give an effective science flash talk.

Know your audience

Pascal Heymann, pitch and presentation trainer at coached the 2019 Falling Walls Engage finalists. He says that knowing one’s audience is key to delivering an effective science flash talk. He explains: “I advise any expert to ask themselves two questions before creating a pitch: First, how much does my audience already know about this topic? Second, how does my field of research relate to the audience’s everyday experience?”

“As an expert, you are closer to your topic than anyone else. You know the intricacies, the connections, the challenges and the breakthroughs,” he adds. “However, your audience does not. Your audience for all intents and purposes knows little to nothing about your field of research. And that’s fine. That’s why you’re pitching it to them. But it’s vital to keep this in mind when creating your pitch.”

Indeed, knowing the backgrounds of the audience can also help one to relate to them. For example at a health conference it is common to have audiences with health backgrounds. However, in some contests such as Falling Walls Engage, the audience may have diverse backgrounds: from anthropology to zoology. The overriding point is to ensure that your audience will not be lost.

You have to be sensitive to the culture of your audience too. For example, in parts of Africa, it is common to quote the wise saying “too many rats cannot dig a hole”. This implies that it can be messy to have various people doing the same thing in an uncoordinated manner. But this wise saying may offend audiences in Arab cultures where the use of rats in reference to people is derogatory.

Top ten tips for an enaging and interesting flash talk

Start and end well

How you begin your science flash talk can determine the extent to which your audience move along with you or decide not to pay attention. “I imagine we all have an idea of pain. So if you had a muscle pull, or maybe childbirth, menstrual cramps…” began Ikediashi. “Now imagine having pain with an intensity that is probably 50 times worse. Terrible, isn’t it?” With this introduction, Ikediashi captivated the attention of the audience. Beginning with statements such as “The title of my talk is …” is unlikely to be as interesting.

Equally important as the start of your talk, is how you end it, which can leave a lasting impression on the audience. Thus, you should practise your opening and ending lines well. Okeyo ended her talk with the statement, “Try in your various ways to see how we are going to burst this bubble of ‘climate change is not real’.”  Such a call for action can be effective. To start and end well, you will need to practise.

Make your talk relevant and relatable to the audience

You should try to make your story of human interest even if your talk is about abstract concepts. Okeyo asked, “What puzzles me as a scientist is how is it that the most intelligent specie is destroying its own home?” The expectation is that an intelligent people should not be destroying their environment, and this helps create intrigue amongst the audience.

Ikediashi used pain, something everyone can relate to, as an example. The two presenters made the audience relate to their topics.

Make your audiences appear as though they were touching, feeling, hearing or smelling what you are talking about. This helps them appreciate your talk and become interested in it.

Let your character(s) in your story come alive

Giving a science flash talk is like telling a story. Have you ever read a story that appeared as though the characters jumped out of the book to interact with you?  For example, the spider (called Ananse in Akan language of Ghana) is one of the most important characters of West African folklore. How this tiny creature is assumed to be the master of all knowledge is indeed a mystery. And as I listened to Ananse stories as a child in rural Ghana, it looked as if Ananse was directly interacting with me. You can employ this element of character in your science flash talk.

The main character in Ikediashi’s science flash talk is someone with sickle cell disease. Can you guess the main character of Okeyo’s talk? The answer is humans causing climate change. One way of making your characters stand out is to present your research as a crisis or dilemma that needs a solution.

Don’t be a statue but avoid dancing

While on the stage, all attention is on you. Use the stage well. To engage your audience effectively, you will have to move around the stage. But ensure that you don’t dance on the stage. Your time is short but resist the temptation to feel hurried or pressured.

If you are naturally shy, don’t display your shyness on the stage by remaining at one corner as if you are a statue. And if you’re naturally outgoing beware of unnecessary body movements as you talk.

Nonverbal communication including how we express our feelings as we talk is an important part of giving a science flash talk. If your talk has elements of surprise, let your audience see it from your face. “Have some eye contact with your audience,” Okeyo adds.

Avoid things that compete with your message

You are the centre of attraction but your message or story is even more important. Ensure that your dress and mannerisms don’t compete with your message. For example, in our everyday talk, repetitive words such as “uhm”, “like”, “you know” or “so” may be common. Not only are such words distracting but they also consume some of the limited time available for the talk. Consider recording your practice sessions or having friends or relatives act as an audience during your practice sessions to identify these habits. Other things to avoid include fiddling with an object in your hand or rocking nervously on your feet.

Avoid “big words” and “speed bumps”

In Africa, we sometimes believe that those who use big words in their talks are more knowledgeable in their field. And so people will say “purchase” instead of “buy”, “approximately” instead of “about” or “elucidate” instead “make clear”. Sometimes, researchers also forget that they are not speaking with their peers. As a result, they may introduce technical terms and abbreviations or acronyms that the audience may not be familiar with. These may create “speed bumps” for the audience, impeding their understanding.

“The best way … is to speak to lay people and have them drill you with questions until they understand what you do,” explains Heymann.

Use your voice effectively

Your voice is yours so don’t hide behind the microphone while on stage. Use it effectively. Speak with an energetic voice but also ensure that you are not shouting.

As you practise your flash talk, learn how to modify aspects of your speech including pitch (low or high), pace (slow or fast) and volume (soft or loud). Use these effectively to ensure that your delivery is not monotonous.

Moreover, you should present your talk in a more active voice (for example, the dog bit the woman) rather than passive voice (for example, the woman was bitten by the dog). Not only is the active voice often easier to understand but it is shorter, helping conserve precious time. Of course, there are instances when the passive voice will be better such as if the woman is a prominent person (for example, the queen mother was bitten by her dog).

If you have to use a prop, do so effectively

A prop can be any physical object relevant to your talk that you show to your audience. Okeyo used a balloon as prop to represent a climate change bubble. When using props, ensure that they can be seen by the audience and that they are meaningful to your talk. And to help create suspense, don’t reveal the prop early to your audience. Okeyo had someone bring the prop to the stage just when she was ready to burst it, thus helping create a suspense. If she had held the balloon earlier in the presentation, it would have been a distraction.

When things don’t go as planned, don’t panic

Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. But remember that the audience doesn’t know how you planned to present, so may well not notice. If something does go contrary to your plans, move on and don’t panic.

Tying it all together

Knowing these strategies will help you provide effective science flash talks. However, without practising these strategies, you are unlikely to achieve perfection.  And remember: “Be confident while presenting, “ says Okeyo. “Nobody knows what you are presenting as well as you.”