Nutshell Games Winners Provided “Pop Talks” Tips

Two of the three workshop facilitators are shown seated at a table.
Brynn O’Donnell (left) and Maddy Grupper discuss communicating research to public audiences. Photo credit: Alexandra Freeze

Graduate students and top prize winners of the Center’s annual Nutshell Games, Maddy Grupper, Brynn O’Donnell, and Brenen Wynd, led the ComSciCon-VATech session “Finding the Kernel of Your Research,” wherein they shared with participants tips and tricks for constructing an effective “pop talk” about their research. A “pop talks” workshop is a requirement for hosting a local ComSciCon.

Grupper, O’Donnell, and Wynd stressed the importance of giving the audience something tangible that they can walk away with and remember. At the same time, however, you must be careful that your audience doesn’t walk away remembering the wrong thing.

“If your presentation focuses too much on the problem that you are reacting to, you can put people in fear. You have to be careful with how you present your research,” shared Grupper.  The important thing, the three explained, is to figure out how to balance the need to mobilize your audience to take action without scaring them.

Grupper, O’Donnell, and Wynd also pointed out the possibility of your audience walking away from your presentation with an idea of what you do that doesn’t match up completely with what you intended. It is important to hear someone else’s takeaway from your work, as this gives you a better idea of how to present in the future. They also stressed the fact that your main take-home message should amount to approximately two sentences–essentially, your whole talk summed up in a nutshell. This is the origin of the name “Nutshell Games,” Virginia Tech’s 90-second research presentation competition.

The three led participants through a series of exercises that relayed the importance of sharing the big picture of your research with care, comfort, and conciseness. Some of the tips and tricks that the three presented to participants through these exercises include the following:

  • A talk is more impactful when it is interactive. The three exemplified this by performing their winning Nutshell Games presentations for participants, all of which included the use of a prop. Such interaction and motion in a talk can help to heighten how understandable and relatable a talk is to an audience, which is all about making the audience feel connected to your work in some way.
  • An impactful hook avoids jargon. Your hook should highlight some evocative part of your research that can become a feeling, sensation, or something imagined that the audience will remember. The hook can set the tone for one’s entire talk; it can take the form of a recurring theme and reappear at the very end of the talk for the sake of an easy-to-follow structure. Focus on the aspect of your research that is relatable and common ground for your audience. It doesn’t hurt to make your talk simple and to use “common speak” and hypothetical scenarios. Avoiding jargon is especially important when you present your work to people you know you need to influence but who are housed in other disciplines that use their own variety of jargon, such as politicians whom you want to persuade to change policy. You must know how to adjust the jargon in your talk so that others can relate to your work and understand its importance.
  • Think of your research as a story with a beginning, middle, and end that serves to entice as much as educate your audience. To make your audience relate to your research story, identify the characters of that story, and set your audience up to follow your characters through the progression of your talk. The main problem of your research is the main character whom we all want to see change by the end of the story/talk. Other characters are the “what,” “how,” “and why” of your research. It is also important not to underestimate yourself in your own story, for your own excitement and passion about your research are what will move your audience to care about your work as well.
  • Body language. Posture, cadence, tone, and gestures all speak volumes. Presenting yourself to your audience in the most comfortable way you can helps relay to your audience that you care about them. Remembering that you know your research can help you overcome any nervousness and become more confident with public speaking. Grupper, O’Donnell, and Wynd shared examples of effective body language, such as maintaining eye contact and keeping your palms facing toward your audience. They recommended against ending your sentences on an upward inflection, which makes it sound as though you are asking a question rather than making a conclusive statement.
  • Again, the importance of who you are. Don’t forget to introduce yourself and what you study at the beginning of your talk, and to thank your audience at the end of your talk.
  • Your work, in a nutshell. Be sure to know your last sentence, the last ten seconds of your talk, and know it well–your audience will never know what you didn’t say, only what you did say, so make it count.

Wynd, Grupper, and O’Donnell said that ultimately, it doesn’t matter how interested you are in your research if you can’t get your audience interested in it as well. You must deliver your research in a way that is caring, interesting, and comfortable for yourself and your audience.

By Hayley Oliver, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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