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FameLab – my journey with the global science communication competition

Author: Christina Melidou, Partnership Manager at FutureLearn

Access to education and scientific knowledge is easier than ever, so why do so many pseudoscientific conspiracy theories circulate online and, more importantly, why do so many people believe them? There may be many explanations but one thing is for sure: scientists need to improve their communication skills. And this is what FameLab hall of famelab is all about.

FameLab is a global science communication competition which was first held by Cheltenham Festivals back in 2005. In 2007, thanks to a partnership with the British Council, the competition became international and, to this day, 10,000 engineers and scientists have taken part. In 2019, national competitions were held in 25 countries from the UK to Kazakhstan and from Mauritius to Australia and Qatar and every year, those national winners met at Cheltenham Science Festival for the international final.

I took part in FameLab Greece back in 2008 and returned as a judge for Hall of FameLab 2019, where participants from different cohorts and countries took to the stage during European Researchers’ Night at the Natural History Museum on 27 September. For me, it was an opportunity to reflect on the many opportunities this competition sent my way: media training from Quentin Cooper, talks at schools and science festivals, a slot in a science programme on television, and public speaking skills that I used to coach TEDx speakers. But more importantly, access to a network of amazing people who love talking about science. 

So, what does it take to communicate science well? In FameLab, participants only get 3 minutes, no slides and only props which they themselves can carry on stage. Why? Because when a news story breaks, you will rarely get time to prepare and the news anchor will only give you a couple of minutes before moving on to the next story.

Here are some tips that FameLabbers, and indeed any speakers, need to keep in mind: 

      To the point: Decide what your main point is and explain it succinctly. Avoid expanding sideways unless you know you’ll have time to conclude.

      No assumptions: Ask the host about the type of audience they expect and approach them with an open mind. Avoid jargon and assumptions about what they may or may not know.

      Use your props wisely: When you explain a difficult concept, try metaphors or simple props that will convey your point. This year’s Hall of Famelab winner used a pineapple to discuss the impact AI has on phylogenetic research and the audience loved it.

      Tell a story: People love stories so make sure there’s a clear narrative. Think of yourself as a tour guide talking people through your topic.

I was thrilled to be part of Famelab, then and now, and I can’t wait to see the communication skills of tomorrow’s scientists.


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