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Presenting in different environments

Video interview with Sheila Kanani about presenting in different environments.
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OK. Hi Sheila. Hiya. Hiya. Thanks for getting involved with the call. No problem. And agreeing to have a chat. That’s really great. Just before we get cracking, could you just really quickly introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do, as well? Yeah, so my name’s Dr. Sheila Kanani. I’m the Education Outreach and Diversity Officer at The Royal Astronomical Society. My background’s planetary science, so when I was in academia I worked on the Cassini Mission, looking at the planet Saturn, its rings and its moons. But then I left academia and went into education and outreach. So I was a secondary school science teacher for a couple of years.
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And then I’ve been doing education outreach and diversity at the Royal Astronomical Society since 2014. Ah, amazing. Nice. So today, I think you’re going to chat to us about presenting within an academic context, aren’t you? Yeah, that’s right. I can kind of pick your brain a little bit to talk about the differences a little bit, and how your experience now might be useful to people within academia, as well. So, I guess, if we start maybe with thinking about the differences. What do you see as the major difference between presenting when you worked within an academic environment and what you do now? Definitely. I mean, you still have to inject personality into the two different types of presenting.
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With the academic presenting, it tended to be very “chalk and talk,” but modern. So PowerPoint, death by PowerPoint almost. Lots of data, lots of slides, lots of graphs. Often presenting to an audience, but the slides behind you would have a lot more text on them. So you would be not reading the slides, but there would be as much information on the slides as you would be talking about. Very, very technical. Very focused on specific areas of science. So, unless you were giving a public talk or a more general lecture, the only people that would really understand– or possibly even care about what you were going on about– would be the people that were working in that field as well.
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Transferring those skills to what we do now– and the majority of what we do now is working with young people and families and the general public– I do still use PowerPoint if I can. I think having some kind of a visual graphic behind me is good. Although, I have been in situations where there’s no electricity or something like that, and you just go it alone. But I tend to talk a lot more, tend to use narrative, tend to tell a story about whatever it is I’m talking about. And the visuals behind me tend to literally be amazing photographs from space and very few words. And obviously the content is changed.
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I’d never dumb anything down for different audiences, but you do have to change what you say, so try not to use as many acronyms, try not to assume knowledge, so start at the beginning. I remember one of the first non-academic talks I did in a primary school. I just went in there and started talking about planets or something, but then actually had
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to take a step back and talk about: this is the sun, this is our solar system, these are planets, these are stars, and sort of build up from there. Because often, in schools, in formal education, there’s not much astronomy or space in the curriculum. So you kind of have to start from the beginning every time. Yeah. I think that’s a really important point about assumed knowledge. Yeah, I think that’s a good thing to chat about. So you talked a little bit about your style when you’re presenting in both settings. Would you say it is really different? I guess, now, as well, you have more experience. Yeah.
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As well, so that’s got a part to play, but how you feel as a presenter, would you say that that is different as well because of the environment? Yeah, definitely.
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So the two changed factors is: the level of experience. And also, I don’t do as many academic presentations anymore as I used to when I was in academia, but it would be the way I prepared. It would be the way I presented. It would be the afterwards as well. And obviously, now things have changed because of doing things online, as well. So when I used to do the majority of the academic presentations, they’d
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be much shorter: maybe ten minutes, 15 minutes. I would practise and practise and practise, almost write a script and learn it. Whereas, for when I’m talking to the public, I know what I’m going to say, but there is no way I would script it because it comes out too mechanical, then. You have to interact a lot more with the general public, especially young people, and change your tone of voice, and gesticulate more wildly and that kind of thing. Whereas academic presentations tend to be very stoic and very one tone, and the data is what’s being presented. Whereas when you’re talking to the general public, often it’s you that’s doing the presenting more than what’s behind you.
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So, the style is definitely very different. Yeah. OK. If you were giving yourself advice, back in time, so you were going back to Sheila who worked in academia, but chatting from now, what advice would you give when it comes to presenting? There’s a few different things. I used to get really nervous before presenting and really panic about the technology not working, or forgetting what I was going to say, basically everything. And now, I do still get that anxious feeling inside, but I use that in the presentation, kind of change it from anxiety to adrenaline, and use the energy to really present. So I don’t fear that fear anymore in the same way.
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I’m still aware when I’m so nervous that I can’t present very well, but I’ve worked with that. Actually, when I was teaching there was an occasion where I was using a Van de Graaff generator, and I got it too close to the laptop. It kind of blew everything up. The electricity went out and I still had to teach. And I did just literally then take it to “chalk and talk.” Because of those different experiences, I’m a lot more flexible when things do go wrong. I’ve always got something inside, in a virtual pocket, to pull out if things do go wrong. The other thing is questions afterwards.
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As an academic, when I was presenting, the worst thing was the questions afterwards, possibly because of the audience and the expertise in the audience, and the difficult questions they would ask you. But I used to really fear the questions and worry about what they might ask me, and how I would deal with that. Now, I will just say, “I don’t know, why don’t you find out and let me know?” It’s OK not to know everything and it’s OK to be human and admit the fact that you don’t know. So those are the main things I think I’ve learnt since I was an academic. Yeah. Yeah.
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So we’ve actually got some bits coming up about those later on in the course, what to do when things go wrong. Because I think lots of people really panic about that, but actually, I know exactly what you mean. That’s happened to me, as well, where loads of things have just completely fallen over in the middle of a presentation. And I think when you’ve had that catastrophic experience and it wasn’t actually that catastrophic, you think, “I can deal with anything now; it’s not so bad.”
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Yeah, and I think if you reflect on how things went wrong and what you would do if that happened again, and just prepare for it as much as you can next time, then job’s a good’un sort of thing. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. Oh, that’s brilliant. Thanks very much, Sheila. No problem. That was a great chat. I think we got some really good tips and hints in there, as well, that will be really helpful for people. Great. Thanks very much! No problem.
Dr Sheila Kanani

Sheila is a planetary physicist, science presenter, secondary school physics teacher and space comedian, with a background in astrophysics and astronomy research from UK universities. She regularly acts as a science ambassador, by visiting schools and speaking at events. Sheila is currently the Education, Outreach and Diversity officer for the Royal Astronomical Society in London and her 5th book has just been published.

In this interview Sheila talks about her experience presenting within an academic environment as well as within the world of science communication. She discusses the challenges and differences as well as giving her past self advice based on what she has learned.

What do you see as the challenges presenting within a formal environment? How would you change your approach?

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