If you want to communicate a big idea, here are a few quick rules of thumb: shorter is better than longer; simple is better than complex; and you need to present in a memorable way.
Those are the same core rules at FameLab, an international presentation competition for science, mathematics, engineering and medical professionals. Originally started as a program in Europe to facilitate international communications between young professionals from different cultural backgrounds (but with similar academic interests), the people behind FameLab also set out to make the sciences more accessible to the average person.
FameLab took a cue from American Idol (and its international spinoffs) by setting up competitions where presenters need to communicate their ideas to a panel of judges and a live, voting audience. A quick spin through YouTube will uncover several years of FameLab competitions from Spain, Malaysia, England, Germany and the U.S., as well as international events that include winners from all participating countries.
But there’s a bit of a twist: none of the judges—nor most audience members—are experts in the sciences. Even better, all presentations can last only three minutes. PowerPoint is not allowed, and the only props presenters can use are the ones that they can carry up onto the stage, with no time for setup allowed.
So, let’s rephrase the idea: experts in the sciences from across the world are given three minutes apiece to communicate complex ideas about biology, calculus, electricity, stem cells, climate change, and just about any similar topic covered by the original four subject areas. Best of all, the audience will have no special background in your area of expertise, so you really have to simplify. Judges also get ask questions to give speakers opportunities to expand the topic a bit, but they must stick to the same principle of communicating to a lay audience.
We also like the criteria that FameLab uses to evaluate presentations:
- The content must be accurate. Naturally.
- Clarity is key—the concept must clearly be understandable to non-scientists like us.
- The presenter must have the charisma to leave the audience enthused or inspired by the three-minute talk.
And there’s one other twist thrown in to keep the focus on overall communication rather than just crafting and memorizing a single three-minute talk: Participants who successfully move from one round to the next must deliver substantially different presentations each time. The general topic can be the same, but the material must change.
It’s way too easy for those of us in highly specialized professions to rely on industry-specific terminology when we present. FameLab’s message resonates across all subject areas: it’s not enough to become experts in our own silos of knowledge—we also need to learn to communicate about those silos to the average listener with passion and with a little flair as well.
Click here to watch the final round of this year’s international FameLab competition.