Lessons From FameLab

by @edent | # # # | Read ~289 times.

A couple of weeks ago, I was a finalist at FameLab Oxford. I won the "Audience Choice" award - and was placed in the "Wildcard" category for a place at the National Final 🙂

If you're thinking of entering a local FameLab competition, please do so! This quick blog post explains my experience with the competition and hopefully helps teach you based on the mistakes I made.

What Is FameLab?

FameLab is a communications competition designed to engage and entertain by breaking down science, technology and engineering concepts into three minute presentations. Contestants from around the world take part armed only with their wits and a few props that they can carry onto stage – the result is an unpredictable, enlightening and exciting way to encourage your curiosity and find out about the latest research.

You get up on stage - just you and the props you can carry - and spend 3 minutes educating a pub full of people about a single aspect of science. Fun!

Here's my performance at the first round :

And here's me at the final :

The heats are, typically, 8-10 people with 2-4 winners. Those winners go on to compete in a regional final. The winners from each regional final go on to the national finals (just like Glee!) and from there - the International Final; competing with the best science communicators from around the world!

Preparation

Choose a subject that you know really well. You'll need not only distil it into 3 minutes, but make it understandable for a lay audience. In each round, you'll need to give a different presentation but on the same topic.

The best advice I can give is to rehearse until you're sick of doing it. You need to be able to hit that 3 minute mark. If you go over - and the audience hears a gong - you look a bit silly.

Ideally, you want to aim for around 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That gives you enough time to pause for laughter and, if you do lose your train of thought, you won't run out of time.

Personally, I don't like writing down a script - I find that the way I talk and write are in two very different styles.

I would strongly encourage you to learn what you want to talk about - but then practice saying it as though you're speaking naturally. Nothing sounds worse than someone just reciting from memory.

Props


Props are fun! They give the audience something tangible to focus on. The winner of the final (not me!) had a great range of balloons, bottles, and buckets for his demonstration.

Be careful of being over complicated - you don't necessarily want to be fiddling with something all the time you're on stage.

If you're making a prop - like I did - practice with it. Practice picking it up and putting it down. Make sure it's not going to break!

Should you want to use my ENIGMA Rotor diagram for a prop, here's a high resolution image for you to print out.
ENIGMA rotor diagram

Friends

There's usually an audience vote - it's completely fine to stuff the place full of your mates! Everyone benefits from a lively and friendly audience. And, seeing a few familiar faces in the crowd will help with...

Nerves

It's OK to be nervous. Standing up in front of a pub full of people is a nerve-wracking experience. Breath deeply. Focus on what you want to say. Seriously - keep breathing.

You are going to stumble over your lines - the key is not to let it throw you. Worst case scenario, it's all over in 180 seconds.

Alcohol

Some people think that they are quicker-witted after a glass of wine. Others are utterly convinced that a cheeky pint makes them more vivacious and likeable. This is not the case. You make think you're funnier when you're tipsy - but no one else does.

Yes, I know it's hard to be in a pub only drinking fruit juice - but, honestly, you'll perform better without a beer. Once you've done your three minutes, make sure that your friends have lined up a few glasses of your favourite tipple and then proceed to neck them.

Q&A

Be prepared for some tough questioning from the judges. It's not X-Factor style viciousness - but they will pick you up on any scientific mistakes you made.

One bit of feedback I got was particularly good. In my first talk I'd said "you don't really need to know how this works." That was a mistake. The judges correctly pointed out that I could have said "using Prime Numbers" or "a complex mathematical function" - your audience are intelligent.

Audience

Speaking of the audience... Do feel free to interact with them. I love asking my audience questions and getting them to cheer. It helps show the judges just how well you connect with people. And it probably doesn't hurt your chances with the audience vote!

During the interval, and after the show, I chatted to people in the audience. I was enormously gratified to have one 12 year old girl ask me how she could make an ENIGMA machine with her arduino. I also had a young boy ask what programming languages he should be learning now that he had mastered Scratch.

Finally

Just as I was writing this post, I found out that I hadn't made it through to the final. I'm a little sad - but given the strength of the competition, I'm not surprised.

If there is a FameLab near you, please enter the competition. Spend 3 minutes sharing your passion for science with a room full of people - it's an uplifting and exhilarating experience.

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