In-Person Engagement

One way scientists frequently engage with public audiences is through in-person interactions. There are many types of in-person engagement opportunities to choose from, depending on your communication and engagement goals, and the kinds of activities you’re comfortable participating in or leading. You will likely reach a different audience with a science festival than you will with a formal presentation, and the characteristics of the interaction – and therefore the possible outcomes – are also different. Once you choose an activity, you should think about that audience and tailor your message accordingly.

Below are examples of different kinds of in-person engagement opportunities, and important considerations to keep in mind in any of these scenarios.

Typology of Public Engagement with Science

f you’d like to read more about different options for effectively engaging public audiences, please take a look at the typology for public engagement with science, which outlines many common types of public engagement with science activities.

Tips for Different Types of In-Person Engagement Opportunities

See also: further descriptions and examples of types of public engagement approaches.

Public Presentations/Talks

Presentations or talks may be the most familiar and comfortable format for many scientists. However, for some, a public audience with many different ages and levels of knowledge can be puzzling. See below for ways to approach public presentations. They provide an opportunity to share your message with greater numbers of people, especially if they’re recorded and uploaded to the internet, but they tend not to lead to as much direct engagement or dialogue as some other types of interactions. Public presentations can be formal or informal, and can take place in museums, zoos, schools, places of worship, Rotary Clubs, or in many other venues.

Meet the Scientist speaker and astronaut Daniel Tani at 2016 Family Science Days, a public science event at the AAAS Annual Meeting. | Credit: Boston Atlantic Photography

Public Presentation Tips

  • Turn your presentation into an opportunity for engagement by leaving lots of time for questions and discussion, and by asking questions of your audience. Not only does this get your audience thinking and engaged, it can give you important information about their level of interest, knowledge, and experience.
  • Tailor your presentation and slides, if you’re using them, to your audience. Avoid text-heavy slides and detailed graphs, and use compelling visuals instead.
  • Focus on a few key points you want your audience to remember, and avoid jargon (i.e., technical language).
  • For more tips, read this blogpost on “How to Give a Killer Presentation” from Chris Anderson, the curator of TED talks, in the Harvard Business Review.

Hands-On Demonstrations

Hands-on demonstrations can be very useful for generating excitement. An object or demonstration provides an immediate ‘hook’ for conversation. There are many ways to get involved in hands-on events, such as through science festivals, museums, or lab visits, and to tailor them to your public engagement goal. Programs such as Portal to the Public provide training to scientists in developing hands-on activities for engaging people with science. Building with Biology offers opportunities for synthetic biology researchers to use hands-on activities to engage audiences.

LEFT: Crowd of engaged youngsters at a 2016 Family Science Days booth. CENTER: Girl enjoying one of the hands-on activities at the 2016 Family Science Days. RIGHT: Trying her hand at a 2016 Family Science Days activity. | Credit: Boston Atlantic Photography

Everyday Engagements

Many scientists have casual conversations with members of the public on a regular basis, when discussing their work with their family, friends, or neighbors (this type of engagement is sometimes called “over the neighbor’s fence”) -- or the person sitting next to you on an airplane. Such conversations can be good opportunities to practice your message in an informal setting, where the other person might be more willing to admit that they don’t agree with some of the values and assumptions underlying or implied by your research. Talking casually with someone who has different core values and beliefs from you (which tends to affect how people view a scientific issue) can provide useful perspective. As with any communication opportunity, it’s important to consider afterward how the conversation went, and how you might tweak your message for the next time.


Meeting participants discuss public attitudes toward climate change.
Meeting participants discuss public attitudes toward climate change. | Credit: Rachael L. Shwom

The goal of a policy deliberation is for a variety of stakeholders (i.e., people with a vested interest in a topic) to exchange views about science policy. The goal of a public dialogue is often to promote dialogue as an end in itself, “recognizing that informal discussions with the public result in learning on behalf of both the public and experts.” A dialogue may also serve as a preliminary assessment of public opinion and scientific viewpoints before more formal deliberations are considered. Policy deliberations may be convened by a government agency or legislative office seeking input (e.g., an advisory committee or a policy briefing), or by civil society organizations developing recommendations on a science-related topic. Dialogue and deliberation usually require a fairly high investment of time, but may yield tangible and far-reaching results through sound, science-based decision-making. This type of engagement can be at the international, national, regional, state, or local level.

Knowledge Co-Production/Citizen Science

Building with Biology | Credit: Building with Biology

Knowledge co-production, also called “public participation in scientific research” or “citizen science,” provides “intentional collaborations in which members of the public engage in the process of research to generate new science-based knowledge.” This could involve the public in collecting or analyzing data, or proposing solutions. Knowledge co-production typically means frequent and direct communication between scientists and the public participants, and may require some flexibility in your methodology or workflow, as well as data sharing and transparency. You can often get involved with this type of engagement opportunity through a university or through a local science-based non-profit or museum. Knowledge co-production can help build legitimacy, trust, and salience of scientific research.

Important Considerations for In-Person Interactions

  • Characteristics of successful engagement: Almost any activity can be made more or less interactive. The more interactive it is, the more likely to lead to genuine dialogue and mutual learning. Basic principles characterizing successful engagement that you, as the scientist, have some control over include (based on the Typology of Public Engagement with Science):
    • Genuine curiosity about the audience/member(s) of the public;
    • Willingness to engage in deep listening; an openness to hear other perspectives and positions and to learn from the audience;
    • A willingness to limit the amount of information conveyed to just what is needed in the situation (depending on the needs of the audience) and to be accurate, yet tolerant of some level of inexactness;
    • Willingness to make personal connections with the audience (allowing audiences to form a connection to the scientist); and
    • Avoiding confrontational interactions with audiences over questions related to values or beliefs.
  • Confrontation and controversy. Despite generally favorable public attitudes regarding science, technology, and their benefits, tensions between science and society tend to emerge at the intersection of core human values and some scientific topics — from human embryonic stem cell and global climate-change research, to the teaching of evolution. Expecting and preparing for possible tensions to surface during public engagement events can help you feel more comfortable when they arise. Listen to conflicting opinions, explain scientific evidence as needed, and consider where your audience is coming from. Try not to escalate or give excessive time to a direct challenge — your response may unintentionally give one voice in a crowd more credibility.
  • Q&A: When engaging with the public, you will inevitably encounter questions from audience members. While they may make you nervous, remember: you want questions! Questions are a sign that the audience is engaged and confident that you have information on issues important to them. With forethought and planning, Q&A sessions can contribute greatly to a successfully conversation with the public. See this tip sheet for details on handling Q&A sessions.
  • Presentation Skills
    DO DON'T
    …arrive early. Ensure the room is set up appropriately and the technology works. …assume everything will work perfectly. Have the presentation on at least two formats and confirm requirements with the organizers a few days before.
    …keep to your time. Carefully estimate timing when preparing a presentation, practice speaking in that time limit, and keep track of time during the presentation. Ask the host to signal time, if needed. …devalue timing. Poor timekeeping is one of the most common presentation failings. It looks unprofessional, and can be disrespectful to other speakers and the audience.
    …speak loudly. Make sure those at the back of the room can hear. Ask for a clip-on microphone or headset if needed. …hide behind a microphone.
    …speak clearly. Enunciate carefully especially with non-native English-speakers. Ask people in the audience if they can hear and adjust accordingly. …mumble. Ensure the audience gets the most out of the presentation. Poor diction is an entirely avoidable failing.
    …stand. Whenever possible, stand in front of the audience, making eye contact with different sections. Eye contact, open body language, and limited random movement keeps presentations fresh and establishes trust. …move too much. If possible, avoid reading from a podium. It acts as a barrier, and encourages slouching and disengaged body language. Never present while sitting behind a desk.
    …write prompts on small cards and refer to them for guidance. …read text on slides out loud. Only read small sections if absolutely necessary. Not only is reading extremely dull, but it breaks eye contact with the audience.
    …use a slide changing clicker which allows speakers to maintain eye contact with the audience. …assume that a venue will have a clicker. Bring one as a backup.

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