We have often said that the “secret of success” of a teen café program is allowing teens to own their program via teen leadership teams. A previous post and a recent one emphasize the important qualities of the adult leader—the “linchpin” of the program—in nurturing teen leadership through training.
That said, it is also true that the “make-or-break” element of a teen cafe event is the quality of the presenter. A good presenter can make the most esoteric topic fascinating, while a bad presenter can make the most interesting topic boring.
While some presenters are natural conversationalists and storytellers, most are not. What is familiar to most scientists—one-way transmissions of facts—is ineffective with teens (and most other audiences). And, while a more conversational, interactive approach may be unfamiliar to a presenter, our experience has been that with some focused training, she or he will rise to the occasion.
TSCN sites may want to consider adapting the approach to suit their particular circumstances, such as Portal to the Public or Presentation Boot Camp — which involve extended sessions with a cadre of a season’s presenters, formal exercises, and opportunities for practice and feedback. These approaches might be ideal, but may not be practical for a given site.
Is there a simpler, more one-on-one approach to training? We in the Café Scientifique New Mexico node have found the following steps yield good results. TSCN sites may want to consider adapting the approach to suit their particular circumstances. We start by identifying a scientist likely to be a good candidate for our teen café, using 10 Tips for Finding Great Teen Café Presenters.
Initial contact. We send them a welcoming email summarizing our program and indicating that they have been recommended as someone who could do a good café event. The email emphasizes the importance of interactivity, meeting the teens where they are, and having an accompanying “hands-on.”
The email lays out everything up front, so there are no surprises… a brief summary of what the program is all about; the proposed café dates, locations of the venues, and start times of the events; an expectation that they will do a dry run with a few of the teen leaders in advance of their first café; and instructions on preparing an informal short bio and an accessible short essay on their topic.
The email includes a link to the document, Portal to the Public: Guide for Teen Science Café Presenters. The document is in three parts:
1) An overview of the nature of a Teen Café program, 2) A Preparation Worksheet for Teen Café Presenters, which contains a series of questions to help them think about constructing their science story, and 3) A simple checklist of Tips for Creating Conversations.
We encourage them to read A Presenter’s Guide to the Essence of a Memorable Teen Science Café. Optionally, one could also point them to other documents on effective communication.
Meet for coffee. We arrange to meet with the presenter informally and just talk over what he or she will present. This is an important step. Although face-to-face is ideal, for dispersed communities, it could possibly take the form of a video chat. This is an opportunity to help the presenter identify the Most Important Thing in the presentation—plus no more than three take-away ideas or images—and thus focus his or her thinking.
It is an opportunity to emphasize that it is best to assume the audience knows nothing at all about the topic. It is also an opportunity to review best practices in PowerPoint presentations. We start them thinking about a hands-on activity. These meeting are also of great value in establishing a personal connection with the presenter, which will carry through the café series and beyond.
Critique an initial PowerPoint slide set. In advance of a dry run, we ask the presenter to send a draft of their PowerPoint slide set and we constructively critique it. Typically, the number of slides is reduced dramatically, as is the number of words in the slides. Jargon is ruthlessly weeded out. There needs to be a judicious selection of very simple, colorful slides that are specifically designed to help create mental images of the most essential concepts in the mind’s eye of the teen.
The essential dry run. We have come to believe that the dry run is an essential part of scientists’ preparation. Dry runs are most effective if they are held with a small group of teen leaders; they are the ones that can give the most relevant feedback. The dry run has proven to be valuable in getting the presentations pitched at the right level and the graphics comprehensible. It also serves to overcome an intimidation factor for many presenters. While some of our presenters have initially told us they are experienced at presenting to the public and never do a rehearsal, every presenter has told us afterward that the experience was well worth their time. It is also a great experience for the teen leaders.