Julien Bobroff is a university lecturer and researcher at the Laboratoire de Physique des Solides (LPS, laboratory of solid-state physics) of Université Paris-Sud. Within the ‘La Physique Autrement‘ team, he has been working for several years on new ways to present physics and its recent discoveries to the general public. Today, he shares his tips to better talk about science with high school and university students.
Agent Majeur : What kind of presentations do give for young people?
Julien Bobroff: We have been speaking in high schools and preparatory classes for the “grandes écoles” since 2005. As researchers, we come to talk about a physics subject in connection with current research and show small experiments on the spot.
What is the purpose of these presentations?
Our objectives have changed on the way. At the beginning, we were looking to ‘recruit’ young people into laboratories, at a time of their lives when they wonder a lot about their future and career choices. But today, we are much more humble. We only come to fill our young audiences with enthusiasm about modern physics and talk about what the job of a researcher ultimately is.
Have you defined a standard model for your presentations?
Yes, we have enhanced the model over time. Our speeches last two hours without any break. Once the context and the subject are set, we quickly tackle the most fundamental and mysterious questions: what are the universe and matter made of… Our presentations are punctuated with experiments that stun and raise questions. We prioritise creating a dialogue with the audience about the experiments and our pitch. And to finish it, we talk about the more human aspects of our profession: the researcher, publishing, laboratory tools…
What kind of experiments do you show?
We have a series of unique and amazing experiments for each topic. We sometimes make ‘small’ experiments and film them live with a camera. Being live, adds a dimension that projecting ready-made videos cannot reach. Sometimes we also rework the staging or the experimental device if the experiments are not that spectacular.
What are the particular features of your audience?
Some people say that high school and university students are channel-hoppers, unable to remain focused on the same subject for too long, and to whom you can only speak about very simple, very concrete and tangible things, rather than fundamental topics. My experience and insights are completely opposite. As with any other audience, they are a novices but they can get interested in anything.
How do you grab the attention of your audience?
You must arouse their curiosity with experiments, find the right angle of attack and especially, do not enter a master-student relationship. We are not here to impose science but to question young people about their issues and challenges. On the other hand, they are very sensitive to visual format, which involves alleviating slides, refining media supports, selecting visuals properly and avoid using too many. Presenters must be well prepared before the presentations, including the pitch. When a new presenter joins the team, we have them rehearse for several months before sending them to a class.
What makes a presentation successful?
To assess the success of a presentation, you have to know what is at stake… Nevertheless, the level of attention from the audience, the number of questions asked and the answers to the polls we hand out at the end are good indicators of the quality of our performance. And when we are asked to do it again the next year, this means we’ve been rather good!
What is your secret to the success of your presentations?
If you prepare well, there is no reason it should fail. Maybe what matters after all is to favour interaction with young people and to remain authentic. If they feel the speech is manufactured, that it is an artificial communication exercise, they will automatically reject it. During your preparation, it also seems important to me to get support from colleagues, from friends that agree to be a test audience, or by public engagement in science professionals, especially when developing original supporting material.