How to present at a young adult science cafe

Cafe Scientifique New Mexico guidelines for presenters

by Michelle Hall and Michael Mayhew

Our purpose in the cafe program is to broaden the horizons of teens through exposure to science that is relevant to their lives and to give them a new perspective on science and scientists. The program gives teens a real-world view of science that they don’t get in the classroom. Your essential role is achieved through your bio, essay and the cafe presentation itself. Following are some guidelines aimed at helping you prepare.

Your bio

In the bio, you tell your own personal story. We want to get across to teens that a scientist is a real, complex, multidimensional human, like them, with his or her own unique set of motivations, delights, abilities and baggage. A speaker will want to get across that — in part because of a career in science — he or she has had and is having a particularly interesting life. Stay away from the usual formal and typically rather sterile bio sketch. It will be much more engaging to the teens if a picture of the real person emerges.

Tell your story

We scientists are not used to thinking in terms of our personal stories, but each of us has an interesting and unique story to tell. Telling that story is a hook for pulling the students into the science story. Think about these questions:

  • What was your life like growing up in the years before college? What particular experiences shaped your inclination toward science?
  • How did your education — formal and otherwise — prepare you for your science career?
  • Has your career path been linear, or has it had twists and turns? Triumphs and setbacks?
  • What drives you in doing your science? What rewards make it worth the effort?
  • How did you arrive in your present position and your present research?
  • Do you have interests and talents outside science that you could share? How do you mesh your life in science with the rest of your life?
  • What is the most important thing about you that explains why you are a scientist?

Your essay

Your essay will set the stage for your presentation. Some tips for an effective essay:

Know your audience

Assume that the high school teens know nothing about your topic. They will engage readily with an essay on some hot science topic if it is accessible to them, so write it at their level. Avoid jargon and technical terms.

Don’t try to cover the whole breadth of the topic

Try not to create too many new mental pictures to process at once. Better to organize your essay and your presentation around one essential provocative idea or concept — the most important thing — and let everything flow to it. As you write, think in terms of telling an interesting story.

Make it personal

The teens will be very interested in you personally and will respond to a narrative in which you describe your own pathway to and through the research.

Your presentation

Your presentation will need to be entirely different from the kind of one-way presentation you are used to giving at a professional society meeting. Interactivity — two-way verbal communication, supported by a few key graphics — is of the essence.

Paint a picture of a concept

Put yourself into the mind of the teen who knows little about your topic and imagine how he or she is processing your words into mental images. Feedback along the way gives you clues about how to adjust your delivery. Accomplish this by pausing occasionally with a provocative statement or a question that will promote discussion.

Increase interactivity by bringing a mental challenge or hands-on activity

This might take a lot of different forms — for example, handing around some objects, letting them participate in a demonstration, giving them a trivia quiz, or getting them on their feet and choreographing some simple concept. Teens like to do stuff. If you have an idea but are not quite sure how to implement it, talk to us, and we can help you.

Tell a story and teens will listen

Start by arousing their interest with a question, problem or discrepant event that emotionally and mentally engages them. Finish by providing them with the information or experience to answer the question, have more insight into solutions for the problem or explain the discrepant event.

Keep it simple

Avoid technical words and jargon. If you can say it more simply, do. If you must use an equation, it has to be basic algebra.

Take care with graphics

Keep slides very simple, colorful and jargon-free. They must create mental images of key concepts. Take time to explain diagrams, graphs and images fully; assume the teens never have seen anything like them. Keep words to a minimum; a picture is worth a thousand words!

Make it personal

Try to include a slide showing yourself or your colleagues having fun doing science. The teens will be very interested in you personally.


Your dry run will help you calibrate the level of the presentation for the teen audience and focus your graphics on the essential takeaway concepts. Also, scientists are often somewhat intimidated by this unfamiliar audience; the dry run serves to break that ice.

Tips-for-speakers checklist

  1. Tell a story.
    1. Arouse interest with a question, problem or discrepant event to foster emotional and mental engagement.
    2. Finish with the information or experience to answer the question, solve the problem or explain the discrepant event.
  2. Keep it simple.
    1. Avoid technical words.
    2. Avoid equations — use only basic algebra.
    3. Keep graphs simple and explain them thoroughly (clarify legends, axes and symbols).
    4. Use more pictures than words.
      1. The more colorful, the better.
      2. Don’t read your slides. The kids can do it faster than you.
      3. Use text as cues to remind you of the essence of what you want to say about the slide.
  3. Tell us about yourself.
    1. Include a slide about yourself — your interests, etc.
    2. Include a slide about your profession.
  4. Intrigue them with ideas — don’t drown them in facts.
    1. Keep the talk between 20 and 25 minutes!
    2. Allow pause for reflection.
    3. Maintain engagement and ask questions.
  5. Doing is better than listening.
    1. Teach the audience through a mental challenge or hands-on activity.
    2. Keep the activity simple so that everyone can understand it.
    3. If possible, walk around rather than standing behind a podium.