Talking about images of the Sun taken all the time, in real time! Photo by Anastasiia Marmyleva

As an avid science communicator, whenever I am given the opportunity to talk about research to an audience of varied and possibly non-academic background, I will not miss out on it. Understandably then, when a colleague told me about a call for a pitching competition organised here in Helsinki with the theme “My work and why it matters” my mind immediately started racing. The pitching competition was at the heart of the Science Night Live! event, organised by E2 Tutkimus. A great initiative whose goal was to promote international researchers who are working in Finland.

Being a foreigner in a country where one does not speak the local language, automatically deprives one from the ability to explain to your local community the value of your work and of you as a worker. This is something I know very well. Opportunities are scarce, if any, and the language barrier is a problem. TV programs, radio, etc. are all conducted in a local language and although subtitles and translators could be used, why would/should TV or radio show runners take this additional effort if they can invite native researchers instead.

This can be harmful for the international researchers, as their local communities might never get familiarised with their work and thus may not value them. So, when an event like Science Night Live! is happening, this is an opportunity not to miss. I prepared my 1-minute video about my work as a space weather researcher and submitted it. Then kept my fingers crossed!

When the e-mail arrived, announcing that I was among the lucky 6, selected from 67 submissions, to go on stage, I was thrilled! I immediately picked up my laptop and I started drafting my pitch. Less than two months later I was on the stage in HEUREKA, got ranked second place, and went home with the prize of 1500 euros. So let me take you on my journey from getting the news that I am among the 6 finalists who will go on stage, to the moment I heard the audience clap!

Building up a story

As I said, the moment I knew I was selected was the moment I sat down to start developing my speech. I wanted to have a clear script that was starting with one or two statements highlighting the immediate challenges space weather presents for our society. To capture the audience’s attention and to ensure people’s emotional engagement, I presented them with two real life examples. My goal was to leave no doubt that space weather can affect our everyday life and that it can have a mammoth economic impact to our technologically dependent societies!

The next step was to explain, without any scientific jargon, what is the source of these space weather challenges. Since science communication is not only about stating the facts, but also about doing it in such a way that it entertains the audience and imprints in their memory, my theatrical background came into play here. As the rules said that the use of audio-visual support material would not be allowed, I would not be able to show for example images of eruptions at the Sun. I therefore thought that maybe I can become the image: I erupted, I grew, and travelled in space all the way to Earth. Where the dancing aurorae were generated. Check the video of my pitch (link below) and you will understand! By that time the audience smiled so I had to bring them back to the challenges by refreshing their memory. That was essential to help the audience welcome my research as the desired solution to the challenge.

Now to the last step, which was to provide a solution to the problem and bring a closure to the story! The solution, of course, is the subject of my research, and the closure is how it can help us forecast these phenomena and mitigate their impact! And there was no better way to close my pitch than with the theme of the pitch “And that is why my work matters!”.

Adding facial expressions and body movement

We all know the phrase “an image is equal to a thousand words”, but what do you do when you are not allowed to use a presentation or any other prop? Well, you become the image as I illustrated above. And that is exactly what I planned! In our everyday life we use expressions and body movement to pass an emotion or to clarify something, so why not to use that for my pitch. I carefully planned my movement on stage: where will I stand and what pose will I take at every line of the script. This would not only help capture the audience’s attention and ensure that they will take something home with them, it would also help me as a speaker to memorise my script and ensure that I will not forget what I am supposed to say! By coupling speech with facial expression and body movement I essentially enhanced my memory.

Practice, practice, practice

I cannot even remember how many times I practiced, pacing up and down my living room, pretending it was a stage. But as they say, “practice makes better”, and so it did. To help me improve, I recorded myself multiple times, and in between the practice sessions, I listened to the recordings and tried to figure out what could be improved.

Feedback is also something essential when preparing, so my partner was the victim who had to sit through my pitch multiple times. He did not complain, so I got this as a good sign!

Back stage nerves. Captured by Anastasiia Marmyleva

On the day

It is natural to experience nervousness prior to (and during) such a big thing. A part of me was thinking that I was about to go on stage and make a fool out of myself. This was a feeling I had to overcome. I told myself that the most important thing is to meet new people, hear about fascinating research, and above all: to HAVE FUN! And fun I did have! I walked around, talked to people, and laughed a lot! Greeted my friends who came to support me and met new people, I will be happy to grab a coffee with.

When the moment arrived, I stood by the stage, taking deep and slow breaths, counting breathing in and breathing out. This helped to calm me down a bit and slow down my heart that was so excited, that it felt like it was trying to escape my chest. I heard the presenter say my name, so I took one last deep breath and stepped up on the stage. I took my place in the middle and as I stood still in silence, I heard a voice in my head “this is where you belong”. I cannot find the words to capture the feeling. The best way to describe it is, that the stage felt like home.

Making peace with my mistakes

I could write a long list of things I did during those three minutes, which I regretted afterwards. From struggling to pronounce words, to speaking faster than originally planned, to not realising that I was left with extra time. Oh, and let’s not forget the moments I moved my hands uncontrollably! But in the end, none of these matters! I had told myself (and everyone around me) to have fun and spread science. These two hold the highest value in my head and thus deserved my full energy. I will not lie; of course, winning 1st place would have been a most welcomed result. But being 2nd did not hurt either, as the whole experience made me very happy!

An ode to the organisers

I cannot be thanking enough the amazing team of organisers from E2 Tutkimus, who not only conceived the idea for this event, but also realized it with great success. They provided us with a lot of support, both practical and emotional, as for example through the speaker workshops they had organised, and through their friendliness and the positive energy they emitted before and during the event! Everything was professionally organised. I hope that Science Night Live! will become a recurring event and next time I will be sitting in the audience, enjoying the performance of the next generation of pitchers!

You can watch my pitch here!