I had my brief:
"Give a 20 minute talk to the general public about your research. They probably do not know any science. Or English."
The Sapporo 'Science Cafe' is a short lecture series run every other month in a big bookstore near Sapporo Station. It is organised by the science communication department at Hokkaido University who invite researchers in different areas to talk about their work in an accessible manner.
Normally, however, they are allowed to use words.
The 'Science Cafe' session I would speak at would be the first offered in English, rather than Japanese. This made everyone very nervous.
The chief organiser of the event requested to see my slides a full month in advance. As someone who typically writes their talk the night before the presentation date, this required a sudden reshuffle of my schedule. He also wanted two practice run throughs, again several weeks before the talk.
Meanwhile, I responded by inviting all my foreign friends with the idea being this crazy scheme would only work if everyone in the audience was secretly an English speaker.
There were debates about the best way to handle the language barrier. The first idea was that I should stop after each slide and allow someone to translate. The problem with this is that I had designed my talk so that each slide presented a single idea, mainly using pictures. This meant there would be times when I would only say a single sentence, or pause on a science-y academy-award-winning cliff-hanger ready for the next slide. Stopping for a translation would therefore make the flow very unnatural.
My solution ran more along the lines of: "Trust me. I got this." My slides were 90% pictures, there were several slides per key point and of the few words I did use, I added in Japanese if the word was complicated (e.g. laboratory) or particular shiny (e.g. gravity). Plus, it included movies and a picture of a cake. What was there not to like?
Sadly, no one believed I was competent. I wondered if they'd been talking to my students. Or my mother.
The compromise reached was that I would talk, but a second projector would be used to display a rough Japanese translation of what I was saying. This translation was taken from the second practice run I did in front of a video camera.
… did I mention this was done several weeks in advance? And I didn't have a copy of the video to check what I'd said the first time?
Still, so long as everyone picked a single language and didn't try to mix n' match, we'd be good! (And if some audience members could understand both Japanese and English, I was jealous and they deserved to get a headache).
About a week after my practice run, I received an envelope containing fliers advertising the talk in Japanese. I emailed the organiser to suggest an English version also be prepared, since the talk itself would in fact be in English (and I had done my best to fill the audience with people who did not speak Japanese; I didn't mention this, his stress levels might have exploded). To my pleasure, I received a pretty good English translation and was asked to smooth it out.
That was when I realised that the flier description didn't match my talk content at all.
I was talking about star formation and the use of numerical simulations in astrophysics. The flier described a talk on cosmology and the fate of the universe. It sounded pretty cool, but it wasn't in my presentation. In fact, it wasn't even close.
I sent my polished translation back and added the postscript, "This is a little different from my talk … is that a problem?" That this flier is ALL LIES? Maybe the general public were considered commoners of the lowest order and their complaints were unimportant. As a physicist, I was rather impressed with that view, but it rather flew in the face of putting on these lectures to begin with. Shortly afterwards, I got a reply:
"In truth, I wrote the flier before I had talked to you."
In which case, I suppose I should be glad it was at least on astronomy. The saving grace in the situation was that there were to be two speakers for this event, with the second speaker also being from my department and talking about a topic much closer to the flier contents. Rather typically for my work in Japan, this was the first I had heard about there being two speakers. I had long ago stopped being surprised by such twists.
The day of the talk dawned dazzlingly sunny. Light poured through the floor to ceiling windows of the book shop's foyer...
… right onto the projector screen, rendering it near invisible.
May I just say that a physicist setting up that screen would not have made this mistake? I was up for rotating the whole set-up around, but I was told to go away and get a cup of coffee. It was a Big Bang Theory, Sheldon-esque moment.
So invisible slides and no words allowed. Interpretive dance it would be! Actually, I did speculate whether I could demonstrate my main points with audience participants. My friend was expecting a baby, so she could have been the star-forming cloud. There was a small boy in the front row who could have been a protostar, any adult would fill-in for the main star and … I sipped my coffee and wondered if I asked my boss to be a dying-star supernovae he would think I was after his job.
In the end, the talk went smoothly. The projector was inched close to the screen to provide a dim outline of each slide and I was given a pop-star hands-free microphone that allowed me to elaborately gesture every point I was making. Preparing for such an event is a fair amount of work, since the slides have to be carefully crafted and my words selected so as many people would understand as possible. However, the actual giving of the presentation is much more enjoyable. Mainly because for those 20 minutes, it's all about me.
And I love that.
The hardest part of the time was the questions after the event. Even though they were translated into English, they tended to rove all over astronomy. Crafting a suitable response for a non-scientist and then phrasing the English into a concise, simply sentence left me with at least a minute of making goldfish faces at the crowd before I could construct a mediocre response.
The crowd consisted of about 100 people. Some of them probably learnt something about galaxies. Others learnt that fliers lie. Still more took away that British people look like fish when under pressure.
My aim was to speak well enough that everyone understood the general gist of what I was saying, enjoyed the talk as an experience but COULD NOT WAIT to return to the Japanese-only version in two months time. This hope was blown out the window when a friend I'd stashed in the crowd told me that around her, people were requesting via the questionnaire for more talks in English.
I am simultaneously deeply gratified and dismayed.