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I Won Science Fair with A Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures

I Won Science Fair with A Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures
The Skill of presenting Failures

For my first three science fairs, I received a participation ribbon — no prizes, no other acknowledgment. For my fourth, I walked away with $600, a first place award from AFCEA, a Discovery Science award and the Yale Science & Engineering Association Award.

My science fair project that year wasn’t any different from my past projects: I failed to prove anything, learned nothing about science, and did the project in order to receive a grade in my science class, rather than any interest in the project. The real difference was in my presentation skills. I had learned that I could present a failure just as well as success.

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The fact that I could talk about my project, whether to one person or a group, gave me a head start on the competition, no matter how good their projects were. Even successful science fair participants could get flustered by a question or thrown off by shyness. They practiced their material like it was a speech — they just had to repeat it and they were done. Problem is, science fair judges ask questions in order to get a better idea of the project — it’s also their chief technique for ensuring that a student did all of their own work with no help from his or her parents.

Five Questions For Presenters

When I began preparing for my presentation, I made a list of the questions that I really didn’t want to answer about my project. Uncomfortable as that process was, I figured out how to answer those questions. I even felt comfortable talking about each of those points and included most of my answers in my presentation. The questions boiled down to the five below.

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  1. What went wrong?
  2. What could I have done, in hindsight, to prevent the problem?
  3. What parts of this project is salvageable?
  4. Can I still meet the goals of this project? How?
  5. What is the future of this project?

These questions have to be the focus of your presentation if you aren’t able to talk about successes. It can be uncomfortable to talk about these points, especially because they tend to lead to discussions of who takes the blame for any problems, but these are the questions that your audience will be interested in.

Preparing for the Actual Presentation

Creating a good presentation, even about a bad topic, isn’t just about planning what you will say. It’s about taking that standard tri-fold science fair board and turning it into something that stands out from the other three hundred boards in the gymnasium — or creating a professional PowerPoint or other presentation materials. It’s about learning background material and preparing to take questions, from people who haven’t ever been exposed to any of the information you’re talking about, as well as people with advanced degrees in your topic. It’s not any different than preparing any other presentation.

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When you’re preparing to talk about a project that, for any reason, just didn’t work out, though, your presentation materials need to be just that much better. You have a plan for every question, too. You may not be able to answer every question, but you should be able to point towards resources or describe a way to answer it. Your presentation needs to reach a higher level if you don’t have results to back up your talk. I haven’t focused much on the generalities of presenting here — if you need more information about planning a general presentation, consider starting with this roundup of past posts.

How I Presented My Failure

Science fairs can be all-day propositions. I probably presented my project twenty-five times, and each time someone asked to hear about my project, I started out the same way. I admitted my failure right off the bat. I talked about what had gone wrong and shouldered my responsibility.

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I found that the fact that I didn’t try to explain away my failure went a long way to improving the judges’ perception of my project. I was able to clearly point out what I would do differently if I was to start the project over; I knew what I could do to build on my project. Future plans were the key: I got more attention by talking about what steps I could take next than by discussing hypotheses and the scientific method.

It also helped that I didn’t use my failed project as an excuse. I completed my experiment even after it was clear that the project was a dud. I still went all out on preparing my science fair presentation board and talk, and it showed.

Playing to My Project’s Strengths

I know you’re wondering what sort of project could obviously fail, yet win awards. The title of my project was “The Effects of Everyday Radiation of Household Objects on the Regenerative Capabilities of Planaria.” My biggest award was from the AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association), and I know exactly why. The judges assigned to choose recipients for the AFCEA came to see my project because my abstract mentioned that I was testing the radiation of electronic objects like televisions. They stayed because it only took a pointed question about radiation to get me talking about why such research is necessary and where it could go. I wasn’t listed with the engineering projects: I shouldn’t have been on their radar at all. I was able to answer their questions, though, because of the strength of the preparations I had made for my presentation.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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