It was one of those nightmares where your heart races, hairs stand on end, and every single nerve end prickles with painful awareness. Bright lights cut me off from the room, but I knew there were hundreds of people watching me, judging me. I could feel beads of sweat form, coalesce, and descend in stop-start rivulets down my back.

But this was no dream. This was the final of Famelab, a UK competition to find the next face of science, and I was on stage about to give a five-minute talk on a topic of my choosing in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.

Run by the Cheltenham Festival of Science and backed by the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA), Famelab is billed as the science equivalent of American Idol. Almost 200 young researchers entered regional heats and were given just a short time to impress the judges. Those judges, including journalists, TV editors, and science writers, then had a chance to give their opinions. The best ten entrants went on to the final at the Cheltenham festival. Although the competition wasn't televised, it produced a great Saturday night's entertainment for the audience and the winner walked away with the chance to pitch an idea to the UK TV station, Channel 4.

Famelab was set up in 2005 to find presenters that can inspire and excite, and also challenge the general perception of scientists. “FameLab addresses the public's desire for clear, concise, and accurate information on science both directly through identifying talent, and indirectly by building bridges between the public, the media, and science,” said Kathy Sykes, Collier Chair of public engagement in science and engineering at the University of Bristol, UK, at the launch of this year's competition.

I decided to enter having seen a flyer for the competition. After all, I like presenting, so what better way to see if I am actually any good at it? This attitude vaporized in seconds when I realized the level of competition. Instead, I have come away with a much better idea of what's needed in science communication, gained sound advice for presenting, and realized why such efforts are important.

As I waited my turn to go on as the last of the finalists, the other competitors gave talks on a variety of subjects from the wow-science of black holes and blue whales to the complexities of avian flu vaccines and telomeres (complete with a cannon-ball-sized cell nucleus and giant chromosomes). I knew how good these would be as we had all met previously at a masterclass in media skills, by the end of which we had become a tight-knit group.

So what did we learn? Here are some of the lessons that stuck. You need to have a single aim, something you want to get across that can be summed up in a sentence or two. From that, focus on the content that is interesting to your audience above all. That means being ruthless about what you don't talk about. Then there's getting the message across with variety, avoiding the least bit of jargon or technical language.

With interviews, it is not enough to prepare answers for the questions you'll be asked. This is your opportunity to get across your message – so make sure you do. If needs be, you can use the politician's trick of saying, “That's a very interesting question, but the more interesting thing is…” This also goes for Q&A sessions; often a dull end to a talk. Save something back and say it regardless of what comes up.

But the over-riding lesson is to be yourself. That way you come across as genuine and communicate your passion for your subject. It is that passion that an audience is looking for, and is what they'll listen to.

The whole experience has reinforced for me the importance of good science communication. It is necessary if people are going to be engaged with issues, such as whether we need nuclear power for our future energy needs, and if more young people are going to think about science as a career. Rather than aloof boffins preaching the correct analysis, scientists need to be open, honest, and listen.

And so it came to my turn. I was a wreck of nerves. But as my eyes became used to the lights, I relaxed and explained why Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-man, might have used spider silk to swing between skyscrapers. Just relieved to have got to the end, I was as surprised as anyone when the judges chose me as the winner. They said I had told an interesting story that communicated the latest results and illustrated how the world of research works.

Having been convinced of the need to go out and talk about research, my challenge is now to make the most of this opportunity to do so.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71633-9