The best phone call of the year

How do we choose the Christmas Lecturer each year? There's more to it than meets the eye before making that all important call.

  • Alison Woollard Life Fantastic

    Alison Woollard.

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

I have an inkling of how the people from the Nobel Academy feel every year when they have to make the phone call informing that year’s winners. The best phone call I have to make every year is to give the good news to the scientist selected to give the CHRISTMAS LECTURES that year.

That phone call isn’t the first contact that we have with them. The process for selecting the lecturer – this year Dr Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford – starts before they have any contact with us at all.

First off, we identify the sort of scientific area that we would like to cover, in collaboration with our TV partners. Factors in this decision can include topics we haven’t covered for a number of years and whether any very significant new advances have been made in the field recently. We then look at scientists who work in that area that might be suitable. We ask other learned societies for recommendations and see who’s been doing new videos or public engagement things recently. We’ll also take a look at the people that have been suggested to us through the year, either by themselves or people that have seen them in action.

Once we have drawn together a shortlist of 5-10 people, we ask them to submit a written proposal of how they would cover the topic during the three, hour-long lectures. We then assess these proposals for their potential to connect with the live and TV audiences, and the subject’s ability to generate eye-catching demonstrations.

From these initial written submissions, we do screen tests with two or three people; simple presentations to camera explaining some of the complex concepts in the chosen subject area and presenting hands-on demos on screen. This final stage is really important for us and the TV people as the onscreen audience is much larger than we can fit in the theatre, and the lecturer needs to be able to connect with them to get across their passion for the subject. Then, I get to make that phone call and invite the right candidate to be that year’s Christmas Lecturer. Perhaps not quite as widely recognised as the Nobel Prizes, but it’s definitely a more exclusive list!

No one's ever said no at the phone-call stage in my years with the Ri, but they have done earlier. In fact, Alison deleted the email before changing her mind!

It’s an amazing gig but one that requires a tremendous commitment. At least the Lectures aren’t recorded live any more – an extra pressure that made even the great Sir David think about quitting...

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