Public Speaking Hacks for Scientists

As most regular readers of this blog know, I’m a speech nerd.  I competed in forensics (speech and debate) for 11 years, all the way through the collegiate level**.  As a result of this decade long inundation in communications training, I’m deeply invested in the subject of scientific communication.  I’ve taken some really stellar courses and workshops on the subject, and there is a growing resource of training, which focuses on helping scientists get the right content for the right audience and producing a concise and compelling message.  That is hugely important!  As my communications instructor husband told me recently, “Don’t shirk when planning the content of your message.  90% of effective communication happens before you open your mouth.”  It’s a point with which I completely agree.  There are forums where this sort of training is not only hugely beneficial, but is also entirely sufficient: writing popular science articles, starting a blog, or giving a killer one on one interview with a journalist.  

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Mer said I couldn’t make this post live unless I included a picture from my speech days. Here I am, in a suit.

However, there are plenty of communication situations that don’t involve writing or speaking to a journalist one-on-one.  That’s right, the thing folks apparently fear more than death, public speaking.  I would contend that scientists are, often, not confident or competent public speakers.  Furthermore, scientific communication training often lacks detailed instruction on this critical skill.  Have I seen scientists who can throw down on a speech or a talk?  Sure.  But public speaking is really hard!  Lots of folks have legitimate public speaking anxiety, and still others simply haven’t gotten many chances to practice this skill.  Again, learning what to say is more important than how we actually deliver those words, especially for scientists, for whom accuracy is the barometer for competency.  However, I’ve seen some really fascinating scientific subjects, things I was personally invested in, fall flat at conferences.  I’ve seen keynote speakers who had amazing, well written stories to tell fail to really capture the potential of the moment.  I’ve heard folks talking about eminent environmental threats on NPR and wanted to turn off the radio and take a nap.  I think we can do better!***

Enough of that, you’re reading this because of the enticing title.  Tips.  Tricks!  Life hacks (eh, that was probably euphemistic at best)!  In the interest of being concise, I decided I would give you the public speaking advice I give all my friends before their conference presentations or job talks.  Unfortunately, that’s only about two items, so I reached out to all my speech and debate friends on Facebook, and asked them about their best bit of public speaking advice.  I wanted to know that one thing they advise their pals to do to prepare for a talk.  I got some great feedback, and I’ve done my best to distill it all down into a few major themes and spin them in such a way that they will be useful to scientists in a few of the different forums in which we commonly address an audience.  Thus, these tips should be useful to you if you are speaking to your peers or if you are speaking to the public.  I’ve put these in reverse order of importance, so if you read nothing else, skip down to number 5, as this was the advice literally everyone gave, and I thought it deserved some substantial elaboration.

Public Speaking Tips from Nerds, for Nerds

1. Don’t expect perfection.

It’s hard to accept ahead of time that you’re probably going to screw up, but you probably are.  You will never feel like your talk went perfectly, as you are your own harshest critic.  Verbal flubs, losing your place, or having to correct yourself when you misspeak is natural and happens to all of us all the time in our everyday conversations.  Because these sorts of things happen often in daily life, your audience tends to tune them out if they are infrequent and you don’t let them throw you off your game.  Maybe your tongue got all crazy with the s-es in statistically (editor’s note: Rachel is clearly talking about me. This is the bane of my statistical existence). Repeat yourself clearly, then move right along.

2. Slow down.  Take a beat of silence. Breathe!

You think you’re speaking slowly?  You probably aren’t.  Pacing is very important to bring your audience along with you as you speak.  Pace and tone should vary to draw attention to important points.  But, in general, you’re probably speaking too quickly.  Along those same lines, nervous speakers are often terrified of silence.  Pausing is natural, and it gives your audience the chance to internalize your words.  This is critical because, in general, humans are super fast listeners, but need longer to actually digest ideas (more details here).  

Both a slower pace and appropriate pausing will allow you time to breathe.  If you are already nervous, running out of breath will only make that feeling worse.  Take a deep breath through your nose to calm your nervous system.  Give a smile.  Then continue.  

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My senior class at the American Forensics Association National Tournament.

3. In moments of uncertainty, return to your thesis or central message.

Just as in writing, you can go down inadvertent rabbit holes when you’re speaking to a crowd.  When practicing your talk, always ask yourself if the information you’re giving adds to your thesis or central message.  How does it connect to this message?  If the connection isn’t clear to you, you either need to not say that thing or explicitly state aloud the connection.  Work to make logical connections obvious to your audience.  This is also useful if you lose your place while speaking.  Think about your last sentence, think about how it connects to your thesis, then move forward from that point of logic.

4. Structure your talk explicitly and reinforce that structure.

As stated above, make understanding your thesis, and the argumentation supporting that thesis, very easy for your audience to understand.  One of the best ways to do this is to make the structure of your talk explicit and to draw your audience back to that structure at key moments.  Even if you are using a PowerPoint and you think the structure of your talk is obvious, you need to say these things verbally!  Here is a very generalized breakdown with some examples.

  1. Provide your introductory remarks.  Perhaps give an anecdote that clearly illustrates your central message or thesis.
  2. Clearly state your main message or thesis.  “I would contend that a great deal of the American public lacks good scientific literacy.”
  3. List the major argumentative points supporting your thesis (try for no more than three or four) in the order in which you will present them. “In order to address the public struggle with science, we will examine the causes of scientific illiteracy, looks at the effects this lack of understanding can have, before examining some solutions to the science to citizen understanding gap.”  
  4. Introduce each major point by name, and overview any sub-points within that section, again, in the order in which you will address them.  Lather, rinse, repeat for each major point. “First, let’s look at two of the major causes of scientific illiteracy: poor understanding of the scientific method and the belief that science does not apply to daily life.”
  5. Finally, bring it all home in your conclusion by reminding folks of your major points and explicitly and concisely stating how they support your central message.  “After examining the causes and effects of scientific illiteracy, it is clear that if the public is not invested in science on an intellectual and personal level, we will continue to see misguided policy and decreases in funding.  My proposed solutions directly address two of the key causes of scientific illiteracy through personal outreach, educational programs, and policy initiatives.”  

Obviously, this exact structure will not apply to every speech, but it’s important to make your talk very easy to follow.  We’ve all had the experience of spacing out for just a minute, then coming back and having no idea what the speaker is discussing.  Give your audience a chance to jump back on board with you!

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5. PRACTICE!  No, really, practice a lot, and, honestly, you’re probably practicing wrong.

When I asked all my speech and debate pals for their one bit of public speaking advice, almost everyone said the same thing, “Practice!”  This is actually the one tip I give to my friends when they ask for my input about speaking.  However, most folks don’t actually know how to practice in such a way that it will really help their performance.  

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of things that are necessary/useful, but aren’t actually practicing your talk:  1) Sitting at your desk clicking through your slides, 2) Making notes or an outline of what you want to say, 3) Sitting at your desk mumbling to yourself, or 4) Standing and mumbling to yourself.  Sorry, that just doesn’t count

First of all, you are going to need to practice way more than you think you will.  I like to practice a talk a minimum of 10 times before I give it, and I generally practice the first 1-2 minutes and the final 1-2 minutes way more than that.  Start strong and end strong, as they say.  Second, you should be practicing with the goal of fluency.  You do not need to memorize a script verbatim, but you should practice enough that your ideas and major points flow easily.  You need to be able to recall these things when you are nervous or if you lose your place.  You also want to practice with a mind to cutting out extraneous information that tries to sneak in when we are honing our message.

I’m sure that others will have lots of thoughts on the best way to practice, but I’ll provide you with my own method.  Use this as a starting point, then figure out what works for you.

  1. [This is the pre-practice step, sorry not sorry] Depending on the forum, you might want to prepare a full script.  Use this process to refine your message and your argumentation.  Procrastination in not your friend here; try to do this step at least a week before the date of your talk.  Are you giving an actual State of the Union style speech?  Then memorize that sucker.  Are you giving a less formal scientific talk or a talk that uses a lot of visual aids that will guide you throughout?  You might not need a full script, but you should at least create an outline of what you want to say with all the major points you want to make sure you hit.
  2.  [This is the second pre-practice step, still not sorry] Decide a few things.  Will you speak standing up or sitting down?  Will you stand still or will you move about the space?  Will you use any visual aids?  Will you have any props or tools in your hands at any point?  Every time after this that I say practice, I mean that you will be standing if you are going to stand, and you will be practicing the way in which you expect to move about the room.  If you expect not to move around the room, you should practice not moving (ie: work on not pacing or fidgeting with your clothes or anything you might have in your hands).  Our performances reflect the manner in which we practiced, so choose to practice in the way you hope to perform. 
  3. Practice the whole thing all the way through.  It’s going to be a stuttery, stumbley, confusing mess, and you’ll be tempted to stop about half way.  Push on!  You want to give yourself an idea of what the whole thing sounds like spoken aloud.  Cats, dogs, and hamsters are probably the best audience for this step.
  4. Okay, that was potentially painful.  Now, fix it piece by piece.  Practice each main point or section as a unit.  Refine what you are going to say and how you want to say it.  It usually takes me 3-5 goes to get a section of a talk to really sound how I want it to sound.  Recall what we discussed earlier about explicit structure and staying on message.
  5. Practice the whole thing with particular emphasis on what you are saying when you transition between sub-points and major points.  Is your reasoning clear?  Connections between ideas are the most difficult things for an audience to understand, so make sure you are really hammering these things home in a way that pleases you.  Avoid the temptation to start all the way over each time you make a mistake.  Just skip back to the top of the major point or sub-point you were working through.
  6. Practice while timing yourself.  Do this as soon as you have passing fluency with your talk, so you can make adjustments early.  There is, literally, nothing more annoying than folks speaking far beyond their allotted time.  From the speaker point of view, there is nothing worse than actually not getting to finish your talk or really drive home your message because you ran out of time.
  7. Harass your friends and make them watch your talk.  Practice your talk for as many people as are willing to watch it.  I promise, you will do it differently when there are butts in the seats.
  8. Once you give a practice run that you are really happy with, run through it again immediately and try to make that version stick.  Time this version!
  9. If you can get into the space where you will speak, or a similar space, go practice there at least once.
  10. The night before, give it a final full practice or two.

There you go!  After this, you should be ready to go.  The morning of a talk or the night before, I go over it in the shower.  In my personal experience, once you can say it in the shower (which means no visual aids or slides as a crutch) it is in your head.

 

I hope you find these tips helpful.  I have a million more little detailed notes that I give folks or apply to myself, but if you do nothing but apply these five things, you’ll be doing pretty darn well.  I would like to leave you with one last thought.  It seemed a little too hand wavy to include as an actual point, but I think it is really important.  When addressing a group, don’t be afraid to be yourself!  Yes, you want to be polished and give a good presentation, but if you really want to engage your audience, you have to connect with them as a fellow human.  Use your authentic voice; make strong eye contact; geek out; get excited about your message!  Folks want to hear you, and they will hear you if they can tell you care.

Happy speaking!  

 

 

** “But Rachel,” you might ask, “What the heck does a speech team even do?”  Well, you can check out this WIKI page for the super dry version, OR you can check out this YouTube video from a symposium my alma mater put on for Black History Month (I just watched it, and now I have all the feelings).

*** I included this, then cut it out, then decided I would include it as a note at the bottom for those who deal with these sorts of internal struggles when sharing their thoughts, even on a topic about which they have an arguable amount of expertise. “Now, the caveat.  I’m absolutely not claiming to be the world’s expert on public speaker or the world’s most engaging orator.  However, I do have many hours (literally thousands) of experience delivering public address.  I’ve given bad talks, like everyone has, but I also know I’ve given some really good ones. I present this as evidence for why you might want to listen to what I say in this blog post, even if you think you’re a better public speaker than myself.  (Would a man feel the need to give this caveat?  Impostor syndrome!!)”

 

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4 thoughts on “Public Speaking Hacks for Scientists

    1. That’s awesome! Thanks, Kate. You certainly know a thing or two about public address yourself. I’d love to chat about how your SciComm course goes. I took one last winter that I found really invaluable.

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