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 Continue reading “Public Speaking Hacks for Scientists”

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