Learning to Improve (and Enjoy) Your Public Speaking

20. August 2014

Antonio Benayas

Over the course of your career, one of the tasks you will likely face is speaking in public. This makes some people very nervous because the audience’s attention is focused solely on you. Public speaking is something you will learn to enjoy, not to fear. It doesn’t matter if you are describing research at your master’s degree examination, teaching undergraduate students, presenting results at a conference, or (hopefully someday!) giving a speech in Stockholm when receiving that prize—there are some universal steps that you can take to make any kind of public speech better and easier.

Define your topic: The first step is to decide exactly what you want to communicate to your audience. It’s okay to be ambitious in scope, but be sure that your ideas are clearly and concisely expressed. Your ultimate goal is to be understood, so quantity of concepts is far less significant than the quality and depth of your connection with the audience.

Prepare your script: Use a topic outline to structure your talk. At the beginning, this scaffold will be based mostly on your research and the list of facts you want to communicate. Gradually, as your talk evolves, you will also need to think about how the concepts and ideas you are going to present can best be delivered to the audience.

Think visually: There is much to be said on the topic of presentation visuals, but keep in mind that images or graphs are usually preferable over words. The rule “six per six but never thirty-six” means that you can have six lines or sentences on a slide, each composed of six words or less, but you should never reach both upper limits on the same slide. Practice, practice, practice: It’s natural to be nervous before facing an audience, especially if the crowd is made up of experts in your field. You can fight your fears by becoming completely comfortable with your talk and its contents well in advance. The only way to do this is to practice frequently. This might seem tedious; but I promise it is perfectly possible to enjoy the training process. Pay attention to how much your performance improves and your confidence increases with practice.

Get advice from others: It is always a good idea to practice your presentation in front of friends and colleagues and ask them for their honest advice. Their feedback will be invaluable for polishing your performance (tone of voice, pacing, body language, etc.) and the structure of your talk. You can adjust your script based on their input.

Be yourself: You likely admire speakers who connect with the audience and make a lasting impression. Try to identify the characteristics that make this speaker so good, and then think about how you can adopt or develop these features for your own presentations. However, you should try to find YOUR personal style as an outstanding public speaker. Don’t just imitate good speakers—use them as models for how to accomplish specific goals. There is no need to practice up until the last minute before your talk. Relax and enjoy your moment in the spotlight. Remember that everyone in the audience has almost certainly been in your shoes, and they are there to see you succeed.

Antonio Benayas Hernandez (antonio.benayas@emt.inrs.ca) is an Eileen Iwanicki postdoctoral fellow (CIHR-BCSC) at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université du Québec, Canada. He completed his Ph.D. in Physics in the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. During his Ph.D. he participated in several international research projects at Heriot Watt University, UK, Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil, and University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A. He also worked for Galatea Consultores S.L. as a junior consultant for aerospace industries. His current research is focused on fluorescent nanoparticles for biomedical applications, nanothermometry and thermal imaging.

 

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What's Your Science Maturity Level?

5. September 2013

Marc Kuchner

 This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results.” However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered 10 or 20 years from now—forecasts that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.

Was this a good talk or a bad talk? Science or marketing?

Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.

Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.

With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, but rather to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting. The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last about the acceptance of the idea by the community.

Science Maturity Level (SML)

1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions. Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and it can shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.

2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.

3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.

4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.

5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.

It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.

Also, I believe that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world or inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good or bad marketing.

Curiously, I’ve found that different scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments gravitate towards talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower ones. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.

Ultimately, I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s, while review talks are 4s or 5s.

What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks?

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

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