Scientists struggle with public speaking. Every year, the University of Sydney hosts a free public lecture in which scientists share their research. Public engagement is crucial to the future of science, but often scientists struggle with public speaking. There are many reasons why this is the case, but here I discuss 9 tips to help you speak more confidently and effectively in public.
One of the greatest skills to have as a researcher is the ability to communicate your work in an engaging and informative way.
As a scientist, it is crucial that you understand the importance of communicating your work. The ability to communicate your discoveries will allow you to build confidence in yourself and your research, while also improving your chances of success.
Although there are many different ways you can improve on your communication skills, one of the most effective methods is by learning how to develop “soft skills”—those nontechnical abilities that help people interact effectively with others. Soft skills can be developed through practice, experience, and training.
If you want to improve your soft skills as a scientist or researcher, try these tips:
- Take courses in public speaking and business communication at school;
- Attend workshops on professional development at conferences or other scientific meetings;
- Practice presenting to colleagues — both in person and over video chat;
- Get feedback from peers about how well they received the presentation during Q&A sessions after talks;
- Watch videos of famous scientists giving speeches online for inspiration
When you’re presenting research at a conference, it’s you versus a sea of smart, savvy people who are just as knowledgeable about your topic as you are.
Whether you’re presenting at a conference or to the board, speaking to subject matter experts is more challenging than talking to the general public. You have to be ready for any question that comes your way—and your audience will expect a detailed answer. Before you can get into Q&A, though, you need to make it through a presentation that makes your points clearly, quickly and persuasively. If that sounds like a tall order, take heart: Here are nine tips for making sure subject matter experts see you as one of their own when it comes time for Q&A:
- Start with something interesting
- Make sure it’s relevant
- Make eye contact
- Pause for emphasis
- (This one is less relevant) Stick with images over slides of text
But don’t worry — we’ve put together an easy guide to public speaking that’s based on proven teaching methods.
Now that we’ve got a better understanding of why public speaking is so hard for scientists, we can move onto some more practical advice. Before we do, though, it’s worth noting that this article isn’t the only resource you can fall back on. We have plenty of other great guides on the importance of public speaking and how to get started — like this one.
What follows is the fruit of our own experience and expertise as researchers, communicators and teaching professionals. It outlines nine simple steps you can take to improve your public speaking skills at any stage of your career.
Before You Step Up To the Podium
Before you step up to the podium, it’s important to do your homework. While many of these steps seem obvious, they’re also often overlooked by nervous researchers:
- Arrive early. While this might seem like a silly piece of advice, it’s so important that we had to make it No. 1 on our list. As the presenter, you’ll be the last person in the room before speaking, so don’t wait until five minutes before your talk begins to arrive at the lecture hall or conference center. Instead, get there well ahead of time so that you can set up in an orderly fashion and get comfortable with your surroundings before everyone else comes in and starts watching you.
- Practice at least once beforehand. At least one dry run is essential for making sure everything runs smoothly during your actual presentation. It doesn’t have to be in front of a group (unless this would make you feel more comfortable), but do practice delivering your material aloud with all of the props and equipment that you plan on using during your real presentation. If possible, record yourself during practice and watch for any distracting mannerisms or vocal patterns that need correcting; these are much easier to identify when you’re not consumed by nerves on the big day!
Don’t memorize your talk word-for-word.
There’s a trend I see in many presentations, and it has to stop. Speakers are so worried about forgetting what they want to say that they skip over the slides with their actual data and dive right into the conclusion slide. If a presenter can’t remember their own data, why should an audience trust that the conclusions are true?
The solution is simple: don’t memorize your talk word-for-word. When you feel like you need to memorize every last detail of your presentation, it’s a sign that you aren’t confident in your work or findings. It may help at first, but once you go off script even just a little bit, you start to panic and lose track of what you were talking about. You might gloss over important details or take up too much time on less important points because you are trying to keep up with where you think the script says you should be at any given moment.
Plus, if all else fails, having an outline is better than having nothing at all! Even if your presentation goes terribly wrong (which hopefully won’t happen), it shows that there was some thought put into an introduction and conclusion for the audience’s sake.
Focus on conveying your most important points clearly, not on using flowery language or jargon.
Avoid jargon and loquacious language. This is your time to explain yourself in clear, simple English. Use the English you would use around your peers, not the English of a textbook or business proposal. Pretend you are explaining your topic to a friend who knows nothing about what it is you do. If you can’t complete that sentence without using five acronyms, then stop and rethink how to approach this section of your talk. Remember: It’s not about impressing anyone with flowery language or education credentials; it’s about communicating complex ideas simply and clearly.
When You’re Speaking
The most important aspect of your delivery is that you speak loudly and clearly, so that everyone in the room can hear you. Don’t mumble. Speak with energy, but don’t force it. Find a happy medium where you are projecting clearly without straining to do so.
- Speak at a speed that allows people to hear what you’re saying and absorb what they’ve heard, as well as take notes. That’s probably between 100 and 120 words per minute (wpm). If you need help speaking slower, set a timer for yourself or have an audience member tap their foot or some other signal for when to pause for effect and slow down your rate of speech.
- Have a clear voice with an even tone—don’t speak in monotones or raise your voice unnecessarily just to be dramatic. The only time it’s appropriate to change your tone is if you’re reading from a script (like in a courtroom) or if you want to read something dramatically like poetry or lyrics from a song.
Speak at a reasonable pace with pauses between your points.
Speaking too quickly or slowly, in a monotone, or with a distracting accent can easily become problematic during a presentation. As such, try to speak at a reasonable pace with pauses between your points. This will also help you to think about what you’re saying and give the audience an opportunity to process your information. Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily because it will make your talk seem long and tedious; instead, use clear transitions between slides. Finally, avoid using big words for the sake of using them. The audience will be more likely to follow your train of thought if you stick to everyday words instead of trying to sound smarter than you are.
Make sure there is no background noise in the room when you’re talking.
Make sure there is no background noise in the room when you’re talking. If there is, pause and ask what it is or whether it can be turned off. It’s your job to control the room; if you don’t, who will? When I was presenting at a conference once, I kept hearing a phone ringing every few minutes. The tone was unfamiliar, so I didn’t know where it was coming from. After the third ring, I stopped my presentation and asked someone where that sound was coming from (because clearly nobody else had noticed it). It turned out to be the speakerphone on my own phone which was in my bag under the lectern. Oops!
After Your Presentation Ends, Make Sure To…
- Make sure you’re clear and concise.
- Don’t use jargon.
- Don’t overuse acronyms. For those members of the audience who are not familiar with them, using too many acronyms will leave them feeling lost and confused. If you need to use an acronym, make sure to explain it the first time you use it.
- Make sure everyone understands the question before you answer it. If a member of the audience asks a question while another member of the audience is asking another question, wait until all questions have been asked before answering any of them — this will help avoid confusion among both your questions and your answers.
- Repeat the question for the audience as well as for whomever is asking it (especially if they have a heavy accent or if they speak quickly). This helps keep the flow of information moving at a good pace between speaker and audience by helping those who weren’t listening to pick up on points they might have missed, while also making sure that everyone understands what you are answering (and why).
- If you don’t know an answer, say so! This shows your honesty as well as your humility (two things which can help endear an audience to a speaker much more than if he or she attempts to fake an answer or say nothing at all).
Repeat questions for other audience members and provide clear answers until everyone is satisfied.
- You should always repeat questions for the entire audience. Even though you may have heard a question, other members of the audience may not have. Honing this skill will also help your communication skills in general.
- If a questioner is not satisfied with your answer, it’s important to continue providing clear answers until they understand. Don’t become defensive or hostile.
- Avoid using phrases like “I don’t know” or “I didn’t get that.” If you do not know the answer to something, simply say so and offer to follow up after the talk via email (always give out your email address at the beginning of your talk).
Accept feedback graciously and ask for contact information from anyone offering it so you can follow up with them later.
- Accept feedback graciously and ask for contact information from anyone offering it so you can follow up with them later.
This is an important one because of the way scientists are wired in their brains. When someone says something negative about a presentation, it tends to sting. This is often because scientists don’t get a lot of feedback on their speaking skills while they are getting trained, so when they do get feedback (after giving a conference talk perhaps), they aren’t used to hearing that kind of information and therefore tend to react negatively to it.
One thing I want to make clear: If you need help with your public speaking skills as a scientist, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you! It simply means you never received good training in this area. That being said, if someone gives you advice on how to improve your public speaking after watching one of your presentations—even if you disagree with what they say—you should thank them for their time and effort in sharing the information with you. You might even take notes or ask for their contact information so you can follow up with them later about ways the two of you might work together going forward.
If you practice your presentation beforehand and get comfortable enough with it that you could tell the story around the dinner table, you’ll do well
Practice is vital.
It’s easy to assume that a brilliant idea or story will speak for itself, but the truth is even the most interesting and exciting stories can fall flat without proper delivery. You need to practice your presentation beforehand and get comfortable enough with it that you could tell the story around the dinner table. If you don’t know what you’re going to say next and have to stop every few seconds to think, how do you expect your audience to follow along?
An important facet of practicing is timing yourself. The last thing you want is to be halfway through a talk when they tell you they’ve run out of time and ask if you can wrap up quickly. You should know exactly how long your presentation takes so that if necessary, you can cut sections down or skip them entirely in order not to go over time. If time isn’t as much of an issue, then knowing your timing allows you to pace yourself properly and gives extra time for questions at the end which are inevitable at some point in your career.
Ultimately, though, scientists need to embrace the true beauty of public speaking: communicating. It can mean teaching other students or within one’s own lab group. Or it can mean providing the general public with an update on your work. The number and type of public speaking opportunities will vary from scientist to scientist, but there will be public speaking opportunities in every career—no matter what you study. So take a deep breath and get out there!