5 tips for improving your public speaking skills as a researcher

Imagine that you’re at your first conference EVER.


You’re about to listen to a ground-breaking research talk. You’ve got your notes ready, and you’re eager to listen.


But then you’re met by a presenter who’s glued to the podium, hunched over, reciting words and numbers in the most monotone voice imaginable.


Scientific conference where people are sleeping because of a monotonous speaker

“The data looks cool, but why do I feel… like something is missing?”, you ask yourself.


You hear a yawn from a senior professor in the back row. Question time at the end? Fewer hands go up than usual.


So what went wrong?


Public speaking is an essential skill for any researcher. Though, in many cases, they haven’t received enough directed training for it.


And by directed, we’re talking about working on how you present rather than what you present! 💡


So, what do you need to watch out for when delivering a seminar, conference talk, or lecture?


Here’s 5 pointers for effective public speaking from the viewpoint of a researcher-turned-science communicator 👇


5 icons representing tips for public speaking skills


1. Adjust your body language


Body language is important for so many reasons. Whether its to help emphasise your points, or to simply look more confident to nail a good audience impression; it’s a worthwhile aspect to keep in mind when you’re presenting.


So, what are some ways you could improve your body language?


Perform subtle gestures with your hands

When performed in moderation, moving your hands and arms can help elevate your talk. For example:

  • Using your fingers to summarise up to 5 key points at the end of the talk ✌️🖐

  • Using your fingers or arms in response to words conveying scale, like “large” , “wide”, “small” 👌🤏

  • Emphasising key points by holding out your hand(s) 👐

  • Raising your arm to the slide when referring to specific visuals (or by using a laser pointer or cursor) 👈


Obama with hand gestures during a speech



Straighten your posture

Research tells us that your body position does have an effect on vocal tract acoustics, which is why singers similarly practice good posture so that they can deliver from the diaphragm. A researcher presenting a seminar can benefit in the same way. 🎤


Vary your eye contact

While it would be awkward to stare at a single person all throughout your talk, you can make eye contact with multiple members of the crowd at different points during your presentation. In this way, everyone will feel that you are speaking directly to them, which will keep them engaged. 👀


Put your whole body to work, as it’s more than just your voice that’s going on stage! 🕴🏻



2. Fine-tune your verbal delivery


A monotonous delivery is the one thing that’ll turn everyone off.


And by off, you can bet I mean Zzz’s. 😴


The Simpsons sleeping in church gif


Instead, you can change up your tone to keep the audience engaged. This is called having vocal variety. Altering your vocal/verbal delivery is a normal part of everyday speech when you change the stresses, volume, and tones of words in your sentences to fit a certain context.


For example, when you:

  • add a rising intonation at the end of questions

  • elongating expressive words like “so = sooooo”


The meanings and implications of sentences can also change completely depending on where you stress or emphasise words. For example, you might feel a difference between:

  • “Scientific research needs to have WORLD impact” VS.

  • “Scientific research NEEDS to have world impact” VS.

  • “Scientific RESEARCH needs to have world impact”


So, which words in your speech could be spoken differently for emphasis? Well, depending on what you’re talking about, it could be all up to you. But some common ones include:

  • The five W’s (”where, who, why, when, what”) and “How”. i.e. “And HOW will we prove these hypotheses?”


  • Conjunctions (”and, but, however, though, therefore”) i.e. “THEREFORE, the way forward is to stop relying on fossil fuels”


  • The words “Is” or “Does”. i.e. “What DOES this data mean for improving human health?”


  • Words relating to size or scale. i.e. “At this rate, by the year 2100, global sea levels are estimated to increase by TWENTY-FIVE CENTIMETERS”



  • Anything you deem to be a key point that needs to be driven home!


Practise, and you’ll hook the audience with your words. 😉



3. Watch your speed and time limit


Time and time again, many researchers can’t help but try to fit a manuscript into a 5 minute slot. We’ve seen this kind of information overload in scientific posters; and for sure, it’s rampant in talks too.


And then there’s 1 minute flash talks. Those are like abstracts on TURBO.


So, what can you do to prevent a sprint during your talk?

Well there are a few things to note 👇


Breathe in, breathe out

If you’re feeling out of breath, that’s a good sign that your delivery speed is definitely too fast. It already takes a lot of mental stamina to get up on the podium, so it’s probably best not to run out of oxygen too. So breathe!


Remember to breathe GIF

Time yourself

PowerPoint has a handy inbuilt timer in Presenter Mode. Take into account your time at a reading speed you’re comfortable with.


PowerPoint presenter mode timer

Have others listen to you practise

When you’re practising, it’s difficult to judge whether your own delivery is too quick. Instead, have another person’s opinion; they’ll be able to let you know if the pace is too fast (or too slow), and can advise you on where you could change it.


Integrate appropriate pauses into your speech

Like with verbal delivery, adding a momentary pause to what you’re saying can help to emphasise your points more clearly.


For example, can you feel a difference between these two deliveries?


“This disease takes over half a million lives each year. Research needs to be done to…”


VS.


“This disease takes over half a million lives each year. (PAUSE TO LET THAT SINK IN) Research needs to be done to…”


This gives your audience time to process, or even mentally visualise, that jaw-dropping point you’ve just made. Plus it gives you time to breathe. 😉



4. Structure your talk like a story


Research is very much like an adventure. You have a goal, you come across difficult hurdles, and then you do something to overcome them. Take your audience on that same journey by presenting your work as a story.


Here are some tips on how to “storify” your work:


Harness the power of the “And, But, Therefore” (ABT) template

We’ve previously talked about how the power of ABT and how it can really elevate your oral and even your poster presentations. To summarise it here:


And

Connect together two pieces of introductory facts for your audience. i.e. “Solar power is a kind of renewable energy AND is now common all over the world.”


But

Present the problem, or the gap in the knowledge.

i.e. “BUT solar panels are expensive to construct because of the materials needed for manufacturing solar cells.”


Therefore

Present the solution a.k.a. your research!

i.e. “THEREFORE, we’ve developed a novel material that could be used for more cost-effective production of durable solar cells.”


As a result of this structure, your talk has the very same structure as a typical hero's journey, beginning with the hero in their ordinary world, going through conflicts, and a path towards resolution!


Of course, the words and, but, therefore can be substituted with a suitable synonym:


And But Therefore Template synonyms


Use a mix of short and long sentences

In Gary Provost’s 1985 book “100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing with Style and Power”, he mentions that any piece of writing (including speeches) can be livened up by following a simple rule.


Mixing. Up. Your. Sentence. Length!

Sentences can be as short as a single word. Just. One.

And longer sentences… well, I’m sure you know your limits!


Here’s an excerpt from his book to give you an idea of how this beautiful writing convention truly sings to the ear. This is what the audience should be hearing as you tell your story.


Gary Provost short and long sentences tips

Who knew a speech could have such a musical feel to it? 🎶



5. Connect with the audience


Have you ever wondered why TED talks and animations feel so engaging, to the point that they even resonate deep within you?


Well, storytelling is a huge part of it (as we talked about earlier). Though what kind of words being spoken cause you to feel this connection?


… and how can you harness this feeling of emotional connection for your own presentations?


One way is by incorporating more inclusive language!


In reference to your research collaborators

It’s easy to say “I did this, I did that”, but after a while it’ll start sounding like you’re reciting your CV. The audience loves hearing about the team that was involved in the study; because most of the time you’re not working alone in the pursuit of science.


So, try saying “We accomplished X, Y, Z” to highlight the camaraderie behind your research.


Teamwork gif

And in reference to what matters to the crowd!

For example, when you present a problem and how it impacts the world at large, you could say:


You, me, and everyone in this room is going to be impacted by global warming”.

1 in 4 people are affected by this disease every year. Imagine a quarter of the people sitting beside you suffering this debilitating condition.”

“Unsustainable fishing practices will affect everyone’s dinner plates.”

People of European descent are more likely to have this gene passed down.”





This communicates why people should care about your work and its implications by tapping into who or what it affects.



Take-away messages


  1. Use effective body language to complement your talk. ✌️

  2. Vary your verbal delivery to fit context. 🎤

  3. Talk at a natural speed and know your time limit. ⏱

  4. Tell a structured story about your research journey. 📖

  5. Establish an emotional connection through inclusive language. 🤝


And of course, you’ll need to put it all into practice. Volunteer for any public speaking opportunities you can get!



Interested in upping your SciComm skills?


Public speaking is just one of the many essential skills for any researcher or science communicator. But if we’ve only covered one, what are the other skills?


Well, we’d love to tell you through one of our online or in-person science communication workshops! If our lessons in this post resonated with you, we would love to present them first-hand. But we need your help by recommending us to your institution!


Contact us to find out how we can bring SciComm training to a space near you! 💫


Authors

Dr Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Khatora Opperman

Dr Tullio Rossi


Illustrator

Alvin Yanga



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