Category Archives: Story Telling

Communicating in a Classroom Setting

Until now I have only been addressing public speaking and communication as a means to disseminate information through a one way conversation. For example, when on stage communicating in a public setting, there is not much opportunity for audience participation. The expert is telling a story and conveying information, while the audience listens passively. In these cases generally the only feedback from the audience is nonverbal facial expressions and gestures. There might be time for a few questions at the end, but for the most part this it is a one way street.  There is however, another very important venue for communication, knowledge transfer, and public engagement, which is the classroom. Whether you are a teacher at a high school or a professor at a university the skills and techniques needed are different than an “on stage” presentation. In this post we will discuss some of the ways you can improve audience participation and increase the information retention of your audience.

Why is speaking in a classroom so much different than communicating on stage in a public setting? For the most part it has to do with the opportunity for the audience to ask questions and engage the speaker in a way that is possible in other formats. Sure there is time for Q&A  at the end of a presentation, but a few minutes of questions is no comparison to the the back and forth discussion that a classroom setting can have. In the classroom you are teaching to the audience, and allowing them to have an active role in learning. Whereas In the public setting you are relying on the audience to pay attention while you are keeping them engaged and interested. Here, when I refer to the classroom I an going to assume that the audience is composed of young adults. There are obviously many different methods for communicating and when it comes to kids, and some of the methods explained here won’t work as well due to different attention spans, maturity, discipline, etc. However, as a communicator knowing a few techniques to manage a back and forth discussion and increase audience participation can be useful for any classroom setting.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S77546, Schulunterricht

Getting your audience involved

The first step to communicating in the classroom is to get the audience involved. It is important to begin by literally telling your audience that it is okay to participate. Too often students are discouraged from sharing ideas or questions for fear of feeling stupid or being ridiculed. When you set the tone so that everyone is part of the discussion (as long as it is respectful) it will encourage everyone to take part. If you are working with a particularly young audience you will need to make sure you can guide the discussion and not let it go off topic. No matter, it is imperative that you involve the audience, for two reasons. The first is that if the students are not involved then they will quickly lose interest. These days most of us (including adults) have shorter and shorter attention spans, and are not often able to stay engaged for very long periods of time. When it comes to communicating on the stage, we are relying on the audience to stay attentive on their own. We help this by being interesting and polished, but the ultimate responsibility is on the audience to stay with us. By involving the audience, it will engage them in a different way because they will want to have their opinion or question heard. The second reason is that everyone learns in slightly different ways and most of us need to experience something first hand to learn about it. That being said, as the communicator you will need to provide a mixture of learning opportunities for the audience, be it from questions, discussion,  visual aids , or a hands on activity. Allowing the audience to ask questions, make comments and participate in both listening and speaking, make for a more diverse learning experience. Make sure, however, that you are also prepared with some different kinds of material (visual and hands on) in addition to your spoken word to engage your audience with.

Managing a back and forth discussion

Generally as a communicator you will likely get the most engagement from a discussion setting. Communicators use language as a primary tool and it is no surprise that this would be our first way to connect with the audience. But how do you manage the discussion? The first step is to make sure that you are staying more or less on topic. You can allow a lot of leeway for people to have their comment, but the point is you will need to be comfortable cutting someone off and saying “thanks but we need to stay on topic”.  Now you may be thinking that this will only applies to a younger audience, but you would be surprised at how many adults have little concept of how to remain on topic. Ideally you should allow for questions to be answered as they come up, or pause often and see if any questions arise. However questions are not the only thing that you need to allow for, comments should be welcomed as long as they are on topic. Literally saying this to the audience, is helpful since you are setting the rules for the discussion, rather than having the audience make them up on their own. Cite the fact that time is limited (as it always is) and so everything needs to be on topic and be relevant to the subject. The importance of questions and comments is that they can spur others into a new way of thinking they had not considered before. This is helpful to allow the audience to understand the material better or at least remember more of the presentation. Often it is good practice to repeat the question and answer more than once during the presentation. Humans have a better chance at remembering something if it is repeated with short breaks in between repetitions. In general you will want to allow the discussion to happen naturally, keeping it on track and on time, while making sure that repeat all important points.

When should you become a moderator and allow the audience to interact with itself?

There may be a time that you get a good back and forth going between audience members and you should allow this given time constraints. A back and forth between the audience members can be something that is very productive or it can be a complete disaster, you will need to be the judge of  how it is going. As the communicator you will need to moderate the conversation, making sure no one is cut off and that the discussion stays relevant to the topic. Imagine that you are the referee that can stop the fight at any time if someone is about the get really hurt. Keep in mind that back and forth within the audience is usually not well organized, so you need to also be aware that some people might dominate the conversation. It is your job to make sure that the conversation stay balanced, even by verbally saying “okay what about what other people who have not commented think?”. Ideally this will not take too much effort because for the most part people are respectful of one another, but you are also there to make sure they follow the rules. Allowing the audience to discuss the topic can vastly enrich the experience of everyone in the room.

Lehre an der hhu 2011

Why is this important? and what are the advantages?

When you engage the audience in a classroom setting you are essentially giving them the ability to express thoughts and questions while learning something new. Things may not go as you had planned, but that is what is so unique about classrooms, the discussion is often organic and very interesting ideas can be born from it. As the speaker you are always in control to make sure the right material is covered, however the way in which that material is covered is really up to the audience.  This is relevant because of the way that Humans learn, is through trial and error. Allowing people the chance to formulate thoughts and opinions of the material, will drastically increase information retention over passive listening to a presentation. Overall the classroom setting is a very different place when communicating and if done in a respectful and controlled manner everyone will walk away having gained new insights and information.

How to Communicate Science Using a Story Arc

Often times when presenting or speaking in a science communication setting, people feel compelled to use the format of a peer reviewed paper. The traditional, introduction, methods, results/discussion, and conclusion are suitable for the written word, however is not the best choice for the medium of public speaking. The main problem is that the written word can be reviewed, reread, and contemplated at the reader’s own pace. Where as, in a presentation the audience must keep up with the speaker or they can get lost in the details. For the most part almost every story follows a distinct format that allows the audience to be drawn in and immersed in the message. Preparing your next presentation with a clear plan and format will not only increase the audience’s retention but also engage them, making your next presentation well received.

Eduard Geselschap Die Gutenachtgeschichte

Develop your game plan.

The most important part of spoken presentations is to make sure you have a well defined plan. Take time before you make any PowerPoint slides or graphics to decide what material you want to use, how will it add to your message, and what your goals are for the presentation. Think about the setting and format of the presentation as well. If you are only allowed five minutes for a short elevator pitch to a room full the general public, you will need a very different format from a 45 minute seminar to professional colleagues. Even in the shortest of presentations you can still fit all the aspects of a story arc, but you will need to be very concise and use well rehearsed language. Take considerable time to brainstorm and write out thoughts, then return to your ideas, days or even weeks later and see if everything stills fits with your goals.

Starting at the beginning, the introduction.

First you will need to set the stage for what you did and how you did it. For the most part you can take the main ideas of your introduction and methods (from a peer reviewed paper) and combine them for a spoken presentation. Remember, however, that for the most part you only need to provide a setting and backdrop for where and how your story (research) take place. You will not need to use excruciating detail of every method and procedure that you did, just the gist so that the audience has a point of reference. Additionally, craft sound and logical reasoning  for why the research or project was undertaken and why the audience should care. Think about how most movies begin, very early on there are logical sequences of scenes to setup background, to build up characters, and try to get the audience to identify with what is being shown to them. In film, the idea is to get the audience to believe in the illusion that they are actually part of the action they see on the screen. In the same way use words and imagery in your presentation so that the audience is joining you on a journey and become immersed in your work.

Build up tension and add some rising action.

Every story from fairy tales to epics, has some sort of rising action like tension or obstacles that need to be overcome. The purpose is to keep the story interesting, and make the audience want to keep paying attention. Usually this is in the form of a series of actions that keep the main character from completing his or her goal. This keeps a story interesting because we experience the same sort of complex obstacles in real life, and the rising action in a story helps us identify with the characters. When constructing your next presentation you will want to think about all the problems, be it external or internal that were preventing your work from progressing. In some cases this can be dramatic as a major hurricane destroying all your monitoring stations and threatening lives of the researchers, or it can be something more administrative such as the difficulty of funding. The key is to combine elements that create rising tension into your story so that it flows naturally. Make sure to add points along the way about the different struggles such as failed experiments, misadventures in field work, or fighting against biased opinions of colleagues. Whatever the case may be, the point is to include details of rising action in your presentation so that the audience can identify with you and become more engaged.

Define a turning point in your research or project.

Once you have established an introduction and some sort of rising tension in your presentation, it is then time to work on the climax or turning point of your work. This is the point you have been building up to through background (introduction) and established difficulties (rising tension) and the next step is now to show the fruit of that labor. By now in your presentation you probably have the audience following along with your story and already anticipating what happens next. This is the point where you want to show the results of your research and work that you have done. The point is that until now in your presentation it has been unclear to the audience how things might play out. Much like the climax in a story, you will want to show that whatever outcome or successes you have had. Keep in mind, however, that not every story has a happy ending. Even if your experiments or research didn’t pan out, this is still the climax of your story and should be presented to the audience. Science is often a series of failed attempts which leads to refinement and eventual success, which is enough for a climax or turning point.

What are the consequences and falling action.

At this point, it’s time to let the audience know what the results mean and how your understanding of them has affected the rest of your work. For example, how has your hypothesis changed about species X now that you know that they are not adversely affected by the new pesticide that was tested. It is a good idea to also include information about impending publications or reports and how this information might shift the community’s current paradigm. If any of the audience members want to follow up on your work after the talk, providing resources (e.g. links to publications, posters or hand outs) will increase engagement. It is important to make sure that you tie up any lose ends about the project or research so that the story has a complete and coherent feeling. Keep in mind that the audience is likely feeling fatigue at this time from paying attention, so it is best to remain on point and be concise. Generally speaking if you haven’t brought up something by now, then it is probably best to leave it out rather than trying to introduce new topics late in the presentation. If you realize there are crucial details missing from the story then you need to rearrange either the introduction or rising tension.

Childrens' books at a library

Final conclusions and summary.

Here is where you want to present your final closing thoughts on the information and how it all ties together. If you have been following the above format there is a good chance that the audience is also making the same connections based on the information you have given them. Being concise here is also good practice, make the final connections you need to and summarize what you have told them earlier in the presentation. For the most part by following these simple guidelines your presentations will be easier to follow and engage more of the audience since they will become immersed in your story.

The Increasing Need for Science Communication

When I was freshman attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, it was required of me to take a communication class. At the time I was an engineering student and a  communication class was a general education requirement for almost all majors and incoming students. I remember thinking, “why do I have to take that dumb communication class.” I had never taken a communication class in high school, and I understand why I had to learn it now when I wanted to learn engineering. Also, I didn’t like speaking in public in the first place, so shouldn’t I be focusing on the important stuff like math, science, and engineering?

At the time I didn’t understand the importance of communicating with others through public speaking. The importance of communication had, up until this point in my life, never been conveyed to me. Sure I had to do an occasional presentation here and there in high school, but somehow I never got the message. Communication is that one skill that every person and every career will need. Besides the implications for being successful in work, communicating with other humans is immensely important for social interactions, relationships, and communities.1 In fact, the entire notion of social media (an industry with companies worth billions) is built on the idea that we humans; like to share information, tell stories, and captivate audiences. So why is communication class often considered a waste of time in most education systems, and thought of as a major for the football team so they can get good grades in SOMETHING…

It would be outrageous if young people went to school and didn’t learn to read or write. There is no doubt that we value those skills as a society, however, communication between each other, and in a public realm is something that is neglected in education By the time anyone begins to learn the value of public speaking he or she is often already dealing with deep-rooted social fears, anxiety and embarrassment surrounding speaking. In general these problems are related to a lack of skill and experience with communication.

Anna Chao Pai (b. 1935) (6891504099)

Communication in the Scientific World

A problem that occurs and is reinforced in the scientific community is that science communication is considered to be a waste of time. Indeed there is a systematic problem with the higher levels of academia, where new young graduate students are indoctrinated with this line of thinking. The structure for advancement in the scientific and academic world usually follows a linear path from undergrad to professor-hood. For example if a person works their way through a PhD program, they will likely have a mix of scientific skills, including research, subject expertise and writing skills. As they move on in their career, and begin a post doc position they enhance their research skills and gain independence as a scientist. The problem comes when someone begins their career beyond graduate school or post doc. Once a person moves into the academic world as a professor, they need to be a teacher, a mentor, and a community member. Often these requirements are not only in the department  but also in the greater community in the form of outreach. The problem lies not in the requirements of the job as a scientist, but rather in the lack of training and emphasis on these necessary communication skills.

“With some exceptions, most working scientists have little responsibility for dealing directly with the public. An elite group of scientists, however, especially those who publish in journals monitored by the press, are often sought for interviews by media reporters.” 2

The dichotomy between the lack of communication training with the practical need for communication skills, creates a systematic problem within the scientific community. Additionally, it is becoming more and more of an issue as the world continues the march towards a socially connected global community. Unfortunately, the lack of skills in communication is deeply rooted in every department I have been a part of (4 at the time of this writing). There are always a few scientists who do a mediocre job teaching, presenting, and mentoring. Furthermore there is a lack of opportunities for these scientist to improve their skills, and fix their mistakes in a constructive manner. The reality is, not only is communication neglected within the scientific community, but the problem is made much worse by the lack of training.

“Scientists are often reluctant to engage in public dialogue. Fellow scientists may look down on colleagues who go public, believing that science is best shared through peer-reviewed publications. Scientists may also believe that broad-cast media are trivial, that scientists should be humble and dedicated to their work, that scientists should have neither the time nor the inclination to blow their own trumpets, that the rewards of a media career can compromise a scientist’s integrity, that the public may commandeer a story and distort it, and finally that the public may get excited about the wrong side of the story.3

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson


The above statement clearly outlines the current way of thinking within scientific communities. However, scientists can no longer stay hide in their own sphere of influence within the laboratory. The global community is in need of scientific expertise now more than ever before. With the ongoing climatic changes the Earth is experiencing, the public will increasingly turn to the scientific community for clarity, explanations, and understanding of the problem at hand. Hopefully that will spur the scientific community to respond by enhancing communication skills and improving opportunities for scientists to learn how to speak to the public.


1. Golder, S. A., Wilkinson, D. M., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). Rhythms of social interaction: Messaging within a massive online network. In Communities and technologies 2007 (pp. 41-66). Springer London.

2. Weigold, M. F. (2001). Communicating science A review of the literature. Science communication, 23(2), 164-193.

3. Shortland, M., & Gregory, J. (1991). Communicating science: A handbook. Longman Scientific.

Three Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking

Being good at a task is often attributed to talent, genetics, or plain luck. Although this is the common way of thinking, it ignores some fundamental facts about how our brains work, and the way we learn. Humans learn through trial and error combined with repetition. Take a young child for example, if you watch them while they learn to walk, you already have seen how many attempts (probably in the thousands) it takes for them to complete their first few wobbly steps. However, once they have figured out how to walk, they are making laps around the house non stop, refining their newly learned skill. I remember being over at a friend’s house and seeing their son finally walking (he had learned days before) all he wanted to do was walk around the house again and again and again. To the child this must feel like a magical moment, previously he had seen all the other humans in his life gliding around bipedally, while he himself was confined to the ground crawling. Then one day it just happened, the neurons in the brain finally fired in the right pattern and those important first few steps were taken. With time, these new brain connections are strengthened as the action of walking is repeated over and over again. The point is, that what may have seemed previously impossible (due to the enormous number of failed attempts) was really just the brain needing time to rewire itself for the new task of balancing while on two feet.

Baby walking

We would never say that one is “gifted” or “talented” just because they learned to walk, rather it is expected since most all humans are capable of it. If we compare this to the way adults tend to approach learning new tasks, the difference is that adults will often throw up their hands in frustration and give up after only a few hundred failed repetitions. So what does learning to walk have to do with public speaking? When it comes to public speaking, most people will admit they are afraid of in the first place, and just not very good at it in the second. Although few people will attempt to improve themselves and get experience to fix their mistakes. When you are not very good at a task, it is very frustrating to improve because it takes so many failed repetitions to learn something new. However, if you are able to stick with it, slow and steady improvements are possible until the task at hand becomes second nature. Now there will be differences on how quickly some can learn and improve in a task over others, but in the case of public speaking we should avoid comparisons to others. Every professional sportsman and sportswoman had to learn to walk and coordination their body just like you did when you were a toddler. The difference is that they were persistent and kept working on their coordination for many, many years.

Holding on to the idea that we are static and cannot improve our skills is the incorrect way to think. For example “I am bad at public speaking because I get nervous”, It is a common problem people have but whether you realize it or not being nervous is something that you can overcome if you use the right technique and practice. Think about this, are you nervous when you tell a story to 3 people over dinner? what about 5 people at a party? 10 people in the office? 20? where is the threshold that makes you get nervous? is it the topic you are talking about? being on stage? using a microphone? etc… Could you get to a point (through practice) where you are less and less nervous until you are not really nervous at all anymore and it all becomes second nature? The answer is yes!

1. Identify Specific Problems and Focus Your Practice

After studying experts in fields from sports to science to music to writing, scientists have determined that 10000 hours is the amount of practice needed to take anyone to the top of his or her field. 1

So you have come to accept that you need practice at public speaking, but you may be wondering, what should I do first to improve? The real key here is to identify the problems as specific as possible. Vague statements like “I’m really just not very confident, I need to act more confident when I speak” do not help here. When do you feel a lack of confidence? Under what circumstances? Is it a particular subject matter? A time of day? A certain group you are speaking to? etc. You need to be as specific as possible so you can address the problem with focused practice to will get to the root of what is causing you trouble. Consider this, musicians will often repeat a section of difficult music again and again at a very slow tempo until it is flawless. Only then do they actually play it at the normal speed. This is the approach we need to take when improving at speaking in public. If you are bad at visuals, get specific, what aspect exactly. Then it is time to make a lot of simple visual aids to practice your skills. You need to be able to make and explain a simple visual aid until it is flawlessly. Ask a friend to listen to you explain what you have made and see if it makes sense. You need to be ruthless in your pursuit to find errors and faults in your technique and continually practice. Only then can you fix the problems and take your skill set to the next level.

2. Emulate Others

Individual differences in talent and intelligence are not predetermined by genes; they develop over time. Genetic differences do play an important role, but genes do not determine complex traits on their own. … Speaking broadly, limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but to our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have. 2

When it comes to actualizing our potential as someone who is speaking and communicating in public, emulation of a style you like is a good place to start. Look at the people who have the skills you desire, who have the confidence you want, who seem to be so smooth when they present, and emulate them. Watching and learning from others is an innately human quality, and using it to improve your skills is a great way to springboard yourself to the next level. The thing you must watch out for however is that you are not outright copying someone else. There is a fine line between emulation and copying. Your content and voice should be your own, but the tone of voice, mannerisms, and techniques can all be borrowed from someone you admire. Emulation is a great way to get yourself over the first few hurtles when it comes to finding your own style. However, be sure to move away from emulating others once you have the experience and confidence to develop your own style. When you are unsure about overstepping the bounds of emulation, use citations and make it clear of who you are emulating.

3. Fake it until you make it

Amy Cuddy gave an excellent TED talk about how we can use body language to help improve our own confidence. In this talk she also describes the method of faking it, until you become the person who you are aspiring to be. No one starts off speaking in public sounding like they are giving the best TED talk ever. However we can try to act like we are giving the best TED talk ever. Research shows that when you keep those goals in mind and try your best to portray yourself as such eventually you will actualize your goals. The key is to not get discouraged when you fail, failure is a normal part of learning and should be treated as such.  Keep on working at your goals and they will come true as long as you don’t give up.

These are just a few ideas to help improve your speaking skills and reach your goals as a communicator. Naturally everyone will have a different experience of what works for them, however, remember that if you want to be great at something then you will need to put in a lot of practice and be very persistent in reaching those goals.


1. Maats, H. &  O’Brien, K. (2013) The Straight-A Conspiracy: Your Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of School and Totally Ruling the World, 368 press LLC

2. Shenk, D. (2010) The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ, Anchor Books a division of random house inc.

Using the Potential of Anecdotes to Communicate Science

Cicero denouncing Catiline

Story telling by way of anecdotes is a powerful tool that has been used throughout human history. Anecdotes are short, amusing or interesting stories about a real incidents or persons. However, often times scientists are reluctant to use them for fear of losing the audience or sounding unintelligent, particularly when speaking to colleagues. There is a tendency in science communication to revert to the format of the written word, most commonly the format of the generic scientific paper (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion). The problem is, that when using a written document as an outline for spoken communication it does not tell an effective story. Scientific papers are designed to convey information in a manner so the reader can scrutinize the experiment and reproduce the results if needed. Scientific papers do not lead from one succinct thought to the next, pausing now and again to reflect and summarize the story. Papers are a compilation of facts, results and conclusions strewn together to summarize experiments. This is part of the reason they are difficult to read and understand, particularly if you are not familiar with the writing style.

Now some of you reading this may stop and think “why would you want to tell a story when speaking about science? the results and data speak for themselves!” But that line of reasoning is ignoring why people get interested in science in the first place. Scientists, science writers, and educators of science care about the world around them due in large part to CURIOSITY. Curiosity is the reason why anyone would put up with the long hours, low wages, and years of education to pursue a career in science. The fact is, people become involved in science because  they have motivation to ask questions, they want to learn about the world, and they enjoy the understanding of something new. The joy of learning new things and understanding how the universe works around us is the true reward of science. This shouldn’t come a shocking revelation to anyone, throughout history humans have been driven to learn about the environment they exist in to survive. We as humans are inherently driven by a strong sense of curiosity. As a communicator and public speaker not taking advantage of curiosity is a major fault.

But how does story telling play into science communication and public speaking?Communicating your work and getting an audience to retain information, is literally the most important thing you can do as a scientist. It doesn’t matter if you unlocked the key to the question of the universe (42) if no one knows about it or no one can understand it, you really haven’t accomplished anything. Science is a knowledge base built on the work of all the people who came before us, and can only continue if our new scientific contributions are able to be understood and shared. Communicating science is therefore all about getting others curious about your work. Curious people will put in all sorts of effort to try understand and learn about a topic.  Once you have sparked the curiosity of your audience then it is your job to get out-of-the-way of the awesomeness of your work and let the story tell itself!

Following the format of a scientific paper on the other hand, (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) is utter death to the awesomeness of your scientific story. The main reason why it does not work, is that the article is designed to be read not spoken. Journal articles are a manifesto of why you did the work, how you did it, and by what it means. If you try to recite that paper in a talk you are essentially (whether you realize it or not) reading out loud to your audience.  Scientific papers give the reader the ability to stop and ponder your words, study your figures, reread difficult parts, and absorb the material. In the spoken world you have none of these luxuries. Timing and meter is very important  in spoken communication and this is why the anecdote is so good at conveying information. The story of the journey to discover something new in science is what the audience will find interesting, and if done right will get them curious about your research. When you are preparing for your next talk try to remember what got you excited and curious when you first heard the idea, and how excited when you saw the results. These feelings and thoughts need to be intertwined with your presentation so that the audience can follow along and get the same sense of enjoyment.

Let’s Examine an Example of Changing Text into a Anecdote From a Recent Publication in Nature

“The question of whether the AMOC has always controlled or at times only responded to climatic oscillations during the last glacial period still awaits full clarification despite its fundamental role in climatology. During the Holocene epoch deep-water formation has been active in the North Atlantic and North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied a large fraction of the deep Atlantic basin down to ~5,000 m depth (a circulation mode often referred to as the ‘warm’, or ‘interglacial’, circulation mode). However, the existence of different AMOC modes in the past has been proposed, mostly on the basis of nutrient tracers such as stable carbon isotopes. … Here we reconstruct changes in the AMOC based on combined extraction of seawater radiogenic neodymium (Nd) isotopes and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) … from sediments recovered in the deep subtropical northwest Atlantic “

Exracted from: Böhm, E., Lippold, J., Gutjahr, M., Frank, M., Blaser, P., Antz, B., Fohlmeister, J., Frank, N., Andersen, M. B., & Deininger, M. (2015). Strong and deep Atlantic meridional overturning circulation during the last glacial cycle. Nature, 517(7532), 73-76.

There is nothing wrong with the writing of the above paragraph since the reader can spend as much time as they want to reread and understand it. But as spoken word it doesn’t flow or begin a story very well. One way to rephrase this passage as an anecdote could be like this;

It is obvious to even the newest graduate student that  ocean currents like the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC) are important in the Earth’s climate system. But our research team and even many other climate scientists have been struggling to understand how AMOC plays a role in climate through the last glacial cycles. We began to formulate questions about what AMOC was actually doing in the past. For example in the Holocene research has shown that North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied the basin down to at least 5000 meters. This is considered by some to represent “warm or interglacial” modes of circulation. We wondered how reliable the history of these circulation modes were, since they were based on data from nutrient tracers and stable carbon isotopes. We got together and wondered, what if there was another way to get at the history of AMOC. Given our group’s expertise with radiogenic isotopes we hatched a plan to test neodymium and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) of sediments to reconstruct AMOC history. So we mobilized quickly and were soon heading out to the best field site to suit our experiment, in the subtropical northwest Atlantic.

Both passages relate essentially the same thing, but the above paragraph is acceptable for a paper but not a talk. Meanwhile, the below paragraph is good for a presentation but certainly not a paper.

Another Example From a Famous Modern Storyteller, Ira Glass

Finally we can turn to an expert storyteller, Ira Glass. As the host of This American Life (TAL), he gathers an estimated 2.1 million listeners each week. Although not everyone has to love the show to get the point, there is no denying that Ira is good at telling an anecdote. So check out the video below to get some more ideas on how to use anecdotes in your next presentation.

Charisma to Get Your Point Across

Some time ago I heard a story on one of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money (Episode 508: A Bet On The Future Of Humanity) about a bet that was made, between an Economist and a Biologist, based on the fate of humanity. The story goes that Dr. Paul Ehrlich believed that humans were careening towards disaster due to the rapid use of natural resources and population strain put on the environment. Meanwhile, Dr. Julian Simon believed that due to the adaptive nature of humans, we would be able to face any problem in the future without much worry. I won’t go into much more detail on the bet, because it isn’t the focus of this post, but you can listen to the episode in its entirety below.


The story is an interesting one, and in this post I want to explore why of the two highly educated people who have opposing views, one is still to this day relatively unknown outside his field. While the other person has had near celebrity status during the height of the debate. Naturally we can assume it had something to do with the methods that each professor used to communicate their message. So lets see what one did right and wrong to make the case for the future of the human race.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich appeared on the tonight show over many times, when his book The Population Bomb was published. You can hear from the Planet Money episode that on the audio clips from the tonight show, he is a witty guy with a pointed story. He uses anecdotes to get his point across, and can add a dose of humor to lighten the mood. These are all sound techniques that can be used in public speaking, and in general create a charisma that is hard to deny, whether you agree with him or not.

cha·ris·ma – /kəˈrizmə/ – noun 1. compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

Charisma helped him tremendously with his message, because people simply liked him regardless of whether they understood his message in it’s entirety. The other thing that worked towards the advantage of Dr. Ehrlich, was that his story at first glance appeared correct. Meaning that if you were only to consider what his side about for a few moments you would intuitively come to the same conclusion about the fate of humanity.

Dr. Ehrlich’s thesis is that, animals, like humans (if we can even distinguish ourselves as separate) can suffer total population collapses due to resource strain. The problem is that idea can easily lead to a case of confirmation bias. Since our only example of resource strain (given to us by Dr. Ehrlich) leads to collapse of butterflies in the animal kingdom, for example. To get the full picture you need to also consider cases where resource strain and stress does not lead to population collapse and see what is driving the system. If we do not take into consideration all outcomes when resource strain occurs, we may miss the controls on what triggers collapse. Additionally, one would need to evaluate if this can be even applied to humans in the same way and will it occur in the near future. The average person isn’t going to work through all this trouble to understand the biology and will most likely end up agreeing the expert. In fact most people do not even read for pleasure let alone to understand the scientific ideas written by a biologist. Therefore the general audience will likely put even more weight on his spoken word without knowing the complete story. Although we can think of confirmation bias as something scientists should try to avoid, it really didn’t harm his message in this case. I think that confirmation bias did however, cause his predictions about the future to be off.

Economist Dr. Julian Simon on the other hand believed that there was no problem with resource strain since humans are able to adapt. Dr. Simon is an educated speaker and in general he is able to articulate his story well to a highly educated (in economics) audience. The problem is that despite being an educated person, he has very little charisma, and basically bores everyone to sleep. This because he does not adapt his method of communicating, to the audience he is trying to reach (e.g. the general public). This is a virtual death sentence in the public realm and the reason why no one really remembers him. Watch the below video for the style of Dr. Simon to see for yourself. Despite trying to add some flare by wearing a pair of devil horns when speaking about the population collapse hypothesis, he quickly falls into a habit of using jargon such as “economic social systems”, “long-term trends in material human wealth”, and “unsound social economic regulation”. When an audience does not understand the jargon used they will often stop listening and confused and are trying to figure out what the speaker meant. Meanwhile the speaker has already moved on the next topic, leaving the confused audience behind.


Now compare the above video with Dr. Ehrlich, who is still around speaking about his over population idea. Despite the depressing undertones of his message, he is able to grab the attention of people due to his skill in speaking, how he projects his personality, and his charisma. These qualities continue to get him on air to this day. The below interview was just from this year, and at 82 years old and has still got it.


Maybe the most interesting thing about the whole debate is that Dr. Ehrlich was off on his predictions, yet despite this, he was and still is able to get his message out to the public. I should put a disclaimer here that I actually agree with Dr. Ehrlich on most of his points, the planet will get to a tipping point where we could see collapse of societal infrastructure if we continue to stress the planet and our resources. The timing, severity and affects of said resource strain, however, I think are debatable. The take home message from this debate is that communication is so very important to get your message across. Not only must communication skills be considered as part of a scientific career, but you also have to practice often and develop your own charisma!

Striking a Balance Between the Delivery and Your Message When Speaking in Public

Sometimes you may experience great presentation that does everything right; a good story, interesting data, good visuals and has the wow factor that keeps the audience attentive. I can remember having attended many different seminars based solely on the topic. In those cases I was always hoping the speaker would interesting as well. I am a science nerd so it is easy for me to be excited about someone who had done (geological) research in some far off land. I remember attending special sessions at national meeting so I could see on the new data coming from the Mars rover. In those cases, I wasn’t particularly concerned with the speaker (whether they were actually good or not) but rather I wanted to see the latest cool data that was from another planet! More often than not the speaker would do all the wrong things, and lose the attention of the audience boring people to tears. Thinking back to those talks, it is difficult to remember the content, even though I was already self motivated to learn!

Conversely there have been other times when I went to a seminar based only on the name of the person presenting. I had heard that Professor so and so is a great orator and I wanted to experience their presentation. The most memorable example, was a talk given by the blind paleontologist Dr. Geerat Vermeij. It was incredible to hear a presentation from someone who did not rely on the visual aids, but rather use the power of the spoken word to paint a vivid picture. The point is that a good delivery can only add to the message you are trying to convey. I believe that the most often overlooked fact is that everyone has something interesting say, and it only becomes boring if the delivery is done wrong.

Simon Sinek is a great orator. Despite his TEDx talk being business oriented (and using phrases such as “differentiated value proposition” and “proprietary process”) I was enthralled the first time I saw it. His talk is a shining example of how one can use a good delivery to communicate a story. Whether your next talk is on the latest discovery in the lab or another lecture given to your class, there is a lot we all can learn from Simon’s example.

So what makes this a great talk? We can break it down to two main parts, the message that Simon Sinek delivers, and the mechanics of how he actually delivers the content. As we look deeper into this TEDx talk you will see how Simon has constructed a well thought out and pointed speech. He uses many specific techniques to make the material stick, and the message is also inspiring.

The Message

Probably the most interesting thing to me when analyzing this talk is the fact that Simon has really no fancy visuals at all. In fact he is using maybe the worst visual aid you can possibly try to use for a presentation. A large writing pad is hard to even see from the middle row of the audience let alone the back. Luckily, however, there are not many visuals needed for this talk. Additionally for the first five minutes he is using a microphone that is hissing and doesn’t even project his voice very well. (Talk about distractions!) Despite these shortcomings his TEDx talk has become the third most popular of all time with 22 million views at the time of this writing. I believe this is in large part due to the message of the message of the talk. His modus operandi is to inspire the audience. He does this with anecdotes of amazing accomplishments in American history, such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, and the Wright brothers first flight. These stories are almost larger than life, and in a way Simon is telling us that if follow his “Why, How, and What” method rather than the “What, How, and Why” method then we too can achieve greatness. Whether it be in business or social change it is just a matter of changing the way we think about what we do. This is pretty deep stuff and it can make the audience dream and wonder on what their potential could be. The point is that he has crafted an inspiring talk by talking about other inspiring people.

The Mechanics

In a sense when analyzing this TEDx talk we can see the careful crafting of a thesis, while using proven techniques to improve audience retention. The mechanics and timing of his material is superb and you can bet a lot of careful planning and practice went into such a presentation. Simon begins his TEDx talk with an interesting question which has the hopes of grabbing the audience’s attention right away.

“How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?”.

Posing a question at the start of your presentation can work as a lead in to the rest of the talk. It can intrigue the audience so that they pay closer attention and begin thinking in line with what you plan to tell them next. Simon does this perfectly not only setting up the tone for the rest of the talk but also to begin to establish himself as an authority figure of why some people and companies succeed and while others do not. The authority figure aspect of his talk is strengthened by his next statement

“About three and a half years ago, I made a discovery. And this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked, and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. … None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle.”

The above statement allows Simon to reinforce the idea that he is an authority figure on the idea of success, and that he knows the real reason why some succeed and others. In addition, he also has information that he has discovered three years ago and which implies that he has been studying this phenomena since that time. Think about how much weaker of an authority figure he would be, if said something like “I came up with an answer for why apple is a successful company the other day, let me tell you all about it.”. Adding a reference to the anatomy of the brain also serves to give him more support as an authority figure.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

Repetition plays an important role in Simon’s TEDx talk. He repeats the above phrase several times over the course of it. More importantly he does so in a strategic manner throughout. The first time he actually mentions this phrase is about 5 minutes into the talk. By this point he has tactfully posed an interesting introduction question, established himself as an authority, presented his formula for success, rooted his idea in science, and given a short example of his idea. Think about your last presentation, and ask yourself, by five minutes how many of these points had you hit? What would the impact be on audience retention if you had used this kind of format? He goes on to repeat the above phrase in the middle and the end of the talk so that the audience will walk away remembering the main point.

There is no set of laws when it comes to communication through the spoken word. Each presentation and talk will necessarily be different based on the audience and the content. However, a well constructed and practiced talk can go much farther to get your message out in the world than just showing new and exciting data alone. Consider using some of the above methods to improve your next talk and you may be surprised by the response of your audience.

Simon gave second TED talk in May of 2014, building on some of the same ideas as the above TEDx talk and yes, it is also just as amazing (see below).

To learn more about Simon Sinek and the books he has written visit his website

The Science of Public Speaking

Have you ever been told when preparing for a presentation that you shouldn’t have an outline slide or always have an introduction that is one third the length of total talk?  Perhaps a friend said to you “based on he audience you are speaking to you should …”. Or maybe even your boss said “last time I spoke at that meeting I did this … and it went really well”. Often times we are bombarded with these bits of speaking advice which might be the combination of anecdotal ideas passed from one adviser to the student, or one colleague to the next. Through a hodgepodge of trial and error combined with random bits of advice, we tend to develop a speaking style and stick with it. However, developing a voice in this way can lead a speaker into habits that do not actually help us while on stage.

Think about it, would you ever try to learn a potentially dangerous sport such as rock climbing or scuba diving by only using anecdotal advice with trial and error? So why should we be content to do the same thing in a presentation that can potentially harm our career? Why would we intentionally do something that would effect the impact of our presentation without checking what has actually been researched and confirmed to work? One of the main problems with public speaking is that we fall into a trap of confirmation bias. We try something at a our next presentation and if it goes relatively well then we think “oh that went well” and it becomes part of our repertoire. All the while it is unclear if what we did was the most effective way of communicating to our audience or was did it simply work for only part of the audience. If you are not familiar with confirmation bias watch the video below and see if you can guess the number rule, you may be surprised.

In this post we will look at some examples from research and experiments that demonstrate what works and doesn’t when giving a public talk. This is by no means a comprehensive review of all research done on speaking in public, however it may give you some ideas for your next talk or presentation.

The Introduction

The techniques used in public speaking are often a combination of trial and error, anecdotal advice and methods dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks 1. Unfortunately these techniques are unlikely to be the most efficient way of finding out what works for your audience. The problem is that when speaking in public if the audience misses important parts then the presentation becomes difficult to comprehend.  When scientists try to take a written paper and turn it into a talk, they often forget that a reader can re-read a difficult passage, but an audience member can’t stop you mid sentence and ask you to repeat the material (unless you are teaching a class). Therefore, getting the audience’s attention in the beginning of the talk is crucial 1.

There are many ways to begin a talk, but in general research shows that a clear easy to understand introduction will increase audience retention by peaking interest 1. There are several options to use here, but some of the more common ways are; telling an anecdote, posing a question, or simply a calling attention to an important idea (e.g. Forest fires effect not only wild lands but also threaten homes and citizens, our home town is prone to forest fires). If you are starting with an outline slide and using the words “today I will talk about Forest Fires, show our experiment, discuss results, etc” you are damaging the ability of the audience to retain information about your work. Introductions make audiences more willing to listen, think more highly of the speaker, and understand the material better 1. In general if you peak the interest of the audience, they will pay more attention to you and it will increase the retention of the material 2. Your audience will respond differently to different opening techniques but this can be predicted if you plan ahead. Speaking to a crowd of scientist may require one type of introduction while speaking to the general public requires something different. Plan ahead and tailor your talk around not only your material but also your audience. 

Speaking Rhythm, Repetition,  and Body Language

Adding the dramatic pause to your presentations can help the audience retain more information, however it needs to be used in conjunction with other methods 2. For example using the correct body language has been shown to be about as effective as dramatic pauses when speaking 2. Additionally Repeating yourself in a presentation will increase retention among your audience, however don’t overdo it. Research has shown that if you repeat to many times your audience may actually retain information less well over time. The most effective method has been shown to be repetition in the logical places that the audience might expect, like the beginning, middle and end of your talk 2. In general your presentation will benefit from the correct amount of pauses, repetition and gestures.

"Police Line" Tape

Becoming an Authority Figure

There is a distinct advantage when someone is perceived as an authority figure. If you are not already one in your own field, then adding a part where you establish authority over the subject matter will help the audience stay interested. In an experiment setup by 4, an audience that heard a “professor” speak, and showed a significantly greater percentage of change in their opinion toward the “professor’s” thesis than those who heard a “student” speak. When speaking as an authority figure you should try to avoid being biased and only presenting one side of the argument or research question. Acknowledging “both sides” produces significantly higher retention than does only presenting “one side” of the story 4. From the beginning it is in your best interest to try to establish yourself as an authority on the subject and enhance your credibility. This won’t necessarily make people more willing to listen alone but when combined with other techniques such as a solid introduction it is conducive to an audience that comprehends more of your material 1.

Effective Use of Humor

Some people are naturally funny and will likely draw large crowds when they speak. Humor can be used to add to an already fun or interesting topic, or it can take something dull and boring, making it more enjoyable for the audience. Research has shown that if your material is very dry that adding humor to your next presentation may make the audience find the talk more interesting, but may not dramatically increase the audience retention 3. It is probably best to use your own judgement and common sense as to when to inject a joke to lighten the mood during the dry and boring parts. Just remember that humor alone cannot be relied upon to keep the audience completely attentive and retain all the important information from your work.

A Final Consideration

When speaking in public the audience can be brutal in judging the speaker even in the first few minutes. It only takes a short while for the audience to judge if the subject is boring or the speaker is unprofessional, and become less receptive to the overall message 1. Many contemporary scholars believe that science is not communicated effectively to the general public 5. The problem is that understanding who you are speaking to is tricky, and requires that the speaker have take time to also consider the audience composition. When conveying complicated material (in science communication for example) the speaker must be comfortable understanding scientific findings, must be sophisticated in the translation of these findings into simple language, and make it all accessible to the entire audience 5. Communicating science does not necessarily mean transmission of the scientific findings themselves directly, since research has shown that an audience will often fell the need to voluntarily research further into the material presented 6. It is important not to forget that when speaking on stage we become storytellers to the audience. Storytelling plays as significant a role in the future of science communication just as it has done in the past transmitting vast amounts of human knowledge 6.


  1. Andeweg, B. A., de Jong, J. C., & Hoeken, H. (1998). “May I have your attention?”;: Exordial techniques in informative oral presentations. Technical Communication Quarterly, 7(3), 271-284.
  2. Ehrensberger, R. (1945). An experimental study of the relative effectiveness of certain forms of emphasis in public speaking. Communications Monographs, 12(1), 94-111.
  3. Gruner, C. R. (1970). The effect of humor in dull and interesting informative speeches.
  4. Paulson, S. F. (1954). The effects of the prestige of the speaker and acknowledgment of opposing arguments on audience retention and shift of opinion∗. Communications Monographs, 21(4), 267-271.
  5. Treise, D., & Weigold, M. F. (2002). Advancing Science Communication A Survey of Science Communicators. Science Communication, 23(3), 310-322.
  6. Veríssimo, D., & Pais, M. P. (2014). Conservation beyond science: scientists as storytellers. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 6(12), 6529-6533.

Common Speaking Mistakes We All Make (And How To Fix Them!) Part 2

Here we continue with the simple fixes for common speaking mistakes that we all make. If you haven’t checked out part one you may want here.

A lecture at the University of West London, Ealing Campus

Mistake Number 5: Putting stuff on slides that you are not going to talk about

If I had a dime for every scientific talk that did this then I would have enough money to buy a yacht. Generally this is considered a beginner mistake, where the speaker is trying to explain their work and gets caught up putting too many details on their visual aids. However, I have seen professors with 20 plus years of teaching experience do it as well so it can creep up on the best of us. The point is that there is no reason to distract the audience with something that is literally meaningless since you will not be addressing it.

The Fix: Look at each visual aid/slide and decide if it has any value based on what your message is

The rule here is that the audience can really only comprehend one major theme or idea per slide you use. cramming in several figures into one slide is not only bad design but is also distracting from the main point you want to get across. There may be times in very technical talks where you will want to show data to demonstrate its robustness. However, just like sweets on the food pyramid this should be done sparingly and certainly not in every talk. Separate the data and add more slides if you must but aim for one central idea per slide. This central idea should not only lead the audience to the next slide, but also add to the overall story (i.e. The most important thing!). Additionally the effective use of blank space is often overlooked in presentations, since we are usually thinking from the point of view that “all this information is important”. Indeed all your hard work is important, but every minute detail doesn’t help to tell the story about the exciting aspects your work. Focus on the takeaway message first and then build your slides around that message.

Mistake Number 6: Lack of enthusiasm

We have all been there, sitting through a presentation where the speaker has an interesting topic but is the most boring person alive. The problem is that when people speak to a crowd they lose a significant amount of their charisma and enthusiasm. There is something about the formality of the situation that makes most of us stop acting like ourselves and more like a robot repeating facts. Sometimes this mistake is more related to a problem with nervousness than an actual lack of enthusiasm, however, in either case it must be remedied otherwise your talk will not be remembered. If you are just nervous you can check out last week’s post for some tips on getting over your fears of public speaking.

The Fix: Know your material well and don’t read it to the audience

The first step in letting your personality come through when you speak is to think about how you would explain your work or topic to a friend. In many cases we can’t use the exact same language for a public talk, however that relaxed and natural tone can be and should be used to convey your message. Secondly, whenever we are reciting line and verse of something written we tend to lose tonality in our voice because it is not our actual speaking voice but rather a reading voice. The trick is to memorize what you want to say, or make your reading voice come alive. If you are not sure how to do this watch speeches from any of the more eloquent presidents of the United States. Reading is common in presidential speeches, since they are always giving speeches that are written by someone else through a teleprompter. In a way, this is a kind of acting that takes practice but is not that difficult to achieve. The trick is to get very good at sounding natural like the material is flowing off the top of their head. The video below shows one of Obama’s early speeches that got him noticed on the national stage.

Naturally, speeches and presentations have a lot of things that are different, however as you can see in this example, Barack Obama was able to inspire people because of his enthusiasm and natural tone. The audience felt that it was easy to identify that he was just like them. Had he gone out on the stage and simply used his reading voice reciting what was on the teleprompter, no one would have even remembered the speech.

Mistake Number 7: Apologizing for mistakes

Imagine you are on stage in the midst of your talk and you realize that your yellow graph isn’t quite yellow but more of a brown because the projector bulb needs to be replaced. Your first impulse is to apologize but saying sorry might actually draw more attention to the mishap. In general this mistake is more impulsive and will probably take time to train yourself out of. However doing so will stop a habit that adds distraction and throws off your natural rhythm. Additionally it is something that probably isn’t all that important to apologize for in the first place. Besides, if you find yourself wanting to apologize frequently for you visual aids then they probably need a major reworking anyhow.

The Fix: Ignorance is bliss

Something that is important to keep in mind as you are speaking is that the audience came to see you speak and not your visual aids. Even if the audience came to see the speaker after you in the session and is just sitting through your presentation, they are still not coming to see your visual aids. In general the audience is less interested in your slides than they are in you and your message. Also keep in mind, that your audience is seeing and hearing your material for the first time which means most people won’t even notice that there was a mistake on your slides in the first place.

Symfonicky orchestr hl. m. Prahy FOK

If you have ever played music in a group you may already know that the musicians are always their own hardest critics noticing mistakes that the majority of the audience hasn’t even picked up on. You might be asking right now, “but what if it is something major happens?”, like nothing showing up on the screen or a graph missing half of the data. At that point you are going to need to ad lib and not be distracted so much by the problem that you can’t tell your story. The key is that before you give your talk (and after practicing to work out the initial bugs) you want to consider what you would do in the event of an emergency. Pre-planning for the worst case scenario prepares your brain to kick into high gear to come up with a solution on the spot. That way if there is trouble when you are speaking, you actually are not coming up with a completely new talk on the spot. Rather you are triggering your brain to respond to a stressful situation in a way you have already mentally trained for beforehand.

Finally, remember that people hear and see what they want to in many cases. If you have ever served on a jury you may already know this from listening to witnesses testifying in court. Two people who saw the exact same thing in the exact same place at the exact same time will bear witness to different accounts simply because experience and perception is different for each individual.

Mistake Number 8: Going over your allotted time!

This mistake can plague everyone from time to time. Often it is the case that you just need to get to that last bit of information out before you can go to your conclusions slide. The problem is that by going over you are not only throwing off the schedule of the audience but also that of the meeting or conference. Furthermore, there is a greater chance the audience will stop listening to you the longer you go on, because they will get distracted checking their watches or looking at the moderator who is about to pull the plug on your presentation.

The Fix: Work on your timing before hand and know what slide to be on with 2 minutes left. Don’t go over!

If you find yourself in this situation then it is best to do as much damage control in the moment as you can. Ideally you will have worked out your timing beforehand but if you are stuck in the presentation and you notice you are behind, then it is best to conclude as gracefully as you can. Cut out information if you have to, but don’t go over, it screws up the schedule and is an inconvenience for everyone.

The point here is that you harming the effectiveness of your own talk by exceeding your time limits. Additionally, going over probably means that you are trying to present too much information. This can overload the audience and compromise the retention of material. The first step to solve this is to practice your talk and see where you can make cuts. Consider every aspect of your talk from the visual aids to the words you plan to use. Think about your speech and attempt to be direct without getting overly verbose. Secondly, check your slides for unnecessary content and cut it, have a friend (ideally from a different field of work) help with this. Generally you want to avoid trying to tell every detail of your latest paper to the audience in a short talk. Instead tell a direct anecdote about how the project evolved and what the findings are, show your results and demonstrate the logical conclusions. You can always add extra slides at the end (after your conclusions slide) for those technical questions, but unless you are giving a talk to a bunch of colleagues in the exact same field, at a special session, in a -special meeting, then the majority of the fine details are going to be overkill.

Hopefully with these few tips you can improve your next public talk by avoiding these common pitfalls. Naturally very few people will be guilty of committing all 8 mistakes, however there are cases where fixing one or two of these problems will greatly improve your ability to communicate and connect with the audience.

Common Speaking Mistakes We All Make (And How To Fix Them!) Part 1

Speaking in public is one of the most common fears that people share. The threat of humiliation and embarrassment in front of a crowd is, for some, more terrifying than death. Regardless of your own personal feelings towards speaking in public, in most every profession you will likely need to give a presentation or talk sometime in the future. Additionally, in the sciences with the current political situation and many people harboring a distrust of science, public communication is more important than ever. Here we will explore some of the commonly made mistakes by when speaking in public, and some simple ways to fix them!

Rajagopal speaking to 25,000 people, Janadesh 2007, India

Mistake Number 1: Just try to “relax” when you speak

Far too often each of us has watched a talk that was stifled by someone’s anxiety or nervousness. Sometimes it is a person  struggling with what they want to say or simply just stumbling over their words.  Other times their own anxiety disrupts the flow of the talk and the speaker loses their train of thought. Whichever the case, the common conventional wisdom is to try to “relax”. This might be the most useless advice since it is only saying what should be done and not how to actually relax. Much like the white elephant thought experiment, the more you try not to think about being nervous and/or force yourself to relax, the more likely you are to be nervous! The bottom line is, this is a mistake in the way of thinking and can be easily corrected.

The Fix: Practice as much as you can with conditions that are the most similar to that of your next talk aka the stressful environment.

If you can gain access to the room you will be speaking in ahead of time, get in there and invite an audience to listen to a run through of your stuff. What you want to do is condition yourself to the exact high stress environment that you will be in. The more you can create a similar environment to the one that causes the nervous atmosphere for you the better. This kind of practice is priming your brain to react the way you want it to when the real talk is being given. Creating a habitual pattern before you give your next talk will help you fall into a calmer more rehearsed state.

This is similar to how humans learn new tasks, but we often take it for granted. For example, riding a bike takes many attempts, since you have to gain the balance and coordination to ride while worrying about falling down. Once you get it, however, your brain becomes conditioned to make balance corrections without thinking about it. You want your next talk to flow naturally during a stressful situation, the conditioning done beforehand (i.e. practice) will take over and you can then focus your effort on your message rather than being nervous. It may take a while but even the most severe nervousness and anxiety can be overcome, with repetition and conditioning.

Plenary session at American Geophysical Union policy conference

Mistake Number 2: Speaking and/or reading to the screen

Have you seen this one? The presentation is going well, but the speaker is making more eye contact with the projection screen than the audience. This one is common with people who have many visual aids and want to make sure the slide look correct. Or perhaps they are eager to direct the audience’s attention to something on the slide. In either case it is a big mistake because it disconnects the speaker from the audience.

The Fix: Consolidate the slides before hand and check for problems

This fix is a has two parts and simplicity is the key. First you need to figure out the AV (audio video) requirements before your talk. For example, were your slides made on a mac? will they display properly when put on the PC connected to the projector? Do you need to export your talk to a PDF for the session? Will your figures render and take a long time when the slide changes? If you have animations with sound is the volume appropriate?  Generally once you are confident with all the technical issues that may come up, you then need to evaluate your slides for content.

For example, if you have to use a laser pointer on every slide or you are apologizing for things being not easy to read when you practice, then your slides are too busy and distracting. Strictly speaking, humans can only remember and deal with, 5 to 7 pieces of new information at a time. So if your big picture slide has two figures on it, that means the audience has to comprehend 4 axes, 2 data sets, and at a minimum 2 results for those data. If you add on to that fact that you are talking to the screen not even facing the audience then there is no chance anyone is going to get the message clearly. Clean concise slides with one central idea should be the goal. Use arrows or simple animations to make a point and so you don’t have to continually to break eye contact to use laser pointer. If you must look at the screen, just glance briefly and then return to the audience and reconnect.

Mistake Number 3: No gestures and/or lack of body language

This mistake is committed most often by inexperienced speakers and is compounded if the speaker is stuck behind a podium. What tends to occur is that the person falls into the mode of holding on to the sides of the podium and dictating their to the audience. Humans are audio and visual creatures, we evaluate another person’s trustworthiness not only based on their speech but also on their body language. Some people learn and remember best from listening while others are better at watching. Remove the body language and you are only using half of your potential communication tools to connect with the audience.

Sid Meier – Game Developers Conference 2010 – Day 4 (4)” by Official GDC

The Fix: Go wireless and add natural body language to your talk

Some speakers have a well rehearsed repertoire to connect with the audience. If you are working on a talk you will give often, then it might be useful to nail down a routine. Otherwise simply let your natural body language come through as if you were excitedly telling a story to a friend. If you are going to speak at a conference, see if there is a way to get a wireless mic and allow yourself to move around. If you have no choice and must use the podium, then at least get you hands off the podium and gesture in a natural way. Don’t overdo it however, but using a reasonable amount of body language will all  the audience to connect with you in a deeper way. I have seen experienced speakers simply walk away from the podium and approach the audience off stage so they can better connect. If you choose to do the same make sure to use a powerful voice so that people can hear you well without the aid of a corded mic.

Mistake Number 4: The dreaded wall of text

If you have ever been to a scientific conference then you have definitely seen a slide that is full of text while the speaker is going on like there is nothing amiss. This one is not only distracting but can bore the audience to tears. Have you ever tried to read a book when people are talking nearby? or perhaps when someone is talking directly to you? It is very difficult because the brain can only really do any one task at a time (sorry multitaskers it’s true). Additionally the left side of the brain does all the language processing and you simply can’t read and listen at the same time, since your left brain cannot process the language from two inputs simultaneously. Some of the attention has to be given up and that means your audience can’t (or doesn’t want to) try to comprehend two things at once.

The Fix: Memorize your script, and never ever read to your audience!

The simplest thing to do is cut text where you can and memorize what you want to say. In the case that your talk is very technical, you might want to print out your script to help jog your memory when you get stuck. However, consider this, if you yourself can’t remember all the points yourself (and you are the expert on the subject right?), what are the chances that an audience who is not familiar with your work will get it right away? I call this the “post doc” syndrome, because so often young scientists want to tell you everything they have done during their PhD since it was so amazing now that they have graduated. You may want to consider downsizing the material to better fit what the audience is capable of remembering. Generally the best option is to put something visual on your slides to go with what you are saying. This way the audience can use their right and left sides of their brains to process what you are presenting on. Thus the comprehension and retention of information will be higher with the audience.

Hopefully with these tips you can avoid the common mistakes in your next public presentation. In the next post I continue on this theme and we will list out the remaining common mistakes and their easy fixes.