It’s time for another series – one that I promised quite a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of my life listening to scientists give talks in one form or another – four years of undergraduate lectures, a few weeks worth of conferences, a few hours a week in seminars and colloquia. I have long pondered this question:
Why are scientists, with precious few exceptions, such appalling public speakers?
(Thankfully, my fellow bloggers are some of the exceptions!)
At every public speaking course I’ve attended, the attendees have complained that the advice given was too obvious. And yet, as I think over all the public speaking “laws”, I can’t think of a single one that isn’t regularly broken by scientists in front of an audience. If you are a scientist (or even if you have sat through enough university lectures), how often have you witnessed:
- Speakers talking too quickly, too softly, and addressing their remarks to the front row
- Monotone voices, and a single speed of delivery
- No variety of content
- Speakers who don’t emphasize the important points, and present a summary slide that would take 5 minutes to read
- Talks that consist of a single, half-hour-long sentence, constructed by taking a normal talk and replacing all the full stops with “and”, “I mean” or “um”.
- Mindless, nauseating, impenetrable, replaceable jargon
- Half an hour of the back of the speakers head as he or she talks exclusively to the projector screen
- Plots displayed: too small, too crowded, too briefly, in invisible colours, with lines too thin to see
- Slides that look like an entire presentation has been swallowed and vomited back onto the screen
- A speaker whose every word, tone, gesture, posture, expression and slide betray their complete indifference to their audience?
Why does it feel like a chore to attend a talk about astronomy when I’m an astronomer? I am constantly flabbergasted by the ability of speakers to make a subject in which I am intensely interested sound incredibly dull. In a profession where getting your work known in the community, sharing your ideas and generally making a name for yourself is of great importance, why do so many care so little about being interesting, concise, non-coma-inducing?
The best way to learn is by example. Over the next few posts I’m going to look at five professions in which public speaking is held in high regard. They are:
- Comedians: thousands of people go to watch a single human being stand on an empty stage and talk for an hour or more. They pay to get in. They can fill stadiums. Everyone is transfixed. Afterwards, they buy the DVD. Almost no other type of public speaker has that power.
- Political leaders: Some of the greatest orators of all time have been statesmen/women. Consider Churchill (“We shall fight on the beaches”), John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you”), even Thatcher (“The lady’s not for turning”), and the huge crowds that would hang on Obama’s every word.
- Social Activists: many a campaign for social change has hinged on the eloquence of its leader. One thinks of Martin Luther King (“I have a dream”) and Nelson Mandela (“A democratic and free society is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”).
- Preachers: about a third of the world’s population attends a religious service at least once a week. Most will listen to a preacher deliver a sermon. For millennia preachers have preached, week in, week out, in millions of churches worldwide. (At the age of 83, John Wesley complained that his doctor wouldn’t let him preach more than 14 times a week). Between them all, they should know something about public speaking. Consider this description of a meeting of the British Baptist Charles Spurgeon:
10,000 souls, streaming into the hall, mounting the galleries, humming, buzzing, and swarming – a mighty hive of bees – eager to secure at first the best places, and, at last, any place at all. After waiting more than half an hour – for if you wish to have a seat you must be there at least that space of time in advance … Mr. Spurgeon ascended his tribune. To the hum, and rush, and trampling of men, succeeded a low, concentrated thrill and murmur, of’ devotion, which seemed to run at once, like an electric current, through the breast of every one present, and by this magnetic chain the preacher held us fast bound for about two hours.
- Educators: while universities are full of researchers who occasionally lecture, there are some who can be called educators. Richard Feynman is an excellent example, as was internet phenomenon Randy Pausch. J.R.R. Tolkien’s lectures at Oxford were always packed as he “could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests.”
These five groups of speakers stand in front of very different audiences to the average scientist, but there is something that we can learn from each of them. With mediocrity the norm, any scientist with the slightest interest in oration will stand out from the crowd.
More in this series:
Public Speaking for Scientists:
- 1: Introduction
- 2: How Comedians Do It
- 2a: Jokes
- 3: How Political Leaders Do It
- 4: How Social Activists Do It
- 5: How Preachers Do It
- 6: How Educators (should) Do It
- 7: Powerpoint