With so many preachers preaching so often, they should know a thing or two about public speaking. In fact, the skills of great orators like Martin Luther King owe much to their training as preachers. Here are three lessons that scientists can learn.
1. Take home message
The classic sermon outline contains three main points, summarised in a single sentence or even a single word. The three words often begin with the same letter, as a memory device. Here’s an example, from theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas in 1930 on the definition of faith (via Alister McGrath: “If you like the letter C then you’re in for a treat!”):
[Faith] commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.
It’s short, it’s to the point, it’s easy to remember (even if you disagree!). So even if your audience forget the details of the your talk, at least they’ll (hopefully) remember the main points.
The first thing that you should do in preparing any speech is to decide on your main points. What are you trying to say? If you only had three sentences, what would they be. With these points in hand, spend some time making them as concise and memorable as possible. Emphasise these points as often as possible in your talk.
2. Narrative as oratory momentum
Every sermon needs an illustration. Stories are very easy to listen to, because each part of the story makes you want to hear the next part. That’s why it’s hard to put a good book down – just one more chapter! Here’s a great example from Ravi Zacharias.
It’s no great mystery why preachers use stories. The Bible itself is largely narrative, and Jesus himself spoke mostly in parables (though not necessarily for the sake of clarity – Luke 8:9-10). We can find plenty of other ancient examples – Aesop’s fables, Greek mythology, dreamtime stories – as well as more modern allegories such as Animal Farm. A story has its own momentum, is easy to remember and demonstrates principles in practice.
How can a scientist use narrative in his presentation? There are three ways. Firstly, a short personal story can provide light relief for an audience. A perfect example was given by Viatcheslav Mukhanov in a recent talk I attended at ETH. Prof Mukhanov was one of the pioneers of inflation, and talked about the wonderful observations that are testing the idea today. He said something along the lines of:
“In the early days, in the early 80’s, we were just playing with ideas. We had no idea how to test them, and we certainly had no observational evidence to support them. But we didn’t need it – we had Zel’Dovich. And if Zel’Dovich said you were on the right track then that was enough.”
This is a great example because its an amusing story (it’s funnier in a Russian accent!), told in just a few sentences, and it helped him keep his audience’s attention, partly because of the expectation of hearing more stories!
The second way is to tell the story of discovery. You could set out your research almost like a detective novel: you looked for clues, you tried a few things, there were breakthroughs and setbacks, new clues arose and old clues were seen in a new light. The key is to create intrigue using the tension between the clues – how could they fit together?
The third way is to tell the story of the thing being studied. One of the great discoveries of the 20th century is that the universe has a history – we can tell the story of the whole cosmos. Stars, too, have births, lives and deaths. Galaxy formation is another story: we know how it starts (cosmic microwave background uniformity) and ends (modern galaxies, the Hubble sequence), and all that remains is to tell the tale in between.
3. Make it personal
Any good sermon will spend time discussing how to put these ideas into practice. Again, this is an ancient pattern: Aesop’s fables end with “the moral of the story”, Paul’s letters typically begin with theology and end with practical applications. The congregation wants to know: what do I do with this information?
I have sat through far too many science seminars that have never asked: what does this really mean? What can I do with this information? Why should I care? Science speakers should take the time to explain the broader applications of their research – what other areas can it shed light on? Who would be interested in knowing this?
For example, I heard a talk by a researcher who was studying clever ways of measuring the distance to so-called high-velocity clouds in the Milky Way. These are clouds of neutral hydrogen that are moving very rapidly through the our galaxy, but as their distance is difficult to measure their sizes are largely unknown. They were doing some very nice work, but the talk never addressed the question: apart from pure curiosity, why would we was to know about these clouds? It was only much later that I realised their importance: they are possibly the leftovers of mergers of galaxies, and could shed light on the formation and evolution of our galaxy and its satellites, how galaxies get their gas, and what happens to dwarf galaxies. I’d have started with that! Don’t start with “there are these clouds of gas out there and we can do clever things to measure their distance”. Start with “there are a number of mysteries surrounding galaxy formation, and how galaxies get their gas and thus form stars. High velocity clouds could answer these questions.” That way, you have the attention of everyone interested in the huge field of galaxy formation, not just those interested in the specialised field of high velocity clouds.
Give us the big picture. Tell me why I should be interested in your research. If I were emperor of the astronomers, the title of the second slide of every seminar would be “Who cares?”, and speakers could be voted off stage by the audience before they get to their third slide.
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