Archive for the ‘Public Speaking’ Category

I can’t do a series on public speaking for scientists without laying down a few guidelines on Powerpoint. A quick note: the best lecturers I had during my undergraduate days consistently shunned Powerpoint, preferring the blackboard. (Overhead transparencies, thankfully, seem to be dying out). One of the reasons for this may be that equations are much less intimidating when they appear gradually, term by term, rather than all at once. Lecturers who used the blackboard also seemed to have more time to think about what they would present and how they would present it, rather than using time to prepare slides.

Powerpoint, as we all know, can be used well and can be used extremely poorly. Here are the laws of Powerpoint – if I were Emperor of astronomy, non-compliance would be punishable by firing squad.

Rule 1: Contrasting colours

If I see one more person put a yellow line on a white background …

The RGB colour model is part of the problem. The RGB model (as used by Matlab) assigns a colour by a fraction for Red, Green and Blue. For example: white (1, 1, 1), black (0, 0, 0), dark purple (0.5,0,0.5). While blue (0, 0, 1) and red (1, 0, 0) are clearly seen on a white background, green (0, 1, 0) is invisible. So you’ll need to use (0, 0.5, 0). Many “default” colours need to be darkened. If you’re using a black background, lighten the colours (especially red). If you’re using a background that is some other colour than black or white, stop it. Stop it right now. Or consult the nearest colour wheel and choose opposing colours, one dark and one light. Test your colours on a projector – they always look better on a screen or on paper.

And use thick lines on plots. And large labels. Or else.

Rule 2: Few words

It’s very difficult to read and listen at the same time. The words you put on screen should be keywords, and as few as possible. Don’t write a complete sentence unless you plan on saying it word for word. Don’t write: (more…)


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After many years of sitting through undergraduate lectures, I’m ready to give my definitive criteria for what makes a good lecturer. I’ve never lectured, but I know what I like!

My three criteria are these: confidence, enthusiasm and empathy …

1. Confidence
Nothing ruins a lecture faster than the thought: this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We’ve all experienced the frustration of being taught the wrong thing, and then having to go back and relearn something. Lecture courses take a lot of work: notes, exercises, summaries. I want to know that my hard work will be rewarded, that when I am confused, it is just me. If I just keep working and thinking, the fog will clear. If the lecturer lacks confidence, it sends the message that my confusion may just be a result of the lecturer’s confusion. The fog may never clear, because the fog is in the mind of the teacher. I might as well get a good textbook and teach myself. (more…)

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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!”): (more…)

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The power of a passionate speech to inspire change is nowhere more clearly seen than in those who are trying to transform an entire society. Here, I will be looking at two great speeches from the American civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King was perhaps the most prominent leader of the movement. He won the Nobel peace prize in 1964, and his most comprehensive statement of his mission is his brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail. His most famous speech is undoubtedly his “I have a dream” oration, delivered in 1963 to a crowd of over 200,000 at a march on Washington.

Malcolm X was also an activist for the rights of African-Americans, arguing passionately for black nationalism – that black Americans should form their own independent nation. In 1964, he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet” to a Methodist church in Ohio.

Both men were brilliant speakers, and if you haven’t listened to these speeches then I’d recommend it before reading on. Audio of the speeches can be found on the Wikipedia pages.

What can a scientist learn from these men? I draw three lessons.

1. Be memorable
Familiarise yourself with this convenient list of rhetorical terms. These are all ways to imprint your message on the minds of your audience. You will hear many of them in the speeches of King and Malcolm X. Here are some examples:

Martin Luther King: (Here’s the audio) There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

Malcolm X: Take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side. Let the world know how bloody [Uncle Sam’s] hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet. Let him know that it must be the ballot or the bullet. (more…)

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The speeches of great political leaders mark some of the great turning points of history. Perhaps the best examples are the stirring speeches of Winston Churchill, which were a great inspiration to Britain during the second world war:

… if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Scientists rarely (if ever) need to be this dramatic. However, there are a number of lessons that we can learn from the great speeches of political leaders.

1. Be brief

On November 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration at a ceremony to dedicate a new cemetery to bury the victims of the American civil war. Everett was a politician and a famed orator, and his speech was well received. After the speech had finished and a hymn had been sung, President Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver a brief dedication.

Lincoln’s two-minute “Gettysburg Address” is one of the greatest speeches of all time, memorised by generations of American students and carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Everett himself commented to Lincoln: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The lesson here is straightforward: Be sincere; be brief; be seated (F.D.Roosevelt).  Never, ever go overtime. Audiences always appreciate an early finisher, and there are few things more annoying than someone who goes overtime. (more…)

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Having considered what scientists can learn from comedians, now is a good time to give a few guidelines on the place of humour in scientific talks. Here are my opinions on the matter:

1. No separate feedline

The classic joke format consists of a feedline and a punchline. Typically, the feedline invites the audience to make an assumption, which is then shown to be erroneous in the punchline. For example, here’s Jimmy Carr:

Feedline: I can’t forgive the Germans for the way they treated my grandfather during the war … (more…)

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Continuing my series on public speaking for scientists, we look at what we can learn from comedians. There is no more attentive audience then that watching a world-class comedian. They are completely within his or her power, hanging off every word. The easy answer to the question “how do they do it?” is “by being funny”. While we could throw one or two jokes in, a scientist can’t turn a conference presentation into a comedy routine. However, there are a few lessons to be learned.

1. Learn From Others

The book “Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-up Comedy” by Franklyn Ajaye begins with these words:

“The first and most important step for anybody who wants to be a good and stand-up comedian is to make sure that you watch the good ones and study them intently”.

I found the same advice in almost every “how to be a stand-up comedian” guide. It’s what I’m attempting to do in these posts. Everyone knows what good public speaking is because we know when we have enjoyed a talk or lecture. So if you find yourself enjoying a talk or lecture, try to work out why you are enjoying it. Reflect on your undergraduate lectures: what made the good lecturers good and the bad lecturers bad? Remember: you are the audience. You are the ultimate judge of what constitutes good public speaking.

Here are some resources for great speakers: Great Speeches, American Rhetoric, some links, podcast.

2. Get Feedback (more…)

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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: (more…)

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