Public speaking is not just one of the most common phobias–it’s a key part of being a scientist and an incredibly useful transferable skill. Being able to stand up in front of an audience and convey your ideas clearly and strategically is powerful in almost any career. It allows you to share and build support for your ideas, invite others into decision making processes, and even interview better! As a scientist turned science communicator, I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I'm happy to share what I've learned along the way.
Own your time
When I was an undergrad, I was assigned a paper to give as a journal club to my molecular biology class. A Cell paper. With six figures. Averaging ten panels each. (For this story, it is important to know that the student presenting right before me had been assigned a structure paper with two single-panel figures, one of which was a cartoon of the protein.)
In the middle of my presentation, lost in a sea of data, my mind went completely blank. After several seconds of truly panicked silence, I opened my mouth to panic-babble something about Western blots that made no sense, even in my head. What came out, though, was an incredibly calm: “Excuse me, I seem to have lost my place. I need a minute.” I then pulled out my notebook, opened it, found my outline, read over Figure 4, took a deep breath, and, re-oriented, continued presenting. The whole process took just under a minute. I can't say the journal club was a rousing success–the response was a full sixty seconds of silence–but it was thorough and coherent.
To be honest, if my paper hadn’t been ridiculously more complex than the one before it, I don’t think I would have had the nerve to do what I did. Until that panicked, split-second decision, I had always thought I had an obligation to the audience to keep going no matter what, to fill any silence, to talk. That moment taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: Your presentation will be better if you take time when you need it, rather than trying to push through a state of panic. Now, if I feel myself getting too nervous or having a memory lapse, I simply pause and take a deep breath before the panic sets in. Most of the time, that’s enough–but if it’s not, I can always take more time to check my notes!
Know your purpose
The purpose of our assignment was clear: present a paper to our classmates so they could understand it. When my mind went blank, my options were to stop talking until I could present something coherent or to quickly string together all the words that I could remember related to this paper and/or biology in general until I reached Fig. 6, Panel L, and hope nobody noticed that none of it made any sense. As tempting as option two was in my panicked state, only option one would let me accomplish my goal.
As a scientist, public speaking isn't a performance art. You’re (usually) presenting either to share knowledge or to invite critique onto an ongoing project. So whenever you freeze, or when things go wrong, ask yourself, “What next step will help me achieve my purpose? Should I go over this slide again? Say, 'Oh, I forgot to mention X, so let's quickly go over it now'? Maybe take a deep breath?" Once you answer the question, you need only to take that step. Repeat that as often as needed until you get to the end of the presentation, at which point you will have achieved your goal. Yay!
You’re only human
When it comes to public speaking, Murphy’s law definitely applies: what can go wrong, will go wrong. The trash removal service slams dumpsters outside the open windows in the middle of your talk. Technical difficulties turn your slide deck into a chalk talk. Your translator doesn’t know the term “diving board” so you end up acting it out in front of a very confused group of visiting Chinese undergrads. You get nervous and freeze, or forget a point, or talk extremely quickly. You realize, much too late, that you labeled your gene of interest incorrectly on slides 8-16. Your notes disappear. The wrong version of your slide deck gets uploaded. Your mic emits screeching feedback. You’re muted on Zoom. Your video conferencing software freezes and then crashes. You’re muted on Zoom again.
These things don’t just happen to you or me (though, let's be clear, they have all happened to me.) They happen to everyone! Everybody makes mistakes, encounters technical difficulties, and runs into unexpected stumbling blocks. The problem is, when it happens to other people, it’s normal and quickly forgotten, and when it happens to you, it’s noteworthy and memorable and awful. So try to keep some perspective. Most people won't notice, or won't remember and those who do are very likely to be sympathetic because public speaking is hard. Aside from the diving board charades, I doubt anyone but me remembers any of the incidents above–and the dumpster noises were just last week!
It’s completely normal to be anxious, nervous, and/or apprehensive. I still get nervous quite regularly, and I've had multiple jobs where all I did was public speaking. If you're also nervous, try taking a few deep breaths. Then, identify the specific things making you nervous–audience attention? fear of messing up?–and use the three tips above to make a strategy that can help. Even something as simple as telling yourself, “I can stop and check my notes if I need to,” or “It is okay if it doesn’t go perfectly,” can help. (And do remember to breathe!)
Public speaking as a transferable skill
The worst thing about doing public speaking as a scientist is that you will have to learn this skill in its most difficult form. You’re presenting complex data, to a group of peers who are there to provide critical feedback, often with a semi-international audience or not in your own native language. And, at least in the biomedical field, with very little text on the slides and notes instead of written speeches. When you’re doing all that, even if it’s exceptionally difficult for you or not going perfectly, you truly are a rock star.
The best thing about public speaking as a scientist is that you will have learned this skill in its most difficult form, which makes it the perfect transferable skill. Almost every other form of presenting will be easier than your average scientific public speaking gig. Being able to give a clear, informative presentation, speak at conferences, or even just provide quick updates during a company meeting increases visibility of your work, opens up collaboration and growth opportunities, and gives your entire audience a chance to comfortably engage with you. If you can give a seminar, lead a journal club, or present at lab meetings, you’ve developed a valuable skill set that will be useful in nearly any other job you may choose to pursue. So take a deep breath–you got this!
Additional resources on the Addgene blog
Topics: Transferable Skills
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