Aiden Heeley-Hill shares how he overcame his fear of public speaking to becoming an effective science communicator.
Sweaty palms, lack of appetite, the proverbial butterflies? Ah yes, that condition I like to call presenteritis, afflicting experienced and first-time orators alike.
We all know that to be effective science communicators, we need to be able to stand up in a room in full of people and talk about our research fluently and enthusiastically.
Easier said than done.
I’ve never been a good public speaker; the very thought sends me into a cold sweat. From best man speeches to talks about climate change, I’ve always thought there must be someone who could do the job better than me.
To counteract this, I decided to sign up to my department’s graduate research seminar series, held every year as a kind of multidisciplinary showcase of students’ research in years 1-4 of their programme. This seemed like the ideal opportunity to present my work to a (hopefully) small, sympathetic and knowledgeable crowd.
The initial rush of endorphins that accompanied signing up was soon replaced by real concern. I didn’t have a great deal to show for a year’s worth of work as I’d been plagued by instrumentation issues, but I did have a good understanding of where I wanted the project to go and what my methodology could produce. I hoped this would be enough and started to prepare my talk in earnest.
What becomes very clear is that going through the presentation in your head is very different to practising it out loud, which in turn is very different to doing the actual presentation. I was sure I knew my talk inside out, but I was still concerned that I’d slip up somehow. A friend advised me to practise, practise, practise. She even suggested I present in front of a camera. The idea filled me with dread, but it proved to be genuinely useful advice. On camera, all your unconscious mannerisms and vocal nuances are on show. You realise that every third word is "erm", and a talk that is supposed to last fifteen minutes is over in less than seven. Something that you won’t notice until it’s too late, but your audience will.
I practised, practised, practised until the big day arrived. I got to the venue in plenty of time, and nervously checked that my file was compatible with the computer system, as well as the many backups. Everything was fine and I was good to go. The seminars were to start at 13:00, and I was up first, by the time 12:50 arrived, no one was in attendance. What if no one came? The organisers gave little comfort when they stated, “Last year hardly anyone came”.
Finally, at 12:55, people started filing in. The auditorium wouldn’t be empty after all! There were a couple of friends, as well as others I’d seen around the department. My anxiety about low attendance was subsiding, and by 13:00 the attendees numbered 40. Maybe there were too many? Large audiences are a known terror-inducer, but I was just glad people had come.
The announcer gave the brief introduction I’d written up a few days before. I glanced around audience, with my eyes resting on people who I knew to be friendly faces. Some people were checking their phones, others looking at me expectantly and smiling. As I began to speak, the script I’d spent a couple of weeks preparing left my thoughts as the nerves took hold, but the essence of what I wanted to say was still there.
Then came the questions. I appreciated the challenge of trying to knowledgeably answer questions posed by an academic community. ‘How will you ensure an effective methodology?’, ‘What challenges have you faced so far?’ and ‘What issues have been experienced in the literature?’. Thinking on my feet is not something I do well. This is partly due to a lack of familiarity with the subject area, and partly due to nerves. One of the things I found useful was to ask friends to think up questions that could feasibly come up.
I came away from the podium, and finally, I’d done it! My first talk was done, and people still came up to me at the following reception to ask me questions and congratulate me for volunteering to do the seminar in the first place. Things went better than expected.
As a final message, I know everybody says don’t panic, but in reality, don’t panic. I know it’s easier said than done, but I quickly learnt that audiences are much kinder than you’d hoped. Further, not panicking means that you can more carefully consider what you are saying and how you will say it.
Good luck with any future talks!
About Aiden Heeley-Hill
Aiden Heeley-Hill has degrees in environmental science and is now a PhD candidate in atmospheric chemistry at the University of York. He’s an aspiring science communicator, and writes his own science blog at nearlyadoctor.com When he’s not stuck in the lab or at his desk, he loves nature and takes thousands of photos a month, some of them good. He’s active on Instagram and can be reached via email at email@example.com.