As someone who wants to be a science communicator, I should really know how to communicate properly, as well as know the science I’m trying to communicate. I love talking to people, and I love doing my science show, but I do get nervous when I talk in front of a large group (not ideal). I don’t think my speaking is too terrible, I’m not saying I’m amazing, but its not awful either. But I know I can improve on several things:

– planning
– nerve control
– hand control (I tend to wave my arms around a lot when I speak, or fidget)
– tendency to speak too quickly
– repeat myself too much

“You are your own worst critic” is a phrase often brandished about, but I’m still learning to critique myself. I hate watching videos of myself (both swimming and speaking) and I really don’t like listening to my own voice. Unfortunately it’s one of the best, albeit often cringeworthy, way to learn from your mistakes.

To try a different way of learning, I’ve joined the Imperial College Speakers club which run Toastmasters meetings, and have others evaluate me in front of a room full of people instead…

Yesterday, I went to my first meeting. It is a highly structured evening, with every second accounted for by an impeccable timekeeper. The aim of ICSpeakers is to improve your public speaking by presenting a topic (sometimes at the last minute) in a given time slot and be evaluated by your peers and some specially chosen evaluators.

This sounds pretty brutal, especially if you’re not a fan of public speaking. But it’s probably one of the best ways to face your fear, and learn how to improve at the same time. It provides an opportunity to learn from some of the best public speakers in the country, and forces you to do better.

Last night I was picked as one of six Table Topics Speakers (should have seen it coming) who are picked at random (mostly) from the audience and are required to answer a question on the spot in two minutes.

The question I was asked was “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: giving someone a second chance is like giving someone a second bullet?”

Now I had never heard this statement before, so it took me by surprise. The first thing I did when I go up to the front was to repeat the statement to give me some time to think of a suitable answer. I realise I could have just said “yes” or “no”, but that defeats the point of the whole thing.

I decided (after some stumbling, umm-ing and err-ing, to go with an example. And I picked one right off the top of my head. I don’t think it even matters if its true or not, but its i find it easier to talk about things that are true. Anyway, I decided to talk about editing articles. I’d just found out I had become a sub-editor for a University publication, and I had just listened to the editor of the Nature features section tell us her story, so it was the first thing that popped into my head.

I went along the lines that being an editor, you give your writer a second chance to develop their idea and their story after giving it the once-over. So it’s not giving them a bullet as such, it’s giving them a lifeline. It sounds like complete rubbish now but that’s what I went with.

But what you say doesn’t actually matter, it’s more about how you say it. And that’s what Toastmasters and ICSpeakers is all about. The feedback we got from the evaluators was great, as they really look at both your strengths and weaknesses within the talk. I wanted to share some of the feedback that the presenters got, as I thought it was really useful and I will definitely bear it in mind when I do a prepared talk (eek):

– ask the audience a question at the start. It draws them into your speech and addresses the status quo.
– use vivid language and vary your tone. Don’t be monosyllabic or monotonous, it’s boring.
– take your time. Don’t rush your presentation, it can sometimes come across as nervousness, and gets the audience agitated.
– scan the audience. Try not to focus on one person, aim to look like you’re making eye contact with the entire audience.
– lead the audience through your story. Put in specific “signposts” that make you’re story easy to follow.
– the unexpected is always good. As well as a bit of humour (depending on the context).
– try not to move about too much. Try to anchor yourself in one spot.

These are just a few of the great tips we were given by the different evaluators last night. Hopefully over the coming weeks I will get an opportunity to talk in front of the group again, and learn from my mistakes.

Go to the orginal article here or listen below