Public Speaking: How (and why) to give a killer talk.

When my sister was in law school, I visited a class with her— not on torts or contracts, but on public speaking. They practiced things like improv games and role playing. They videotaped themselves speaking and did self-critiques. Now, persuasive public speaking is obviously a skill that lawyers need, but we science folks need it to. Do we not regularly need to convince people of the value of our work? We do. And many of us never get very good at it.

Why Should You Bother With Presenting, When It’s So Nerve Wracking?

Here’s a short list of reasons why you might give a talk: Disseminate science. Make a name for yourself. Defend your dissertation. Get hired in an academic position. Get things on your CV that look good when you’re chasing tenure. Educate the public (I want to put in a plug for this one— speak to a general audience sometimes! Science is for everyone). Teach students. Share clinical knowledge— think grand rounds. Persuade colleagues to adopt better practices. Make something complex and specialized more accessible to a wider audience. Get free or discounted conference fees (maybe!). Get paid (maybe!). Get your travel paid for (maybe!).

author at Disney world

The author presented at a conference held at Disneyland– who says work can’t be fun?

How Can you Hone Your Speaking Skills? 

If I’ve done my job so far, you’re convinced that giving a talk can help your career. But not all talks are created equal! We’ve all sat through terrible talks, shifting in our seats and surreptitiously checking twitter. Conversely, a truly excellent talk can be inspiring. How do you set yourself up to give one of those?

My suggestions:

  • Practice often. Give your talk to a colleague who will be honest with you. Give your talk to a friend who’s not in your field to judge clarity.
  • Time yourself until you know you have it down to the required length— and give yourself a buffer (plan to talk for 20 minutes if the slot is for 25).
  • Use visuals thoughtfully & be sure they help you make your key points. Never say “I know you can’t see this but,” or, “I’m sorry this is such a busy slide.” If you see those issues, fix them.
  • Don’t read your slides. They’re there to help the audience follow along, not to serve as cue cards. Remember that what you write in your paper isn’t exactly the same what you say in your talk— keep the ideas, but spoken language is often less formal and less complex. Also when someone is reading a script, it’s clear to the audience. So get used to speaking from key points rather than scripted sentences.
  • Tell stories. This is a universally engaging technique. Whether this means including a personal anecdote or a real-world application related to your subject, it helps make you interesting and memorable.
  • Know your audience.  How much background do you need to give? What terms do you need to define? Are they interested in the fine points of your data, or just the take-home message?
  • Pay attention to great (and awful) talks you attend. What made it good, or bad?
  • Consider inclusivity. Are you speaking at an event that represents varied races, genders, fields, and ages? NIH head Francis Collins recently committed to saying “yes” only to events with a diverse makeup. You can do this too. Second, consider the images and references in your materials. Are they culturally inclusive? If not, fix it.


What Can I Speak About, and Where Can I Do It?

Say yes a lot when you’re new— both the exposure and the practice are valuable. When you’re more established, you have to learn to say no to things, but when you’re finding your way, every time you say yes, you are honing your skills.

The author presenting at a national conference

Here are a few talks I’ve given recently:

  • Cardiovascular Physical assessment skills 101 (to NP students).
  • Women’s heart health: Know your risk and live your life (to retirement community residents)
  • Symptom trajectories after an emergency department visit for acute coronary syndrome (to a research regional conference audience)
  • Simulation in nurse practitioner education (to an education-based national conference audience)
  • Education strategies to expand access to care in rural and underserved communities (for a job talk)
  • Technology innovations to engage online NP students (to a national practice-based conference audience)

Note that they’re all to different audiences, and while the content overlaps in two of my main focus areas (women’s cardiovascular health and nurse practitioner education), I didn’t try to give the same talk to every group I spoke to.

Consider asking a senior scientist or mentor to throw things your way— they are likely turning down invitations that they’re too busy to accept. Submit abstracts to local, regional, and national conferences. Volunteer to give guest lectures to students. With this kind of exposure, you can really build your reputation as an expert on your area. Break a leg!


Public speaking resources:



Glossophobia: How To Tackle Your Fear of Public Speaking

This year at #ExperimentalBiology2019 my abstract was selected for oral presentation in the “Environmental and Epigenetic Contributions to Disease Origin” session, sponsored by the Water and Electrolyte Homesostasis Section of the American Physiological Society. When I received the email stating that my abstract was selected I, initially, was super excited. This was huge news – my first oral presentation in graduate school!

However, shortly after, the realization of speaking in front of people hit me and glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, quickly washed over me. The conference was months away, yet, there I stood, frozen, with the anxiety of presenting my work in front of a large group of people. What was I going to do?

Being able to effectively translate your science to a population who doesn’t know your work is something, as scientist, we all have to do. Proper communication is important because during this time, you can receive good feedback or questions that have the potential to propel your research to the next step. So, it was very crucial for me to make sure that I delivered an effective presentation.

Fast Forward to the day before my presentation and I finally have down the perfect delivery. However, the big problem now is making sure that I can stay calm enough to deliver as I have practiced. Very often, during the practice presentations with my advisor, I would become so nervous that I would either speed through the entire presentation, do not explain my presentation well, or a combination of both. At one point she even asked where I would like her to sit during the presentation so that I did not see her and become extremely nervous (during the actual presentation she sat in the back and remained crouched the entire time so that I couldn’t see her). So, what do you do when you have practiced your presentation almost a million times and are still overwhelmed with anxiety?

When trying to determine how to attack my anxiousness, these are a few tips that I found useful:

  1. Take a deep breath. You have spent a lot of time preparing for this day, you got this!
  2. No one knows your material like you do. You have spent plenty of hours and weekends trying to answer your particular research question. There is no one in the audience (besides your advisor) who will know your research like you do.
  3. Focus on the material and not the audience.
  4. Channel your nervous energy and make it work in your favor. For me, after I finished the introduction slides and realized that this was not as bad as I had thought. I was able to channel all of my energy into my excitement for my research. This was cool data that I was sharing and I wanted the audience to be just as excited about it as I am.
  5. Visualize your success.


What other tips can you think of that can help people with glossophobia overcome their fear?


A Common Problem Among Scientists: Not Being the Best Presenters – Lesson One

With many conferences, symposiums and seminars always lined up throughout the year, a common shortcoming in scientists’ lives is the fear of public speaking and, consequently, a poor presentation.

As a public speaking coach and presentation skills teacher who happens to be a scientist too, I cannot emphasize how much of difference it can make when you present your data (most of the time, complicated data!) clearly and effectively. Presentations skills and public speaking skills are very useful in many aspects of work and life. Effective presentations and public speaking skills are important in business, sales and selling, training, teaching, lecturing, and generally feeling comfortable speaking to a group of people. Let’s not forget that having the confidence and capability to give good presentations and to stand up in front of an audience are extremely helpful competencies for self-development and social situations.

In a series of blog posts, my goal will be to discuss some details of how you can improve your scientific presentations and the key points that can help your presentation to stand out. Throughout the upcoming blog posts, the focus will be on the delivery aspects of the talk and visuals (slides).

Whenever I am starting a new presentation skills class, I always bring up what William Yeats, one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature, said years ago:

“I always think great speakers convince us not by force of reasoning but because they are visibly enjoying the beliefs they want us to accept.” – William Yeats

This brings us up to the first rule, which happens to be the most common presentation problem:

Not Being Boring – The Opening

It is a common bias to feel more interested in presentations when the speaker is passionate and excited to share the results. So how can you ensure not to be boring? Here are some tips:


1) Icebreaking Polls

Live polls are a great way to “break the ice” and capture the audience’s attention, especially in bigger crowds. As part of your opening remarks, you can use a fun poll to enliven the atmosphere and also to set the tone for your event (a good live example is what usually Dr. Kiran Musunuru does in his talks).

Here are a few examples that I personally like:

  • How energized are you feeling right now?
  • As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
  • If age is only a state of mind, what is YOUR state of mind right now?

Remember, funny answer options are also part of the polls.


2) Make a joke at your own expense

Before making a joke, remember to always be sensitive to your crowd. People have different values, beliefs, and experiences.

As it is beautifully mentioned by Public Speaking Powers: “You don’t want to make a joke at the expense of anyone in the audience, a joke at the expense of the company, or a joke at the expense who’s introduced you, but the joke at the expense of yourself tends to work really well because you’re pointing at yourself so people can just laugh along with that.”

For example, you could say: “Look, I have a bad feeling about this. I was talking to [whoever introduced you], and they said they were going to tell a joke before I spoke but instead they just introduced me.” So you’re implying you’re the joke.


3) Ask “raise your hand” questions

My personal favorite is this type of icebreaker. It shows confidence, it boosts up your stage presence and it makes your audience to physically move. When thinking about the question you want to ask, consider the following:

Do not create a negative environment with your question. Never ask questions that may put the audience in the spot. Negative examples include, “How many of you are suffering from dyslipidemia?” or, “Have you ever been into a Cath lab as a patient?”

Instead, ask questions that are more relevant and questions that most people are going to raise their hand to: “How many of you have read the CONSORT trial results?” or, “How many of you read the new hypertension guidelines?”

Keep in mind, the whole idea of the “raise your hand” questions is to get audience’s engagement and group involvement, so the people on the outskirts who aren’t really getting into your talk feel like they should get into your talk.


4) Start a story without finishing it right away

Open up your talk by simple phrases like:  “I want to tell you a story that I think it is very important for my speech today.” Or you go on and tell your story, but you leave the conclusion out and you say: “I’ll get back to that towards the end.”

This allows you to draw people into your talk with stories, but you’re not finishing your story right away so it keeps them engaged.


5) Start by breaking some news

A good way to keep the audience engaged is to talk about a recent news/paper/article that is relevant to your presentation. I was recently in an AHA’s Strategically Focused Research Network meeting about sex differences in aortapathies and the speaker opened up her talk by discussing an article from Times Magazine, which came out on the same day, discussing sex differences.


It can be tricky to know how to start a meeting. In fact, the introduction is often the hardest part to get right. But with a great start, you can relax yourself and your audience, making them more alert and receptive. In the next upcoming blog post, I will discuss the problems throughout the delivery and body of the talk. Stay tuned!