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Improving your public speaking skills - insights and advice

Posted By Connections Editor, Thursday, October 30, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eugenia (Kena) Flores-Figueroa - New Investigator Committee

“All good communicators put a lot of effort into communicating clearly. I think a lot of young people make the mistake of thinking that people are born either good or bad communicators. The reality is that the good ones really work at it." Sean Morrison.

There is no doubt that we all agree on the importance of public speaking; we all enjoy a great talk and suffer and count the minutes until a bad one is over. We recognize that public speaking is one of the most important tools to communicate our science, yet, we usually do not know how or where to look for resources to improve our public speaking skills. According to Sean Morrison, Director of the Children's Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern and Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “young people make the mistake of thinking that people are born either good or bad communicators”, he stated, “good ones really work at it”. The purpose of this article is to discuss and provide resources and tools to master good communication skills and to raise the awareness that becoming a great public speaker is in your hands.

Changing paradigms on Public speaking

Do you experience stress and anxiety before speaking in public? You can improve your performance by realizing that a modest level of stress will work for you and not against you. Jeremy Jamieson, Ph.D., assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, published in Psychology Today (1) that reframing how we think about stress improved public speaking performance, even in individuals suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). His research group asked individuals to perform a stressful public speaking task. One group was informed about the sympathetic nervous system and how acute stress responses help us perform well, to encourage them to reassess what stress meant to them. The control group did not receive any information. The experimental group performed better than the control group in both individuals with and without SAD.

Do not try to stay calm, get excited!

We often try to stay calm before a presentation. In a recent paper published by Dr. Wood Brooks in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2), she found that individuals who reappraise their anxiety as excitement performed better at public speaking compared to individuals who attempt to calm down. His strategy was quite simple: individuals only had to say “I am excited” out loud or received messages to get excited. Her paper suggests that we have a profound control and influence over our emotions, and we can turn this to our advantage to perform better during public speaking.

The thought is that feeling excited will focus you more on your presentation and less on your fear of being judged. It is a common mistake of graduate students to worry about the questions that the audience might raise, rather than focusing on their presentation. It is not about knowing all the answers; unanswered questions may translate into a new experiment or a reinterpretation of our data.

Resources for Public Speaking

There are many resources to improve your public speaking skills. You can research ebooks or take courses. There are also instructive videos. If you recognize the importance of giving a good impression of yourself and your science during presentations, we encourage you to invest some time in exploring these resources. A few examples that can guide you where to start:

Books: Talk like TED: The 9 public speaking secrets of the World’s Top Minds. Carmine Gallo. This book from a public speaking coach will give you the secrets behind the most popular TED talk presenters.

Courses: There is a great course on called “Introduction to public speaking”. The instructor, Dr. Matt McGarrity, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communication, will focus on understanding the key parts of an argument by studying the principles of argumentation and arrangement. You will have the opportunity to practice through speech assignments that are reviewed by your peers.

Videos: TED and TEDx talks. TED -which stands for technology, entertainment and design- is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, in the form of short but powerful talks (usually less than 20 minutes). TEDx talks are independently organized TED talks. This is a great way to learn from experienced speakers. We recommend starting with a TEDx talk by one our ISEH leaders, Dr. Leonard Zon, Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School.

Toastmasters International: Toastmasters International is a world leader in communication and leadership development, with 313,000 members worldwide. These members improve their speaking and leadership skills by attending one of the 14,650 clubs in 126 countries. You can probably find a Toastmasters club in your University or near your home. Toastmasters meeting is a learn-by-doing workshop in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere. There is no instructor in a Toastmasters meeting. Instead, members evaluate one another’s presentations. This feedback process is a key part of the program’s success. Meeting participants also give impromptu talks on assigned topics, conduct meetings and develop skills related to timekeeping, grammar and parliamentary procedure (

Other resources: At the 2013 ISEH Meeting held in Vienna, the New Investigator Committee hosted a session on “Effectively presenting your science and yourself”, the session was recorded and you can access it at the ISEH website (free for ISEH members). We recommend Dr. Margaret Goodell’s (Former ISEH president and Associate Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine) talk which has many good tips that will help you design your slides.

Advice on Public Speaking

We gathered tips and advice from the perspective of new investigators, to give situations you may relate to and describe common mistakes that you should avoid.

Plan your speech

The first step in planning your talk is to decide what message you want to convey. Remember that in any speech, three or more topics are hard to remember and follow. Your research can be described in many ways: consider different ideas, write an outline of your talk, or discuss it with a colleague. Spend some time on planning before you start gathering or creating your slides.

1. Know your audience

“Know your audience so that your talk is at the right level”, was Sofie Singbrant’s, researcher at the Lund Stem Cell Center, Lund University, Lund, Sweden, first advice. Your talk should be tailor made for each event. Consider the expertise of the audience, the formality (job position / conference / lab meeting), the cultural background and the country you are in. Try to relate to your audience by thinking of commonalities and including that information.

2. Timing is key

Keep up with your timing and plan ahead, do not try to compensate your bad planning with rushing your talk. As Michael Milssom, Group Leader, Experimental Hematology, Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine, advices “Make a conscious effort not to rush what you are saying as you will lose the audience. If you have to talk fast to cover everything in your slides then you have too much material in them. Better to take some data out and clearly get across the key points than to cram every experiment you ever did into a talk." Running over time is disrespectful to your fellow speakers and annoys your audience.

3. Speech Flow

Start with an introduction according to your audience, “explain why your problem is important and properly frame the questions that you are asking”, Daniel Lucas-Alcaraz, Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and Organogenesis Scholar at the Center of Organogenesis at the University of Michigan School, advised. Even if you are not a native english speaker, do not read your presentation, Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu, Senior Research Scientist National University of Singapore, Cancer Science Institute, warns that “the worst mistake is only reading out your presentation on paper, power point presenter or directly whatever is on the slide. It is quite obvious when you see this from the audience and it is not really natural”.

4. Pay attention to your slides

Peter van Galen, Post doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital, highlighted the importance of the slides design and content. “Do not present too many panels per slide. Explain everything that is in the slide. The audience needs to be able to understand the rationale for the experiment, the actual results and your interpretation. Make your slides easy to read for your audience. One of the worst mistakes is to have chaotic slides and look like you haven’t seen them before. The audience will appreciate someone who is prepared to convey their message to be best of their abilities”, he commented.

5. Practice

Some of the experts advise that you have to practice your speech at least 10 times, but this may vary. Practice out loud. Use technology, you can record yourself to look back or send it to colleagues for feedback. Sofie Singbrant advices to concentrate not only on your message, but the way you send it, so it is in a clear and more relaxed way. By recording your speech you can also notice your body language. Your body language could send a massage of being confident or shy. As Ayako Nakamura remembers, Dr. Len Zon’s first advice at ISEH in Vienna was “Be confident and face the audience, don’t be shy”.

6. Be polite when you answer questions

How you answer your questions can tell a lot about you. For Teresa Bowman, Assistant Professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine), when answering questions, “don't be defensive or aggressive. Be confident, but don't put off your audience with an antagonistic tone. How you say things is as important as what you say to keep your audience engaged in your presentation." If for some questions you don’t know the answer, that is not a problem. For example, you can say “Thank you for your interest. You bring up a good point to consider for future directions, but I do not have an answer for that question yet.”


We asked our interviewees if they consider public speaking a skill or an art, and they all believe it is a skill that you can nurture and master through practice and hard work. There are of course gifted speakers who seem to have a natural ability for delivering enjoyable speeches, but be aware that those speakers work hard for this. Practice is key, and we mentioned starting points to use some of the many available resources and techniques that can help you. Our message for you is not resign yourself with what you have, but to work for it; do not suffer through your speech, enjoy it.

A successful speech begins with great science and results from your daily hard work , as Dr. Morrison says “"champions are made in the pre-season".


2. Wood Brooks A. Get excited: reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitment. 2014. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 143(3): 1144-1158.

I want to thank Peter van Galen for editing this article, and Sean Morrison, Teresa Bowman, Michael Milssom, Sophie Singbrant, Ayako Nakarmura-Ishizu and Daniel Lucas-Alcaraz for their contribution and time.

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