Megan Duffy: Reach out! Tips and tricks for effective public speaking geared towards a lay audience

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of sixmonths, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchni, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesdayfor new posts.

Current position: 4th year Ph.D. Student in Neuroscience, Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine
Program start date:  August 2013
Institution: Michigan State University

One of the things Dr. Vernaleo and I discussed during our interview for my last blog post was the importance of getting practice in speaking to the public about science, whether the audience is a patient group, your family members, students, you name it. Science has a big impact on all of these groups and vice versa. We need support from the public to continue having science funding both at the federal level and at the private, non-profit level where donations can determine how many projects are able to receive funding. Science is expensive (as I *gulp* put in a request for 100 microliters of antibody costing almost as much as my rent for the month), and without public understanding and support and future generations’ interest in science careers, our progress is hindered.

Last month, I returned to my old high school to give a guest talk to their Women in Science and Engineering group about all things neuroscience, graduate school, and Parkinson’s research. (Side note: how cool is it that the encouragement of women in STEM is extending to younger age groups? I wish we had WISE groups when I was in high school!) I got involved by keeping in touch with my old high school teachers, keeping them updated on my Ph.D. journey and offering to come talk to their students about what I do. Many students don’t know about research careers (whether academic or industry) at that age, let alone the other careers one can pursue with a science degree such as policy, law, writing, non-profit, etc…. It’s a refreshing change to occasionally present to someone other than my colleagues who have heard the same background, project updates, and future directions over the last few years as I make progress on my dissertation. This was my second year speaking to this group and I’d like to share three things I’ve learned along the way by either doing them well or making mistakes and adapting my public speaking techniques:

1. Enthusiasm is crucial. You know that feeling of pure excitement you have when you run stats on your data and learn that they are significant? Or [for science veterans] how you first felt when you came up with a new idea or project (before all the trial and error, western blots and antibodies not working, etc…) Or remember that professor in college who made you want to come to class because of their excitement and love for the topic? Channel that during your talk. The only way to get the public excited and engaged is if you are excited and engaged.
2. Encourage a dialogue. Everyone has a different speaking style. Some people ask audience to hold questions until the end so as to not get sidetracked. What I have found to be most effective is to make a statement at the beginning of my talk that I want it to be a conversation; I don’t want to feel like I’m talking at my audience. The purpose of public engagement in science is for them to learn and participate in a conversation with us and to ultimately continue to support scientific research. Encourage them to ask questions as you go through your talk—if you ask them to wait to the end, they tend to get information overload from the amount of things you covered and not have many questions because there are too many to remember. Our job as scientists is to ask questions, and it’s our job that when engaging with the public to encourage their curiosity about science. Don’t be that monotone professor you had in college who made you hate a certain topic because of their speaking style. Encourage conversation between you and the audience and between audience members. Less blank stares and more questions is the goal.
3. Make concepts relatable. Tell a story. Analogies are your friends. Science can be overwhelming, especially with the amount of jargon, acronyms, and hard-to-remember nomenclature. You have to remember that your audience has not spent four years of undergraduate and 4+ years of graduate training beating this vocabulary into their heads.
a. Make a slide at the beginning of your talk defining terms that you will be using often. Don’t speak in acronyms. If they have no idea what you’re talking about, you’re going to lose them and be ineffective.
b. To drive home a point, use analogies that are easy to understand. Borrowing an example from my advisor here from a presentation to the public about Parkinson’s disease: instead of just saying that it’s a heterogeneous disease she described it like snowflakes. Each snowflake, like each person and each symptom of the disease, is unique. Some people experience a light dusting of snow (very few mild symptoms, slowly progressing) while others experience an avalanche (many severe symptoms, fast progressing). You’ll have many more heads nodding in understanding than blank stares.
c. If giving a power point presentation, the more visuals and less text, the better. If you focus on visuals, your audience will be more likely to listen to your explanation than if they feel they have to read a paragraph of text.
d. Tell a story. Like stories, research has a beginning (background, gap in knowledge), middle (evidence), and end (how evidence fills gap in knowledge, future directions). Refer back to these “milestones” in your talk to help the audience “package” the information in a way that can be easily summarized—it will stick a lot easier and if they can explain it in a few sentences, they are more than likely to share what they’ve learned with others.

Searching out opportunities to talk to the public about your science is easier than you may think. Offer to give a guest talk at local schools, or use that opportunity at family gatherings to get practice explaining your science in a succinct, relatable manner. People are genuinely curious and will gladly dedicate their time to listen to scientists, so make it worth their while. That’s all for now, back to editing my Specific Aims for my NRSA. Stay tuned!

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  • Lydia
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    Communication is one of the most important but often overlooked skills that scientists need., so thanks for making this information available. Nice article!

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