By Jess

Everyone has listened to people who are exceptional public speakers. When they stand up to talk they appear perfectly at ease, they hold the audience’s attention and convey exactly what they want with a confidence that leaves little room for people to doubt them.

These speakers appear to have been born with this superpower, while on the other end of the spectrum are other people, like me, who most definitely weren’t.

I have always hated the feeling of standing up in front of a crowd and talking. I get incredibly nervous and this seems to create a mental block on everything except the overwhelming awareness of how awfully I am doing as I speak. As if that wasn’t bad enough there are all the unpleasant physical side effects of being exceptionally nervous1.

So since giving my first (traumatic) presentation in school when I was 12, I had always made every effort to avoid this painful experience. Which was in fact very easy for me to do, especially with studies focused on science subjects. Although this was great at the time, it meant that I have never got used to standing up and talking in front of an audience; and I never shook off my fear of public speaking.

Even now, it would still be possible to continue dodging giving most presentations. However, it turns out public speaking is kind of important in the academic world, and if I want to succeed (which I intend to do), it’s something I need to improve on, and hopefully even get good at.

So I was actually very eager to sign up on the ‘Science Communication Workshop’ offered at ANU2 after having it recommended by several other students at RSES. This two and a half day course is run by a friendly, experienced team and is aimed at helping you improve your written and spoken science communication skills. The written communication part was great, you can read what some other students previously got up to on this side of things in the ‘Not quite News yet’ posts. But here I will focus on my experiences with the verbal communication part.

Going back to when I said I was eager to sign up, I should emphasise: I was eager only to sign up and then benefit from the results of having attended, not to experience the actual course itself. This is because I knew it involved giving presentations in front of the group every day, which, as I think is probably clear by now, is not something I particularly enjoy.

The grand finale on the last day was to present your research project to the group, trying to put into practice all that you have been taught over the last couple of days. And everyone gives you feedback so that you can learn from it.

I learnt that during presentations I don’t smile and I have no humour and I ‘erm’ on average 25 times per 5 minutes of talking (thank you to those who counted).

And in case the feedback from your audience isn’t enough, they film you too and provide you with your very own DVD copy. This way you can see all of your mistakes for yourself and replay them as many times as you like3.

So to be honest the workshop didn’t give me the confidence boost I was hoping for. But I am still glad I went. Why?

  • It’s good to know what you need to improve on. And sometimes you need a room full of strangers who have no motivation to spare your feelings to tell you what that is. I mean, I knew I erm-ed a fair bit but didn’t know it was that bad.
  • Lots of tips to improve the quality of your presentations, some I would have never thought of.
  • And probably most importantly I learnt that there is no miraculous solution someone can teach me that will cure my fear of speaking in public, but the only way I will improve is to practise, and practise, and practise.

1 Shaking hands, sweaty palms, stomach tying itself in knots, etc.

2 Workshop delivered by the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science

I’m sure there is also something constructive behind this. Unfortunately I still haven’t worked up the courage found the time to watch my DVD…