This blog post is just for scientists. It comes from many workshops with scientists and science technicians. And I hope you’ll forgive me for being direct.

I’ve experienced this scene many times…

The scientist gets to his or her feet, reluctance showing in body and eye language even before the first word is uttered. Within seconds of speaking the sub message of the presentation is completely obvious to the audience: I don’t want to be here speaking to you. That automatically disengages the audience. No matter how sympathetic they are, they feel a lowering of respect and – even for fellow scientists – it’s harder for them to understand and absorb the message.

Why do scientists in particular find public speaking so difficult?

Because they have extra challenges to speaking. Two stand out. The science discipline is inherently impersonal, deliberately isolated from human feelings. Also, many of those attracted into science are introverted (a large majority of scientists describe themselves as shy). Both factors separate speaker from audience, even when the audience is fellow scientists.

Understanding the beliefs that hold scientists back

Now, I want to help rather than criticize. I love how swiftly scientists respond when they understand how their own beliefs have been affecting their presentations.

Here are classic examples of such beliefs. They’re fascinating because most parade as common sense, but when they’re used to avoid the risks of confidence they can and do cripple presentations.

First these almost universal beliefs...

I just don’t like showing off.
If I speak with too much confidence, people will think I’m arrogant. It’s better to speak with humility.
I lose credibility because I’m too hairy / bald / fat / skinny / young / old / lumpy / wrinkled / saggy / naff / pigeon-toed / etc… (choose your own)
Direct eye contact with the audience is too confrontational.
I’m not a public speaker. It’s not who I am.

Then these extra land-mine beliefs for scientists...

I’m shy. I’m not a show pony.
If I speak with enthusiasm I will look unscientific / subjective / emotional. I will lose credibility with my peers. Science is not about show-biz.
If I make a mistake, I lose credibility.
It’s supposed to be about the science, not about me.
How am I supposed to ‘dumb it down’ for lay audiences or scientists in other fields? If I leave out detail, I will look unscientific.

Being a scientist and an engaging speaker benefits all of us

In July 2014, the Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce and Education Minister Hekia Parata launched the Government’s action plan to encourage engagement with science and technology across all sectors of New Zealand.

It’s about time. School enrolments in science subjects have been dropping for years. Also, the digital universe is upon us – the community is inundated by emotions pretending to be facts. If for no other reason, we need science as a steadying force.

Ultimately, New Zealand needs its own science ‘stars’ - scientists so confident, so enthusiastic, so engaged with real people that young people in particular think, “Wow, science is so interesting. I want to be a scientist.”


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