How To Be A Brilliant Science Communicator

How To Be A Brilliant Science Communicator
5 years ago

How To Be A Brilliant Science Communicator

A review of Dr Emily Grossman’s ENCODS 2019 Presentation Skills Workshop

One of the stand-out workshops at ENCODS was led by science communicator, broadcaster, educator, author, speaker, and trainer Dr Emily Grossman. The hour-and-a-half was not only packed with actionable tips on being a great presenter, it was delivered with bags of humour and positivity.

We took so many notes that we thought we’d write this blog post to share our top tips from Emily’s workshop. We hope it helps you prepare for the next time you come to present: whether that’s in a meeting, at a conference, in a seminar, or to your colleague.

Why are public speaking skills important for scientists?

We kicked off the session with a conversation about why developing communication skills matters so much to scientists. The main reasons we came up with were:

  • When we confidently and engagingly talk about who we are and what we do, opportunities arise for funding, jobs, and more
  • Great science relies on collaboration – meaning people need to understand what you do, be interested by it, and understand its impact
  • Being good at communication builds your profile AND benefits others who need to hear what you have to say
  • Being able to communicate to non-scientists means they’re less likely to misinterpret research and believe sensationalist claims made by the press
  • That’s a pretty compelling list of reasons… so what gets in the way when we come to talk about our work in a professional setting?


Overcoming nerves

After looking at why we need to be able to communicate effectively, we went on to look at what stops us. The most common thing? Nerves, of course!

The great news though is that it’s possible for almost everyone to get their nerves under control with a little guidance and a lot of practice. They may never go away, but you can learn to get a handle on them. As Emily put it: “The trick isn’t to get rid of the butterflies, it’s about getting them all to fly in the same direction.”

The main way nerves impact us is to make us agitated and tense, which then impacts our communication, so we want to do things to loosen up and relax before presenting.

Emily’s top tips are:

  • On the day of your presentation, do some physical exercise to get yourself “into your body”
  • Try grounding or breathing exercises to calm yourself physically – there are plenty of these available online, so explore what’s out there and find the one that works for you
  • Spend some time doing gentle movements and stretching, such as rolling your shoulders, or stretching to one side along your whole body
  • Do some power poses! If you’ve got no idea what we’re talking about, watch Amy Cuddy’s brilliant TED Talk on how our body language can shape who we are and try it for yourself


Just say “Yes!”

One of the most surprising stats Emily shared was that in TV and radio interviews where a science expert is needed, journalists and producers will tend to ask men. And that’s because a man will almost always say yes (even if it’s not his field of expertise), whereas they will need to ask an average of SIX women before one of them says yes!

Emily’s encouraging tip – based on her experience as a science communicator – is that it’s far more important to be confident, clear, and engaging than it is to be the person who’s won all the awards and is top of their field. Her motto? “Just say yes...and panic later!”


Focus on how you communicate

Next, we spoke about how the best communicators are the ones who are simply themselves. Emily reminded us that to be a great presenter you don’t have to be crazy or exuberant: you can be introverted and serious, and still compelling. When you’re authentically yourself, that’s when you’ll connect with your audience.

That’s why we didn’t focus on changing the way we communicate, but rather on giving ourselves the best chance of coming across as relaxed and confident (even when we’re really nervous).

The top tips we took away were:

Before you present

  • Before attendees get there, stand in the spot you’ll be presenting from – you’ll feel calmer if you know what it will feel like before you get up to present
  • When you enter the stage, walk on and stand like you’re accepting an award – this will help you feel like you deserve to be there, and make you feel more confident


While you’re presenting

  • Smile! It makes people feel happy and relaxed, meaning they’re more like to listen (yep, this applies even if you’re talking about something serious)
  • Use congruent gestures – any movement you make while presenting needs to add to what you’re saying and help your message come across. Incorporate these sorts of gestures deliberately to overcome any nervous ‘fiddling’.
  • Make eye contact – talk directly to particular people for a few moments at a time. Apparently, “optimum eye contact time” is three seconds – studies have shown that this is about the length of a thought process – so even if it feels a bit uncomfortable at first, push yourself to that three seconds and notice the difference!
  • Walk around the stage (if it feels right) – use the energy in your body to ‘own the stage’. Keep it natural though, and make sure you aren’t pacing. If you’re moving too much it can be distracting.
  • Open up your body – standing in front of a big group of people is scary, and our evolutionary response is to ‘close’ our bodies to protect ourselves. If you open up your body, you’ll appear more relaxed and confident, and in turn that will make your audience feel more relaxed.
  • Find your rhythm – in everyday conversation, we naturally vary the cadence of our speech, talking fast and slow. A tip for finding your natural rhythm (and discovering your unique communication style) is to practice talking about something that’s not your work. Notice the difference?


After you present

Stay on stage to receive your applause at the end of your presentation (don’t scuttle off, even if you’re so glad it’s over that’s what you want to do!)


Effective communication is storytelling

As scientists, the biggest challenge we face is to make scientific content as engaging as all the other content people consume on a daily basis. The key to this is storytelling. That doesn’t mean you need to know how to write a play or a novel. In fact, we’re all natural storytellers without realising it. It’s just that often, when we start to talk about our work, we stop telling stories and start giving information.

To help look at how we can find the story in our research, we looked at the main components that make up a story:

  • Main characters (hero and villain) – of course, when it comes to your research, your hero doesn’t have to be human. Think of it more as what the story revolves around (i.e. a potential new treatment). The villain doesn’t have to be a person either, it can be something that went wrong and temporarily thwarted your progress.
  • Objective (something that has to happen) – this is the big picture or ultimate goal of your research that you’ll want to “zoom out” on. This might feel difficult at first when we’re so consumed with the day-to-day in the lab, but remember it’s the “saving people and saving the world” that people are interested in.
  • Obstacle – what’s the main challenge to be overcome (i.e. what’s getting in the way of the objective?)
  • Action – what is it that the hero has to do to overcome the obstacle?

Once we were clear on the components, next we looked at the structure of a story.

Beginning your presentation

Start your presentation with a punchy introduction. This is important because generally it will only take your audience about 4-5 seconds to decide whether they want to listen to you. It sounds judgemental, but it’s true.

While it’s tempting to jump straight in with an introduction to ourselves and who we are – which is what most of us do when we present – this isn’t as engaging as having an unusual, memorable hook.

One tactic for an engaging opening is to start with a question to get people thinking and interacting right away… then you can tell people who you are once you’ve got their attention.


Ending your presentation

As with all good stories, you’ll want to end with a climax, cliffhanger, or conclusion – something that marks it as the end. When you’re deciding how to end your presentation, think about what you want your audience to leave thinking and feeling.

Emily’s tip was that your goal should be for your audience to never think or feel the same way about your subject as a result.

Also, think about whether there’s an action you want your audience to take as a result of listening to you – and end with a call to action.


General storytelling tips

As well as the beginning and the end, of course the middle has to be compelling too. Here are Emily’s top tips for telling your science story in an engaging way:

  • Keep it relevant – your story needs to be about now, even if it’s set in the past or future. Focus on your audience, and how your content is relevant to their lives.
  • Keep it relatable – use concrete examples to make a point, as there are a lot of concepts in the scientific world which can be difficult to follow. If you’re using analogies, make sure your audience can relate to them.
  • Focus on flow – if you are making separate points, make sure you link them together
  • Paint a picture – use descriptive language to create images in people’s minds. If you can provide a visual representation of what you have said, your audience are more likely to remember it.
  • Avoid jargon – there’ll be a lot of words specific to your field that you’re incredibly familiar with, but your audience might not be. Generally (yep, even in science) jargon is unnecessary and only risks putting people off. However, if using jargon really is unavoidable, explain it immediately and use this opportunity to make your audience feel like they’ve learnt something.


Prepare by speaking, not writing

While you might be brave enough to ‘wing it’, preparation is usually a good idea before any professional presentation.

A great final point that Emily made is that when most of us sit down to write a talk we… well... write it.

But the issue with this is that written words are meant to be read, not spoken. And in fact, the way we speak is very different to the way that we write in terms of composition and grammar.

So, next time you need to prepare for a scientific presentation… talk! Instead of writing out reams of notes, trust yourself to be able to open your mouth and speak, and confidently explain who you are and what you do. After all, that’s where you’re the expert.


Thank you SO much Emily for such an insightful workshop, and for all these brilliant tips.

You can follow Emily on Twitter here:

Find out more about Emily and her work here:

Watch Emily’s TEDx Talk here:


For more tips on presenting at conferences, check out these fantastic guest blogs by Nina Lichtenberg:


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