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SamSpeaksScience: presentation skills to help your audience navigate your knowledge

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SamSpeaksScience: presentation skills to help your audience navigate your knowledge Samuel Lagier, PhD, and co-founder. The SamSpeaksScience logo appears underneath this text and a photo of Sam against a gray wall is at the right.

Preface: From undergraduate summer work to a five-year postdoc, almost every research project involves giving a presentation, but it can be really hard to know where to start and how to create an engaging presentation your audience will understand. We asked Sam from SamSpeaksScience how we scientists can share our research effectively with an audience, and learned to embrace imperfection, that language barriers are lower to hop than we might think, and to reframe presenting as guiding an audience through our expert knowledge! This interview is a part of an ongoing series on innovative companies that support researchers.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to create SamSpeaksScience?

SamSpeaksScience was born from my experience of academia (PhD and 2 postdocs), performing improvised comedy and organising TEDx conferences. This joyful and unique mix of skills and experiences makes a lot of sense now, but it was not at all the case when I decided to change career!

During my second postdoc, it became clear that I had lost the passion for research and that it was time to find myself a new job. Back then I was doing improv and TEDx for fun, not for work, so it took me some time to give equal space and value to science and improv when it came to my professional future.

I created SamSpeaksScience in 2017, and the business took off! With my colleague Hedwig (hired in 2021) we run in person and online workshops as well as one-on-one sessions, in Europe (for now). We also have some exciting science communication side projects brewing! I like working with researchers (and experts more broadly) because they are passionate about their work and because they know a lot of very cool stuff I don’t so I get to discover new things all the time!!

As a researcher, how can working on my own presentation skills improve overall access to science?

Presentation skills are absolutely crucial for a researcher. Being a good speaker is necessary to get a faculty position, to get certain grants and to be recognised by your peers. Talking about your research is an integral part of your job as a scientist. Working on your presentation skills will not only improve your access to science but also open doors outside of academia!

There are many different settings and audiences for science presentations—from kids outreach activities to research talks in packed conference centers—is there any common approach when preparing to give a presentation?

First of all, there is a mindset to adopt. As a speaker, you are a guide, helping your audience to navigate through a piece of your knowledge. And as a guide, you are the person in charge, responsible for the successful journey of all the parties involved. A talk is not a confrontation or a fight, it’s an exchange, a shared experience, with a clearly identified leader: you, the speaker. Part of your mission as a speaker is to care for your audience, regardless of who they are.

Once you have understood that mindset, you can think more carefully about your audience, their expertise and their expectations. With that context in mind, you can adjust your own goals and expectations to match theirs as much as possible.

With regard to the content of a talk, it is important to have a clear message in mind (what do you want your audience to remember?) and to have a clear and logical story-arc (what is the context of your work? what is the problem that you are solving? what are YOUR solutions to that specific problem?).

Finally, during your presentation, it is key to focus on your audience. As a speaker, you need to be generous, with your voice, your energy, your body language to effectively engage the people sitting in front of you.

Your feedback helps people capitalize on their own personal strengths; what sorts of different strengths can contribute to an effective presentation?

There are many ways to positively stand out as a speaker. You can show care, empathy and a genuine desire to be understood (a number of scientists sadly don’t care about that last point). Some researchers are very good at crafting powerful messages, others at creating engaging stories. And finally, some scientists are very charismatic and captivate their audience regardless of what they say.

In addition to being an expert researcher, you also have a lot of experience in drama and the arts. From this perspective, is there something scientists could all keep in mind when giving presentations?

When you give a talk, you are engaged in human communication and interaction. A lot of scientists forget or ignore the human and social aspects of the process. Because we are but flawed humans, communication is always messy and imperfect. What can be seen as a problem in a science talk (the subjectivity) is actually what makes it interesting!! Trying to reach for perfection and objectivity can be counterproductive. The audience wants to see the human behind the research that is presented. So when they give talks, I invite the researchers to show themselves, to embrace the quirkiness of their personality and to be humble about their performance (nobody is perfect).

For some of my research presentations as a trainee I tried to forget the audience was there, but you’ve mentioned that engaging the audience is important. How do we do this, and how can it create more effective science presentations?

Some speakers are charismatic, magnetic. When they walk on stage, you immediately feel their energy. In the performing arts we talk about stage presence, which includes three dimensions: an awareness of oneself, an awareness of the audience and an awareness of the effect you have on the audience. To have good stage presence implies being tuned to your listeners. A successful speech includes a positive interaction between the audience and the speaker. A talk can’t be just one-way.

It is scary to be stared at by tens or hundreds of pairs of eyes, there is no denying it. Even professional performers are nervous before facing their audience. But it’s also a tremendous source of energy that can be harvested to power yourself up to lead your audience.

Once you are on stage, your audience sees you, you can’t really hide. Words won’t make you invisible. Rather than shutting yourself off from your audience (out of fear), you need to open up to them. As a speaker, you are the leader of the journey, and your listeners will be much more willing to follow if you show that you are open and caring. Communication is about changing your audience; you can’t achieve that if you are completely detached.

Since research environments are highly international, do you have any special tips for coping with presenting in a different language or with fears about language barriers?

I see two elements that can constitute a barrier in the mind of a non-native speaker: their vocabulary and their pronunciation. Sometimes these elements are indeed a problem, but if you have the will to overcome these obstacles, then that goal is very much achievable. The barrier is in fact much lower than you think.

When you address an audience your goal should be to be understood, to make the work of your audience as easy as possible and to create an engaging and effortless journey for them (you are the guide, remember?). Your goal is not to speak flawlessly, just to be (clearly) understood, so give yourself time to speak and enunciate complex or difficult words. Ask for feedback on systematic mistakes and practice, practice, practice. Speaking in English in low stress situations will help you for formal speeches.

As a non-native speaker, doing improvised comedy in English helped me tremendously. I used to be perfectionist and only speak when I had the right sentence construction in mind (which came always too late in group conversations…). In improv, we don’t have time to think and we don’t care about perfection.

It is important to realise that the audience is also often international, meaning that their vocabulary and accent are not perfect either. Even native English speakers need to adapt to their international audience. They need to limit their use of uncommon words, to beware of complex sentence construction and to realise that they too have an accent: a thick Scottish accent can be hard to understand for an American.

Perfection is an ideal, not a reasonable objective. We all have accents and we all need to make efforts when addressing international crowds, even native speakers.

Can you share with us any scientists you think are really great communicators, or who you are always excited to see presenting their research?

Jim Hudspeth, with whom I worked at the Rockefeller University, is a great speaker. He has an amazing ability to make complex notions accessible.

My wife Adria LeBoeuf is also an amazing and inspiring speaker and her work is fascinating.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has an amazing stage presence. It is always delightful to watch him light up when he talks science.

Samuel Lagier of SamSpeaksScience stands to the left of a block where collaborator Hedwig Ens sits.
Samuel Lagier and Hedwig Ens of SamSpeaksScience. Photos by RRIM photo.

Acknowledgment

We would like to thank Sam for sharing his insight!

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