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Secrets of SciComm

A week ago I participated on a panel hosted by Quantum Women alongside the brilliant Stephanie Simmons where we discussed how to become better scientific communicators. I thought the questions asked were extraordinarily good, so I wrote them down and answered them again. Enjoy!

○ Tell us about your very first professional public speaking engagement. How did it come about? What was it about? How did it go?

My first public speaking experience was when I joined the debate team my freshmen year of high school. My first debate was horrible and embarrassing. I can literally still remember the questions I was asked and the feeling of not knowing the answer. But not too long after that, maybe the next year or so I made it to the state championship which is on a much larger stage in front of many more people. My partner kind of froze and I had to take the lead. I decided to just lean into it, because there was really no other choice. I felt myself go into almost a trance and I was basically unaware of the audience. The year after that we went to the championship round :)

● Why are public speaking skills (communication skills in general) important for scientists?

Your science is only as good as your ability to make people care. Furthermore, we as a society are becoming more and more dependent on science and technology, yet fewer and fewer people really understand them. I believe it is our societal responsibility to do our best to inform the public, draw them in, and keep them engaged.

● Communicating complex scientific topics to a non-scientific audience can be challenging. Particularly as you work in a bubble with your peers, where you all use and understand a similar vocabulary. How have you managed to make science digestible to nonscientists? How do you communicate effectively about your research and really cool scientific findings?

Just put yourself in your audiences shoes with every word and sentence that you say. Do not use jargon, it doesn’t make you sound more knowledgeable. Relate your work to the people your'e speaking to. Sound excited about what you're doing. Authenticity is key, and sounding over-rehearsed or robotic or bored is a turn-off.

● What advice do you have for those working in science who want to become better at communicating their work to a non-scientific audience?

Talk to everyone about it. Practice. Make them care. If your elevator pitch doesn’t relate your work to the individual you’re talking to then it’s not very good. I hear elevator pitches all the time that do a pretty good at explaining the technical aspect of the research but might as well be conducted on a different planet than the audience. Focus less on the what and more on the why.

● How do you prepare for a presentation to a non-scientific audience?

I gather the relevant memes.

● In your opinion, how important is the design of the slides? I have often seen scientists have white pages with black text. There is no uniformity with fonts, no structure in the design, poor design attempt with charts and embedded images, icons etc.

Personally, if your slides are messy or visually unattractive I do find myself tuning out. Pick a simple background, white or black ONLY, and keep font and size consistent. And for heavens sake, do not include a billion equations on a slide.

● How can one be a successful science communicator without being an effective English speaker?

First of all, let me commend and honestly stand in awe of every person who is going into science where English in not their native language. I am TERRIBLE at foreign languages, it is possibly my biggest weakness.

You do not need to be a perfect speaker of English to be a good science communicator. You'll make grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes, and it wont be a big deal. Even native English-speakers do it. What I think is honestly most important is your tone and your cadence. This is a skill you can pick up and become better at over time, like any other. As long as your personality is able to shine through you will be ok.

● Great communicators listen more than they speak. True or false?

True. And frankly, my inner monologue is always going. I tend to practice how I’m going to say things and how things sound in my own head dozens of times before I say them out loud. It might be neurotic but it works.

● In your opinion, do women have to communicate differently from men in order to be heard? What have you experienced yourself or observed?

This is a really complicated question. I think the adjectives you would use to describe a good communicator are the same, regardless of gender. BUT being very quiet, not being out-spoken and being submissive are traits that are SOMETIMES thought of as feminine and will hinder communication efforts. Because of subconscious (or sometimes conscious) misogyny, I think women are often thought as lacking these skills, or needing to behave more like a man in order to be good.

ALSO because of biases, people will still interpret things you say differently. People even interpret how you dress differently. I would say its good to be conscious of these biases but do not cater to an audience that clearly has them from the get-go because being authentic is far more powerful in the end.

● A common piece of advice for presentations and winning over audiences is to be funny. But there’s a Harvard Business Review article from a few years ago that says that making jokes during a presentation helps men but hurts women. They found that male and female humor is interpreted differently. They found that when men add humor to a business presentation, observers view them as having higher levels of status (respect or prestige) within the organization, and give them higher performance ratings and leadership capability assessments compared to when they do not include humor. People were commenting that a woman is trying to ‘’cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’’. What are your thoughts on this?

Look, there is a study that shows that doing everything under the sun is bad for women in the workplace. Personally, I’m not going to let it effect me. I believe I am the best communicator when I am being myself and humor is something I cherish so I am not going to stop.

● Have there been times you have felt (rightly or wrongly) that you were being talked over or passed over. How have you handled that at that moment and going forward?

I say, “I’m not finished” or “please don’t speak over me, thank you,” and then I move on.

● How does one communicate effectively, if they're working through imposter syndrome?

Over-prepare when it comes to technical knowledge, but be completely authentic/honest when it comes to personal stories and advice. For example, for a technical talk I try to anticipate questions that might be asked and have an answer prepared. For panels or more personal talks, I don't want to think too hard about what I'm going to say because it'll come across as fake. For those sorts of engagements I might read over the questions once but I'll try to figure out most of what I want to say in the moment.

● Leonardo da Vinci recommended "take advice from those who correct themselves". Confidence, on the contrary, is the art of projecting infallibility, i.e. never having to correct yourself. Where do you draw the line between confidence and reasonable doubt? Do you ever (for example when raising capital) project confidence beyond the certainty of the truth of what you claim? Why? Why not?

I disagree with this definition of confidence. Confidence is not the art of projecting infallibility. I hope none of you think I’m infallible, I am in fact, contrary to this belief, very fallible. A bad corner to back yourself into when you're giving a talk is to be overconfident about something you are unsure about, and then being found out. An honest mistake is fine, but there is also nothing wrong with saying I DON’T KNOW. I say it all the time. Every day, multiple times a day. What is so much better than giving a wrong answer is saying, “I am unsure about this, but I think ‘blah blah blah’ because of 'blah blah'. And I know someone/somewhere where I can find the answer (if possible).” I will not project false confidence in a technical claim, but this is not the same as projecting confidence about YOURSELF that you might not actually feel in the moment.

● How have you overcome nerves? Do you have any examples where you totally bombed a speech or presentation and do you have examples when you just knew you nailed it? I want to become a science communicator but I am scared of public speaking. So, how to tackle this situation? Do you have advice on how I can initialize my inner self to become a good science communicator?

I bombed my first debate very badly. It was super embarrassing. I also gave handful of crappy talks in grad school that I still cringe thinking back on. But then there were talks that I knew I killed it too. You know because you feel kinda giddy. Everyones eyes are on you. You can tell when people are engaged and not bored out of their mind.

I have a few tips on public speaking, but Jerry Seinfeld has a great stand-up bit on public speaking you should listen to.

If you just internalize how silly this is I find it helps :)

The way I think about it is that the audience is just people. They do not possess superpowers, they are not better than you; they are here to learn from YOU. Don’t forget to smile.

● Can we come back from communication mis-steps? When the message hasn't gotten across and we've lost the attention of our audience?

Be honest and say “I can see I’ve lost some of you. Let me back up.” Smile and then try again.

● How do you prepare? Do you practice in front of the mirror?

I practice to my dog sometimes, she is very well-versed in quantum information theory.

● What is your advice for panels?

Be shockingly honest.

● Social media - How do you manage/control your presence on social media?

I don’t post anything I wouldnt want to explain to my parents or my boss.

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Nowadays is very difficult to raise interest in science and scientific reasoning. As Bertrand Russell said 'Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.' People prefer the routine, the shallowness of thinking, because that gives them the false sense of stability. But the shallowness of thinking is the best place to drown the spirit. It locks the mind in a vicious circle, in a chain of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop, with detrimental results. To transform such a loop into virtuous cycle you have to intrigue people with the purpose to induce satisfaction in the motivation for future motivations which create the state of being intrigued..

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