Case study:public speaking masterclass

Ellie barnes 1

After spotting Dr Eleanor Williams’ enthusiastic presence at public engagement events, and experiencing her professionalism as “the voice” of the Structural Genomics Consortium’s podcast, the NDM and the SGC set out to find a training course that would foster Ellie’s talents as a science presenter and communicator.

On Wednesday the 19th of March Ellie attended a Public Speaking Masterclass with television scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE. Held by the British Science Association and hosted by Imperial College, the aim of the masterclass was to inspire women in science, engineering, technology and other expert fields to take a more active and leading role in public life.

Dr Eleanor Williams graduated from the University of Oxford and subsequently completed her PhD studies working on Hsp90 with Prof John Ladbury at UCL.  At the SGC, Ellie is funded by a Roemex fellowship for work on BMP signaling in the rare bone disease fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP).  She is currently studying how BMP receptors assemble and has worked on structures of human endofin and the kinase ACVR2A (ActRIIA).

Ellie Barnes 2

Here’s what Ellie thought of her experience:

“Have you noticed how journalists will tell you the same thing three times in any article? Start with a punchy headline, then expand a little in the first paragraph – or in some cases just reword the title. Then by paragraph two you’re onto the nitty gritty of details.

This is one of the first things we were told at the ‘Public speaking Master Class with Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock ’ – organised by the British Science Association. With it begins a day of learning how to express yourself clearly to a wider audience – to get your point across appropriately both in writing and, more importantly, in person.

The first half of the day focused on the differences between academic and media communication – some may seem obvious (Jargon vs. lack of it) and some less so (you are not going to be able to impress your boss while still making yourself understood to the general public so quit trying!). Throughout it all was a focus on telling the story – whatever you say, it should have a beginning, a middle and an end.

The second half of the day then moved on to actually getting your message across face to face. Do you know the difference between an engaging speaker and an unengaging one? Think about it – you’ve probably been in seminars where you love the subject but as soon as the speaker opens their mouth you switch off; equally I bet you’ve gone into seminars thinking: ‘This is going to be really dull…’ and then found yourself riveted for the next 50 minutes. Why? It’s probably down to the speaker – if they love their subject, if you can feel their enthusiasm for it, then they are going to keep you switched on. In pairs, we took it in turns to talk about something we were really passionate about outside of work to see just how interesting something can be when someone really interested is talking about it. Arms waved, eye contact was made, the voices in the room danced up and down.

Another lesson: There is no such thing as a disengaged audience, only a disengaging speaker.

With all this in mind we moved onto the most active part of the day – practice at public speaking. The 20 of us split into three groups with a mentor each and with minimal planning time (30 seconds is enough planning time, right?) then stood up in front of the camera in turn and spoke.

As 90 seconds can feel like a lifetime, I inevitably ended up short by about 30 seconds on my first try. After we’d all had a go we re-watched the camera footage together, and then came the critique! Positives first, then onto some constructive criticism and comments both from the mentor and from each other. We had plenty to think about as we moved on to meet the next mentor, then with a new mentor we did it all again! Finally we all came together at the end of the day and spoke for a final time in front of the whole group with final comments from all of the mentors.

I think perhaps the most interesting thing was seeing how clearly everyone was improving with each attempt. Confidence grew, animation increased and whether we were talking about plasma physics or rare diseases, the audience came away more educated than they had before, thanks to a clear, concise and enthusiastic speaker.

I had a fantastic time on this course, the mentors offered tailored advice and were encouraging at every step. What have I learnt from this? Not to be afraid of the camera; if you’re interested then your audience will be too; the power of a deliberate pause; and most importantly, go out there and give it a go!”

- Dr Eleanor Williams, SGC