Yes, public speaking. Most people are terrified of it. Certainly there was a time in my life when I was. Yet, here I am, doing the final tweaking of the PowerPoint slides for one of the bigger talks in my life, a talk to hundreds of people, with my face projected on a big screen in a cavernous hotel ballroom, and right now I'm only mildly nervous about it. True, I'll be more nervous the morning of the talk, but 15 years ago I wouldn't have even been able to imagine myself giving such a talk. In fact, it's even worse than that. I was so afraid of public speaking that I couldn't possibly imagine myself defending a Ph.D. thesis and hence was afraid of entering my Ph.D. program.
One thing many aspiring scientists don't appreciate is just how vitally important public speaking is to their success. True, it's certainly important to be able to write clearly and compellingly about your work. That's how you get your work published in the best possible journals. My Ph.D. thesis advisor once told me that putting together a scientific paper is just like telling a story. You have to provide a framework for your data and write a compelling case for why it means what you think it means and why that's important. That's also how you get grants, because, in essence, you are using nothing but your data and your writing skill to persuade the government, foundations, or industry to give you thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to support your work.
But it's not enough just to be a good scientist and a good writer. Sooner or later, you are going to have to present your work face-to-face to your peers. The venue can be at scientific meetings. Or, if your work gets noticed, you will get invitations to speak, perhaps as a visiting professor. Making a good impression through public speaking gets you noticed by the higher-ups in your field. It gives you the chance to see potential flaws in your work, because at the question session at the end of your talk your peers will point them out (and sometimes point out ones that don't exist). It gives you the chance to meet potential collaborators who can help you (and whom you can hopefully help in return). It can lead to invitations to join study sections and thus the opportunity for further networking. You could be the greatest scientist in the world, but if you don't present your work at national meetings, unless you happen to publish in very high visibility journals you may not be noticed. Certainly, you will not be as widely noticed as you might otherwise be. No one who matters will be able to put a face with a name. Finally, although this may seem obvious, public speaking skill is also important for teaching, which nearly all academic scientists have to do to some extent or another, varying from very little to quite a lot.
Unfortunately, public speaking is a stress-provoking activity. My first memory of the stress that public speaking can cause was from second grade, believe it or not. I was attending Catholic school, and a class assignment in religion was to compose a prayer. The students writing the best prayers would be given the honor of reading them in church. I happened to be so honored. My memory of the whole event is rather sketchy, as most memories people have from when they were six or seven years old tend to be. However, what I do remember is utter, sheer terror at the prospect. I don't remember how I managed to do it, but I did. Some of the atheists who frequent my weblog will no doubt see fit to blame the Catholic Church for instilling a terror of public speaking in me, but I don't. After all, having students give oral book reports is not uncommon in grade school. (In fact, we did that, too.) No, I rather suspect it was my innate shyness.
Years went by, and I avoided public speaking when I could and sweat bullets doing it when I couldn't avoid it. Oddly enough, when I got to college, public speaking was no longer necessary in the vast majority of classes I took. I rarely had to do it; so I never really learned how to do it well and bad habits hardened as I journeyed further into adulthood. Medical school was no different. Certainly, there were many uncomfortable tasks to learn (physical examinations, asking patients sensitive questions, etc.), but no real public speaking. I passed quite happily through medical school only rarely having to make any public speeches.
Then I started graduate school. After having struggled through my turn to present at a couple of lab meetings and journal clubs I realized that I needed to do something in this area. So how did I overcome my fear of public speaking and become a competent (if not particularly scintillating) speaker?
Well, the way to learn public speaking is by doing it. The way I forced myself to do that was by taking a Dale Carnegie Course, specifically this one. It wasn't cheap, but I felt that I had to do something or I'd never make it through my thesis defense; so I ponied up and I went.
Laugh if you will, but it worked. In the DCC, everyone has to speak in public at least once every session. There's no escape and no excuse. There were speaking exercises on a wide variety of topics and situations, and there were interpersonal exercises designed to teach and reinforce basic social skills. As silly as it sounds, there was one session I remember in particular in which we were specifically taught how to introduce a speaker. You'd think it would be common sense, but it's not.
At the first class, I was terrified, but as time went on I became more and more comfortable giving the little three minute speeches required at the end of every class. After each of these sessions, the class would vote on who gave the best speech, and damned if near the end of the 12-week class I didn't win. The prize was a Dale Carnegie pen. Again, as silly as it sounds, I still have that pen fourteen years later. It is evidence of how I overcame my fear.
So, if you're an aspiring scientist, the most important thing is to learn the science and how to apply the scientific method. However, coming tied for second are two things: writing skills and public speaking skills. Most graduate programs do a pretty good job teaching scientific writing skills, usually through requiring the students to write a mock NIH grant application, but most do a rather poor job teaching public speaking skills, mainly because they don't teach them at all. Even my thesis advisor, who was fantastic when it came to letting me write papers and then critiquing them, did close to nothing to teach me my how to give scientific talks. Fortunately, I took matters into my own hands.
Also remember that there are many more ways than simply taking the Dale Carnegie Course to get better at public speaking, and that the Course may not be for everyone (for one thing, it's pretty expensive, costing me around $800 fifteen years ago). For example, there is Toastmasters International, a group dedicated to teaching and practicing public speaking. They have clubs and chapters all over the country, and the sole purpose of these clubs is to teach public speaking and meeting skills. Better yet, their dues are quite affordable.
I'll probably never be a great public speaker, the kind who can spellbind you and have you hanging on every word. However, through a combination of hard work, practice, and a little help from the Dale Carnegie Course, I have become a competent (although not exciting) one. More importantly, the thought of having to give a speech. If you're an aspiring scientist (or in any career that requires public speaking skills), it's well worth it to improve your abilities in this area.
I still keep that silly Dale Carnegie pen to remind me of this.