Learning to talk

New year, new job. After 13 years as a Senior Medical Physicist at Manchester University Hospitals, I have just moved to the Christie Hospital to take up a new post as a Principal Medical Physicist. My new job involves particular responsibilities for teaching, which is one of the things I really really love doing. One of my first tasks was to prepare 9 hours of lectures and tutorials for medical technologists at the University of Cumbria, which has been thoroughly enjoyable… and I haven’t even delivered them yet.

I regularly lecture and teach graduate and postgraduate students, as well as talking to school and college students, their teachers and parents, and the general public, about science and the physics underpinning medical imaging in particular. Anyone who’s seen me in a university lecture hall or on stage in a school or at a science festival would get the impression that this all comes pretty naturally. I never use notes; my slides (and often, demonstrations) are prompts enough to keep my words on track. I can even present at conferences now without needing to read from a script, and still stick precisely to time. I make sure I know my material and the key messages I want to draw from it, and the rest comes easily.

I appreciate public speaking is not something that comes easily to a lot of people. Standing up there without notes, chatting away whilst half-sitting on the front bench, or sharing a joke with someone on the back row of the auditorium, may seem impossible if you are genuinely terrified of speaking in front of a crowd. But for most, all it takes is practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.

When I was tidying out my office at Manchester University Hospitals I found a lot of things I should really have thrown away years ago. But I had space to keep them, so I did. Amongst them were prompt cards I had used for conference presentations, some more than a decade ago. So carefully prepared; record cards with the slides cut out and stuck on and notes alongside in a range of colours, with key points underlined, all held together with ribbon or a treasury tag. As I handled them I was taken right back there, to just starting out in my field and being so scared of presenting to those who knew what they were talking about, of looking stupid, clamming up or saying something ridiculous, of making a bad first impression on those who could one day be interviewing me for my dream job, and all the while clutching those little cards like they were the lucky charm that would avert disaster. As time went on, and I clocked up another successful presentation, and another, and another, I needed those cards less and less. Eventually, I let them go completely, and they fell to the bottom of a filing cabinet. I had learned how to successfully present a topic without knowing what I was going to say word-for-word beforehand, but this took over ten years.

I still get nervous before delivering a lecture which is about a subject right on the edge of my field of expertise, or I’ve just never covered before. I get incredibly jittery about high-profile events where I’m sharing a stage with people much more famous than me, particularly if I have several demonstrations or video clips or elements of audience participation to fit in that significantly expand the list of “things that can go wrong”. I’m still developing the ability to adapt my presentation to the audience ‘on the fly’, as I gauge their responses, and I’m still not great at answering questions in a way that opens up the conversation further. And I’m only just beginning to explore the many ways of working with an audience rather than just talking at them. In short, I’m still developing my skills as a teacher, lecturer and science communicator, and I reckon I will always be.

We’re all works in progress, and if I make talking about science look easy, it’s largely because I’ve been doing it for quite a long time. When I started, I was looking pale and shaking… and clutching my little pack of record cards so I didn’t forget what to say. If this is you right now, keep practicing and practicing and practicing. You can learn to talk, too.