Public speaking: how to go from abysmal to goodish

We all know how learning happens: you have to walk before you can run. You’ve got to be good before you can be great.

I’ve been to quite a few public speaking training sessions. All of them full of tips on how to be a great public speaker. Which is brilliant. But it’s also not. Because before you can be great you have to be good.

What about tips for those of us who aren’t even good?

speaking 2

I’ve also got a fair amount of less than good public speaking experiences to my name. But last week I finally gave my first goodish talk!

So today I’m going to share what I did to go from being an abysmal public speaker to giving an okay talk. None of the fancy stuff (“move your eyes around the room as if tracing a dodecahedron”) or the weird stuff (“imagine your audience naked”). Just stuff anyone can implement.

1) I Selected my audience

We can’t always choose our audiences. But to improve I’m looking for opportunities to practise. So I offered to give the recent talk, knowing the audience would be supportive.

2) I prepped my talk with bullet-debullet-rebullet treatment

For me, bullet pointing alone isn’t enough because I can’t turn them into full sentences on the spot when giving a talk. So instead I prepare like this:

  • BULLET: Bullet point my ideas
  • DEBULLET: Write out my full thoughts, which means I’ve had to turn the bullet points into fully articulated sentences
  • REBULLET: Rewrite my full thoughts as bullet points, knowing that I know the fully formed thoughts behind the bullets

3) I practised with the technology

Having a practice meant I knew how to set up, how long it would take, and I was confident about it.

4) I calmed down

After a hectic day, about an hour before my talk I changed gear and slowed down. My friend suggested getting a cup of tea, some fresh air and stretching. I did, and it helped.

5) I psyched up

The day before giving my talk I listened to an extract of Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your body language shapes who you are.” She says that standing in power poses before an event, like with your arms in a V shape, helps you psyche up. I tried it and I reckon it did help!

6) I started like a pro

Cuddy and many others articulate the mantra ‘fake it ’til you make it’. So I did what I could. I know that when people give talks they begin by asking if the people at the back can hear. So I made a point of doing that. Because I know it’s what good speakers do.

7) I prepared a cheat sheet

I had a 45 minute slot and reading my talk wasn’t an option. In a dream world I would have done it without notes. One day. However, I prepared a cheat sheet with my bullet points on, clearly spaced out and in big enough font that I could read it from the table. I also didn’t staple it so that I could simply slide the sheets away as I went through them. Something I noticed George Osborne do in his 2015 budget speech.

8) I made it a team effort

I got my audience involved by asking them to discuss amongst themselves some of the concepts I was talking about, then feedback to me. This worked really well because 1) it gave me a minute to breathe; 2) it kept them engaged; and 3) it was empowering for them because they realised they knew more than they thought.

Voilà, eight things you can do to help you improve!

In addition to all of the above, there are three more significant things that helped my talk to be goodish:

9) I knew what I was talking about

10) I really wanted to share the information

11) I let my personality come through

Finally, the reflective practitioner in me knows what I need to work on, so to take my public speaking from goodish to definitely good, next time I’m going to:

  • try to look at every individual in the room rather than the same few
  • have a better idea of timing as I had to rush at the end
  • drink water throughout the talk as by the end I was husky voiced

The circumflex isn’t disappearing, but I’m still slightly heartbroken

About five years ago more or less to the day, a cold, fresh February morning, I was working as an English teacher in a primary school in Laval, northwest France. It was the lesson before lunchtime and I had in front of me a small class of seven year olds. We were learning ‘food’. I’d given them a helping hand by choosing ‘chocolate’ (it’s a cognate) and ‘cheese’ (because show me a seven year old who will struggle to pretend to smile for a camera like an insane fool whilst squeezing a ‘cheeeeese’ through their teeth?). I’d also chosen the word ‘pasta’.

“Look,” I said, picking up a piece of chalk and moving over to the blackboard. I wrote it out in big letters next to the French word ‘pâtes’. “Let’s play spot the difference,” I said to these newly literate small children. In came the responses: “both start with ‘p’,” said one. “Both have a ‘t’ in,” said another. “Super!” I exclaimed to my little ducklings. “‘Pasta’ has an ‘s’ in the middle,” said yet another. “Brilliant,” I said.

I started writing on the board again: ‘hostel’. “A hostel is a bit like a ‘hôtel’,” I explained, writing ‘hôtel’ on the board. “What do you notice?” I asked again. “There’s no ‘s’ in the French,” someone said. And then another cried out: “where there’s an ‘s’ in English, we have a circumflex in French!” “Yes!” I exclaimed, the lot of us barely able to contain our excitement. “So,” I braved, “how do you think we say ‘hôpital’ in English?”

“Hospital!” came a chorus of high pitched voices. “Exactly!” They met my excitement and doubled it. They had spotted the trick. This helpful and precious little nugget from the past. This circumflex which takes the place of an ‘s’ that once was, which shows that our English words and their French words have a common ancestor in Latin. A secret path from one language into another.

“Guys,” I said, “you are geniuses. This is what I was learning at university!” Which is no word of a lie. They beamed. The bell rang and they skipped out of the classroom, bubbling with excitement and pride. I skipped out behind them.

It’s not often that French spelling reforms make the headlines in the international media, but this week they have. Helped into the limelight by some classic media distortion and exaggeration. However, news travels fast so hopefully by now most people have got their facts straight, but just in case:

  • The circumflex is not disappearing
  • In 1990 the Académie Française proposed to reform the spelling of some two thousand words, the explanation and justification for which can be found here
  • One of the reforms proposed is that use of the circumflex on the letters i and u be optional, though not in verbs or in certain other instances
  • The proposed reform does not affect the circumflex on the letters a, e or o.
  • Since 1990 (so that’s for the past 26 years) use of the circumflex on i and u has been optional
  • What’s news is the fact that when the kids return to school in September, their textbooks (if they’ve got new ones, that is) will include the reformed spellings

Of course the circumflexes my seven year olds and I played with won’t disappear with these reforms, because they are ‘ô’s’ and ‘â’s’. But the hat on the û in ‘dégoûtant’ might. Add in an ‘s’ and your not far from the English ‘disgusting’. Same for the French ‘coût’ (‘cost’) and what about the ‘croûte’ on your bread?

Not every circumflex represents a lost ‘s’; not by a long shot. But some of them do. Some of them are portals from one language to another, open to seven year olds and adults alike. Magical tunnels which whizz us from modern-day French back hundreds of years to Latin before propelling us forward to modern-day English. And vice versa. You know, there are portals everywhere if you know what you’re looking for. ‘W’ and ‘gu’, for example, were historically related. Think ‘war’ and ‘guerre’ or ‘warden’ and ‘guardien’.

I’m a linguist and I know that what language does is change and evolve. And the proposed spelling reforms are part of that. I get that, and in my head I’m okay with that. It’s just there’s a little bit of my excitable linguaphile heart that can’t help but feel that what these reforms will (albeit unintentionally) eventually do is block off some of the secret passage ways which make language and language learning so exciting: they’ll destroy some of the magic. So yes, my head’s fine, but I am a little heartbroken.


10 reasons you should start a new hobby in the middle of your PhD

In the past few months I’ve taken up two new hobbies: making sourdough bread (at home) and dancing (in classes). I am so so glad I’ve done this.

If like me you’re right in the thick of your PhD, I would totally recommend starting a new hobby. Here are 10 reasons:


  1. The anonymity

Ever get tired of the “how’s the PhD going?” question? Taking up a hobby where you meet new folk means you get to meet people who don’t know that you’re doing a PhD. And if they don’t know they can’t ask about it. Even if you do tell them, it’s still fine because you have something else to talk about: your hobby.

  1. The learning satisfaction

If you’re doing a PhD then you must love learning and getting better at things. When was the last time you started learning something new, then? What’s more, when you’re a beginner you see progress really, really quickly. How different to a PhD, eh? So satisfying.

  1. The liberation

Have you been told that when you do your viva you’re supposed to be the world expert in your topic? So, no pressure then. When you begin a new hobby, though, unlike with your PhD, you are a total novice. The people around you have no expectations. You are legitimately allowed to be totally rubbish, and that is so freeing and refreshing.

  1. It’s an Impostor’s Syndrome antidote

Following on from the previous point, seeing how rubbish you are at your new hobby and being okay with that (you’re a beginner – it’s expected!) does make you realise how much you know and can do in your own area of doctoral expertise, and realising this can help keep the Impostor’s Syndrome under control.

  1. It’s good for your sanity

A person could go insane thinking about the same thing all the time day in day out. But we PhDers often do, don’t we? It’s hard to stop thinking about the project sometimes. But if you’ve got something else to think about, like for example how to improve on the last loaf of bread you baked, it gives you a break from PhD thoughts, which can only be a good thing for your sanity.

  1. It gives you perspective

Further to the last point, there have been times when my entire world has been PhD shaped. And I usually don’t realise it at the time. However, when you incorporate your new hobby into your world, suddenly it can’t be PhD-shaped anymore. The perspective makes the PhD seem smaller. Always nice.

  1. It helps creativity

Having just suggested that a hobby will give you a break from thinking about your PhD, I’m going to do a 180. Sometimes when you’re sat at your desk trying to have intelligent, creative thoughts they just don’t come. Maybe because you’re trying too hard? A hobby will put you in a completely different space (in your mind as well as geographically, perhaps) and if the ideas won’t come at the desk, there’s a good chance that when your PhD brain is switched off is when you’ll get a breakthrough.

  1. It’s a productive distraction

Everyone needs downtime and distraction, and websites like Facebook or Buzzfeed are perfect because there’s usually something new, they are mindless, and quite simply they are there. However, I don’t know about you, but I do kick myself when I think about the time I waste on websites like those.

But if you’ve got a hobby things are different because you have a topic or activity or sport to research. So you can read about that. And since it’s going to help you get better at your hobby, it’s not wasted time at all.

  1. Life is short

PhDs are so naughty, aren’t they? They spread through your life an hour at a time, and before you know it Saturday is in the library, Sunday is just finishing a bit on this, oh and I’ll have to work late next week.

I could really do with working more on the weekends and in the evenings, but if I do that my whole life will become my PhD. Life is too short for it to equate to a PhD. It’s time to start living now, not when we’ve got our PhDs.

  1. It’s a back up career!