Category Archives: Advice for PhD Students

How to nail your speech and hook your audience, every time

 

[Guest Post by Ghina Halabi]

I was giving a TEDx talk. My speech was carefully prepared and I had twelve minutes to speak. Three minutes in, I had no idea what the next line was.

Among the audience was the president of the American University of Beirut, some two hundred people and my speaking coach, Dania. It felt like drowning in an ocean. Water was closing in and the sounds were muffled. Only my heartbeats were audible. I pleadingly looked at Dania hoping she’d remember. Reading my eyes, she distressingly mouthed the words “I don’t know”. So I realised that I was entirely on my own.

Then I found my line.

It felt like eternity, but it was merely few seconds. By not panicking, my mind thought it didn’t matter so it remained calm and silently found its way.

Funnily, no one noticed the glitch. They thought I did it for a dramatic effect. “We had our eyes and ears glued on you to hear the next bit”, they said.

So keep calm and act it out like a boss. Chances are no one will even notice.

Speakers often don’t realise that a good speech or talk is not only about information, it’s also about persuasion and influence. When they wheelbarrow information and impersonally click through crowded slides they not only miss precious opportunities to further their careers, but also to position themselves as leaders and thought influencers. Having a presentation with the right structure and content has never been more important for creating impact. So how do you give your audience such a transformative experience?

Here’s everything you need to know to nail your speech and hook your audience, every time.

 

Preparing your talk

First, figure out who your audience is. What you want to say does not matter if your audience are not coming to hear it. Find that sweet spot at the intersection between what you want to say and what your audience is interested in, that’s the relevant content that you should be unravelling. Once you have that figured out, you are ready to design your talk but do not touch that laptop yet!

Take a walk, go for a jog or do some physical activity to get your endorphins flowing. While you’re at it, think about what you want to talk about, flex your story-telling muscle and find your narrative. What is it? Why would one care about it? Sell the why not just the what! The first few moments and slides are your chance to get the attention of your audience, or not. Make it a smooth and easy take-off. Do not rush to the details before you are sure that your audience is coming with you. Engage them from the start, otherwise it’s very hard to hitch them back on again. Start with a story, remember how I started?

Once you have your story or narrative in your head, grab a pen and paper. Outline your story using bullet points. Those bullet points will be the titles of your slides. Line up your slides while sticking to that narrative.

Now we have the outline, it has a smooth and nice build-up. It follows a narrative. Let’s talk content.

 

Content

Images! Have one or two images (or graphs) per slide, strictly not more than that, and a few words if you absolutely need to. No sentences or paragraphs! This is key. Countless are the talks that I sat through with slides brimming to the rim with text and images with an ongoing voice-over that is different from the slide altogether on top of it all! If a crowded slide hits one in the face, one tries to make the decision whether to look and read or just listen, and by the time the decision is made the speaker has already moved on to the next slide. This is a recipe for confusion, frustration, and the audience abandoning your talk and daydreaming instead! Your power is being able to convey a message with an image and few words for emphasis.

If your image is too crowded, layer it to introduce each layer separately. Use animations and effects smartly to serve your idea and presentation rather than to dress it up.

Choose a modern font. Not comic sans, sans blague!

Having well thought-through presentations position you as an expert to be trusted. Thus it’s essential that you know your script, your material and be prepared.

Preparation helps you think of the bigger picture, put things in context and reflect on your assumptions if you had made any. Practicing helps you design your sentences smartly and say the most with the fewest words possible, rather than ramble on and never hit the point. However, prepared does not mean staged. If you practice a lot make sure not to slip into a boring gear and never shift out of it otherwise, I tell you, you’ll find us snoozing.

 

The big day

Feeling like there’s a stone brick at the pit of your stomach on your big day is normal, but that’s only your brain tricking you into a fight-or-flight mode. How do you convince it otherwise?

Here’s a trick my coach Dania taught me that always worked for me: before you’re due to speak, go somewhere private (restrooms work well usually) and pump yourself up. Jump, squat, punch the air. Yes, get it all out. Look at the mirror, smile and tell yourself how great you will be, how hard you worked and how you’ve got it all. Punch the air a bit more.

Now you are in the room where you will speak and you can punch no more. It’s time to calm down, in fact.

Whether it’s waiting through the introduction or for the speaker preceding you to finish, this certainly does not need to be a time to dread. If you are anxious, an extremely efficient exercise is to simply breathe. Take long inhales and exhales to slow down your heartbeat. The more anxious you are the longer your exhales should be. Perhaps try to inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of five or six. Trust me, I do it every time and I get so relaxed I start to yawn. Just relax and let your confidence build up so that your authenticity shines through. As you take that stage, don’t forget to make eye contact and use your voice to engage your audience so they trust what you say and appreciate the time you’ve put into it.

 

Tips to keep improving

  • Ask for feedback. This helps you see things from a different perspective and improves your presentation skills.
  • Join a Toastmasters club. It’s an excellent venue to practice public speaking and work on your body language and voice projection.
  • Chair meetings if you can. Taking charge and moderating the discussion teaches you to appreciate people’s ears and how to connect with them in a genuine way.
  • Always welcome speaking invitations, especially those you think you are not good enough for! That’s only your imposter syndrome playing you.

One thing I learned from public speaking is that it’s not only what you say that matters, it’s how you make people feel. If you make it your genuine goal to make people connect with what you say, or learn something from you, they’d appreciate you for it so leave good lasting impressions.

My last tip is remember to smile. Smiling while speaking reflects confidence and authenticity. Then it’d be hard to look away!

 

Ghina Halabi is a Space scientist, public speaker, blogger, mentor and published scholar. She is an invited speaker and panelist at several international astronomy conferences, public events and interdisciplinary forums (e.g. Global Scholars Symposium, National Astronomy Meeting, UN Space for Women Expert Meeting). She is the founder of “Scheherazade Speaks Science”, a science communication platform to improve the representation and visibility of female scientists.

This article is based on a talk that Ghina gave at the Women in STEMM Media Training” workshop by the Communications Office at the University of Cambridge.

Advertisements

Book Launch

I have a huge announcement and a little gift I want to give you.

My new book: Mastering Academic Writing in the Sciences: A Step-by-Step Guide has finally been released today!

book-cover

If you have been following me for a while now, you know about my work with Academic Life and how I have been helping hundreds of PhD students and early career researchers from around the world to showcase their research with effective writing.

Yet, every time I launch my online training courses and programmes some students get back to me and say: “Marialuisa, not everybody can afford £200 training courses or £500 private mentoring programmes. Could you just bring it down and synthesise what you know and put it in a book available for everyone?”

And I finally did that! With Mastering Academic Writing in the Sciences: A Step-by-Step Guide.

This book is all about giving you an easy framework to follow when you need to write up your thesis or research paper.

How many times have you put off making a start? How often have you felt anxious, overwhelmed and unsure on how to summarise years of research and hard work into a self-contained thesis or paper?

Maybe you want to stay in academia or maybe you don’t. Either way learning how to master writing skills is an asset that will serve you for life.

The reality is… you now have an opportunity to learn those skills.

And I’d like to show you how to do so by taking you through a simple yet effective step-by-step approach and by sharing with you everything that I have learned about academic writing in the last decade.

If you know my story, you know that I have been struggling a lot with academic writing when I was a student and it took me a great deal of effort and dedication to learn to write well. I have read tens of books on the subject and attended various workshops and seminars.

And just in the last decade I have been able to offer expert advice to students like you, drawing from my experience of publishing nearly 100 research papers in my field, chairing the editorial board of an international collaboration and now publishing a book about… writing!

How do I do it? How do I help other scholars achieve the same level of proficiency and confidence with their writing? How do I support students to get published even if they have little or no experience with writing a paper?

That is really broken down in this book in a way that everyone can understand and apply and, importantly, that you can do too.

I am truly excited about this book. The time has come for it.

So, here is the deal: I want to give you a £10 Amazon voucher for you to spend on anything you like.

The reason I do this is because I would like to ask a simple favour from you.

The book has officially been released today, Monday April 9th 2018, and when I look on Amazon this morning I discovered that it has already sold out!

But wait!

You can still get a copy directly from the publishers at CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group and if you act quickly you may still benefit from the promotional discount they are offering at the moment.

If you get this book and you love it and it inspires you, I ask you that you go on Amazon and post a review about it.

Just talk about the book.

Get the buzz out there, so that when other people who find out or hear about this book go to Amazon, they’ll see reviews out there.

Positive or negative. I am not asking for an endorsement from you. I am just asking that if you get this book (and my gift) you post a review for me.

Of course, if you want to blog about the book or share the message with your friends to help me get my own message out there, I’d be deeply grateful.

So, here is how my deal works:

  1. Click here to order a copy of the book from CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group
  2. Email me your receipt
  3. I send you a £10 Amazon voucher
  4. You post a review on Amazon

But please note: I will only be able to fulfil the first 10 orders, so you need to act quickly.

And if you do not manage to be among the first 10 people to email me, I will send you my 3 Free Bonus Videos on Writer’s Mindset, Tips and Strategies to Avoid Procrastination, and Weekly Check-up to help you get going with your writing project and staying on track. These are the same videos that I share with my private clients on my Hands on Writing online course.

So, here is the link again. Click here to order your copy and I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

To your successful academic writing!

 

 

The Academic Writing Kit

The Academic Writing Kit

If you have been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that from time to time I post announcements of upcoming events, free webinars, and other offerings.

This post is one of those.

I just wanted to let you know of my new FREE 3-part Video Series The Academic Writing Kit.

The series is aimed at aspiring and ongoing PhD students and is meant to give you some advice on issues that most people seem to struggle with when it comes to questions such as:

  • how do I apply for a PhD program?
  • how do I write a research proposal to finally embark on my PhD project?
  • what does a PhD really entails?
  • what are the main challenges I’ll be facing?
  • what skills do I need to develop to succeed?
  • how do I write my PhD thesis?
  • how do I write a research paper?

If you also find yourself asking the same (or similar) questions, then you may want to register for The Academic Writing Kit.

The first video will be out tomorrow.

Look forward to connecting with you!

 

How to Structure Your Chapters in 3 Quick Steps

IMG_4298

One of the things inexperienced writers struggle the most with is getting the structure right!

And I’m not talking about… ‘first comes the introduction, then the literature review, then the methods, data analysis, results and so on’…

That’s the easy bit. Everyone gets that.

I’m talking about writing the actual chapters and arranging your content in a way that makes sense. That’s when the text suddenly loses its structure. And like a body without skeleton, the whole thing just falls apart.

If you constantly receive feedback along the lines… ‘this chapter is unclear’… ‘there are lots of repetitions’… ‘I cannot see where you are going here’… ‘what is the point you are trying to make?’… ‘I think these paragraphs completely lack focus’… chances are the problem may be in the structure (or rather lack thereof!).

In fact, these are just a few examples of the feedback some of the students I coach receive from their supervisors.

It is frustrating, both for the students and for their supervisor.

So what I try to do first and foremost when I work with these students is to take them through a process of creating a structure.

I do not claim that this is the only way to do it, but it works for me. And for my students.

I describe it here in the hope that it can help you too.

1. Make a mind map.

Mind maps are a great tool to quickly generate a comprehensive overview of what you want to put in your chapter. One of the main advantages of this approach is its ‘scalability’. You can use a mind map for your entire thesis, for an individual chapter, or even for a section. The principles remain exactly the same. If you have never done one before, here are some practical tips.

Take a piece of paper (landscape orientation works best) and write in the middle the core topic. For example, literature review, or data analysis, or the name of whatever other chapter you are working on.

From this central ‘node’, start drawing a line (just like the branch of a tree) and at its end write one of the topics that you want to include in this particular chapter. This could be one section. From there, branch out to other bits that should be included in that particular section: draw one branch per item. If appropriate, you may also link items with other lines, just to show that there is a connection or a relation between the two.

When you have exhausted all the topics for that section, move back to the main node (your chapter) and start another branch: a new section. Again branch out with its sub-branches to the various bits that will go into this other section.

Keep going until you think you have included all your key ingredients in your map.

For example, If you are trying to write a literature review to discuss the experience of women in the labor market in your country, your mind map may look something like this:

mind-map-draft

2. Revise your mind map to give it some structure

Most likely your mind map will look rather messy. That’s fine! That’s how is should be.

Remember, a mind map is a visual representation of what you have in your mind when it comes to ‘which items am I going to include/present/discuss in this chapter?’.

But probably, there will be far too many details that you do not want to have into the actual layout of your chapter.

So, an intermediate step may be needed before you get to your final goal (i.e. producing a layout of the chapter’s structure): re-arrange the various nodes and possibly cut down some branches.

This doesn’t mean you are going to leave out the corresponding topics from your text, but you will leave them out from your layout.

A revised version of your mind map may look like this:

mind-map-revised

3. Turn your mind map into a structured layout

Now it’s time to create your chapter’s layout. This is critical because it will provide the bare bones structure for your ‘meat’.

Unlike a mind map, a layout represents an ordered and logical (I repeat, ordered and logical) sequence of the topics in your chapter.

It will showcase the content in a way that should (ideally!) make sense for your reader.

So, this step now is all about looking at the mind map you have just produced and decide which box (with its branches) comes first (in a logical sequence).

Say you are describing the situation of women’s employment in your country and want to compare it to that in different welfare state types.

A good logical sequence would be to provide a brief general introduction about different welfare states FIRST, and THEN about the specific situation in your country. (Remember: always from the general to the specific)

Proceed like this until you have covered all the main nodes (and their main branches) in your mind map.

Your chapter layout may now look something like this (in fact, this is just an excerpt of the full chapter):

layout

Make sure your sections and sub-sections titles are clear and sufficiently descriptive so that your reader can quickly figure out what he/she can expect to find in them.

Eh voila’! Your chapter’s structure is laid out nicely before you.

At this point – I hope – it will become a lot easier to see what goes where and to write each section accordingly. You will avoid un-necessary repetitions and deliver your reader a much better (and clearer!) experience.

Also, once you know what the overall length of your document should be, you can plan more carefully for how many pages each section should be!

 

I hope this helps. If you have questions, please post them in the comments below.

[Note: the examples in this post were taken from real case drafts and have been reproduced with the author’s permission]

PS If you found this post useful, you may also like: City Maps and Theses Layouts, Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing, and What Can Celebrity Chefs Teach You About Writing

Reading About Writing: 7 Books You Should Have

Have you ever run a search for ‘Academic Writing’ books on Amazon?

I just have! And there are well over 15000 titles in the Paperback section alone!

No wonder you may get a little overwhelmed in case you want to buy one to improve your writing skills (a great idea, by the way, which I totally support).

So, I thought I’d give you a quick list of some of my favourite books on the topic.

I hope you’ll find the book that suits your needs. And if you have other titles to recommend, just post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Here is my list:

glasman-deal

 

H Glasman-Deal: Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English, Imperial College Press (2010)

A very clear and well-designed book that will take you step by step into the process of structuring the various sections of chapters in your research paper of thesis. Lots of useful tables with frequently used phrases of academic writing.

 

greene

 

A Greene: Writing Science in Plain English. The University of Chicago Press (2013)

A little gem of a book! A must-read for all (students and staff) who want to improve their writing by applying some simple and practical strategies. Plenty of examples (and ‘solutions’) for you to practice your skills.

 

goodson

 

P Goodson: Becoming an Academic Writer – 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful, Writing. SAGE Publishing Ltd (2013)

If you are short of ideas on practical things you can do to improve your writing, here you’ll find plenty of suggestions and examples.

 

sword

 

H Sword: The Writer’s Diet. Pearson New Zealand Ltd. (2007)

I just love the analogy between writing and eating! If you take the Writer’s Diet Test, but don’t get too disappointed with the results… It’s good fun to see at once where your writing is going wrong.

 

 

koerner

 

AM Koerner: Guide to publishing a scientific paper. Routledge (2008)

If you are new to publishing a research paper, this book will take you through every step in the process from choice of journal, to manuscript submission, to response to reviewers’ comments. Excellent advice even if you are not new to publishing!

 

strunk

 

W Strunk: Elements of Style. Dover Publications Inc. (2006)

A classic that never seems to go amiss. Some advice is probably outdated, but plenty is still valid today as it was almost hundred years ago, when the book first came out.

 

 

atkinson

 

I Atkinson: Copy. Righter. LID Publishing Ltd (2011)

Not exactly a book on academic writing. But there’s nothing wrong about borrowing some of the best tactics that highly successful copywriters use to hook their readers!