Tag Archives: women in academia

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.



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.

International Women’s Day: The Gender Agenda in Science and Engineering

A few days ago, I had the opportunity and pleasure to attend a very interesting lecture  – albeit with some depressing stats – by Prof Lesley Yellowlees on The Gender Agenda in Science and Engineering.

Lesley became the first woman President of the Royal Society of Chemistry in July 2012 and is currently Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. She was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to science, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2012.

Clearly, a very successful woman by all accounts.

Sadly, also one of the very few women to climb the highest ranks of an academic career in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) sector.

So, why are women so under-represented in STEM subjects?

What are the barriers they face from the moment they graduate?

And perhaps more importantly, what can be done to change the current status quo?

These are some of the questions that Lesley addresses in her lecture. And yes, things are changing. But slowly.

It’s been estimated that if we move at this rate, equality between female and male academics in STEM subjects will be achieved in 100 years from now! A bleak prospect. But at least in the right direction.

I hope you’ll enjoy the video.

More professors and better writing

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to tell you how to become a professor by improving your writing (though I suppose there could be a link), nor how to improve your writing if you are a professor (though that might also work!).

Rather, I am going to tell about two events that I have followed this week.

The first event, was a one-hour webinar on How to get more women professors hosted by Curt Rice, Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø, in Norway. The numbers speak for themselves. In Europe, 18% of full professors in universities are women. At the University of Tromsø, it’s almost 30%, making it one of the leading institutions in Europe. In a little more than ten years, they moved from being the worse-in-class university in Norway (in 2001, only 9% of full professors were women) to being the best one in the country. So, how did they do it? Simple. They invested in it and it worked. They called it The Promotion Project. And it was not about promoting more women to higher pay grades so as to boost their numbers. It was all about making sure women were properly supported and encouraged along the way. This involved bringing in additional teaching support; fostering opportunities for career development; freeing time for the participants (not just women!) to focus on specific high-priority activities (e.g. by granting a residential full week away from other commitments). Why did they do it? Two reasons, they claim. One: it is right. Think about fairness, role models, cultural change. Two: it is smart. Think about benefits to work environment, productivity, group intelligence. Of course, it required resources. Of course, it required effort. Of course, it required vision. But the potential benefits of improving the work gender balance, it appears, far outweighs the costs. Fascinating stuff!

For sure, gender equality issues and gender balance at work are among the top priorities of any policy making strategy at pretty much every institution I have come across. However, one thing is to set targets for increased proportion of women at the top level of the organisation. Another, is to put measures in place to achieve those targets in a guaranteed, consistent, and sustainable way. Sure enough, as Curt Rice points out, one needs to be clear about the “why” before thinking about the “how”. But the hope is that more universities will be willing to follow their example and take on a similar stance.

The second event, was a more down-to-Earth one. But as I happened to be the organiser and the host, I was really looking forward to it. The event consisted in three half-day workshops on Hands-on Writing aimed at PhD students in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. My aim was to help students realise that good scientific writing can be learned. That there are simple models and strategies that can be used to improve one’s writing style. That there is no big writing project that cannot be broken down into simpler, more manageable parts, once the structure has been properly laid out. It was fantastic to work with such engaged and motivated students and to receive such positive feedback from them.

The workshop was complemented by short sessions on productivity run by my colleague, Olga Degtyareva, a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and author of a blog on Peaceful Productivity for Creative Types. She shared her techniques on how to prevent becoming overwhelmed, stay on track, and avoid procrastination.

So, it has been a busy (and productive!) week. Hopefully, the skills that my students have learned will help them throughout their careers. Maybe, some of them will become professors one day. And maybe, they too will contribute to increase the number of women professors at their universities.

PS If you’d like to listen to Curt Rice’s webinar, you can get a copy at http://curt-rice.com. Also, note that he will be hosting another webinar on May 23rd (6pm, UK time) by the title “Skinny dipping with snapping turtles: Careers in academia.” Just follow the link to register or visit Curt Rice’s blog for more details.

PPS And if you want to improve your writing skills, just get in touch (use the Contact me form on the top of the page) and I will inform you when my online webinar on scientific writing becomes available.

Participants at the Hands on Writing Workshop