Massive update in the Devil’s dictionary!

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


all entries in the Devil’s dictionary are copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge.

abductor pollicis  (from the Latin) a person who goes around stealing thumbs. Not to be confused with abductor policies, which are contracts issued by health insurance companies to pay the legal fees of anyone who has been accused of organ theft.

accessoire  a technical term for anything that must be removed from the body before undergoing an examination with a magnetic resonance imaging machine. The term has been extended to refer to anything superfluous on the machine itself or anything around the lab that you want to get rid of, which is accomplished by turning on the magnet so that it will be sucked in and transported to an alternate universe.

biota  a pair of iotas (also known as smidgens) that have become fused together and pledge from that point on to pursue a strictly monogamous relationship. Biota can be dissolved by antibiotics, but only when prescribed by someone with dual degrees in medicine and theology.

basement membrane  a layer of fat molecules which anchors cells to a surface in hopes that they will not fly off during a tornado. If they can’t maintain a grip, they are advised to crawl under cars or heavy organs.

blepheronous  any regrettable event involving eyelids.

catheterization the penetration of a cheek, the soft palette, tonsils or throat by a drinking straw which was in a soft drink until the automobile accident, which was caused by a driver texting on a cell phone. At the moment the straw penetrates living tissue it becomes a catheter. In medicine the term has generalized and is now widely applied to any hollow tube inserted by force into a place in the body, either intentionally or by accident, that causes pain and an inappropriate release of fluids that belong there, or an introduction of fluids that do not. In medical practice cell phones often play some role in catheterization as well, but their involvement is not a defining criterion.

disblepheronia  a major disease diagnosed in anywhere from 14 to 1 billion people per year, whose mechanisms are poorly understood and for which there is an urgent need for the development of novel, rational, effective, global, inexpensive therapies, which hopefully don’t cause more trouble than the problem they aim to solve. A person suffering from disblepheronia loses the coordination between the blinking of the eyelids, which is often interpreted as winking in inappropriate and offensive situations.

first  in a list, the word used to introduce the item that lies between zeroth and secondly. If at a later point in time the author discovers that an item which belongs higher on the list has been omitted, the use of negative numbers is permitted: negative secondly, negative first, negative 0.5, etc.

flavonoid  secret substances invented by chemists in laboratories of the Ronald McDonald Corporation that render people addicted to fast food and trigger the onset of diabetes, or simply inflate them to the point that the only vehicle they will fit into is a Humvee, which they purchase as a means of traveling to the next fast food restaurant. Flavonoids have made hamburger joints major contributors to global warming: on one end through the vast quantities of methane produced by cows, and on the other through the fossil fuels used to transport addicts to their next fix.

founder effect  also known as the confounder effect. The behavior of the parent, creator or inventor of something (such as a child, a machine or an institute) who continues to meddle with it long after he or she has supposedly left it in the hands of successors. Should not be confused with flounder effect, which refers to schools of fish that have lost their way and just swim aimlessly around until one of them finds the exit. There is, however, a connection: founders often intervene in the activities of their creations after developing the impression that they are floundering.

gap junction  a sort of trailer hitch device on the exterior of cells which evolved to permit them to tow around recalcitrant neighbors. If the cell tries to tow a heavy partner and is unable to achieve the force and traction necessary to move it, then the rules of physics apply and the gap junction has an anchoring function. Gap junctions played a crucial role in the development of multicellular organisms because at some point a tissue achieves the critical mass that makes it inert, and it can no longer be dragged from the sofa.

gel  a product used to cultivate bacteria in a person’s hair, designed so that they can carry their work with them and don’t have to go to the lab on weekends

glossalgia  a thick formation of algae on the tongue, usually transferred there by a finger which has been licked to turn the pages of a moldy lexicon.

Magnetic resonance imaging  a tool widely used in medical diagnosis to detect whether you have swallowed something made of metal, or have a metal implant, or are holding up your pants with safety pins, or if the government has implanted a microchip in your brain, or if you are trying to smuggle a cell phone into a hospital by hiding it under your gown. The instrument is also useful for completely erasing the hard disks of computers when, for example, you wish to retract an email that you sent to colleagues without due reflection.

metacarpal  having to do with abstract, highly theoretical reflections on the nature of carp or the role of this fish in an ecosystem or the universe as a whole.

mucin  a glibberous substance produced by snails which enter the body, generally during the night, and leave trails in the lining of the nose and across other surfaces of bodily membranes. Mucin has antibacterial properties because microorganisms find it equally disgusting.

multigene family  a group of individuals related by heredity who have had so many children they are too tired to think up new names and simply end up calling everyone “Gene”. Sometimes seen in the forms multieugene or multieugenia.

multiplexing  a psychological trauma which occurs when visitors to a Cineplex are (usually inadvertently) shown multiple 3D films at the same time. This causes collisions of plots in which, for example, space ships buzz around the heads of cartoon characters until they are dismembered by chain-saw wielding psychopaths, and then the fragments are served to visitors in a diner at night, in a submarine, just before the ship is consumed by mutant zombie macrophages from Mars.

myalgia  a chronic condition in which something that happened millions of years ago (mya) continues to cause pain, generally in the muscles. Myalgia is commonly found among paleontologists who try to lift dinosaur bones after forgetting that they have become mineralized and weigh more than you’d think.

ooopossum  the oocyte of an opossum

polycarpic  any process in which several carp, a species of fish, engage in a mutual activity, such as feasting on toes that have been inserted into the water by people sitting on the bank of a river or lake.

rhinoviruses  viruses whose natural hosts are rhinoceroses, typically migrating to the highest point of the horn, where they cluster and wait for someone to grind it into powder. When eaten, this powder causes an infection and fever that are sometimes mistaken for a temporary increase in sexual potency.

smudge  a subpopulation of a microbiome that is deposited on a surface such as glass, usually by a finger or nose, where it forms an oily colony that is visible to the naked eye.

If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD





The Devil’s dictionary, Aug. 15, 2017

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including glabella, pterydactyly, etc.

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge

glabella  the region of a face at the top of the bridge of the nose that separates the eyebrows from each other, on the generic human face. Overall, humans can be divided into two groups: glabella positive (having two distinct eyebrows) and glabella negative (having only one). Polyglabellous refers to those with two or more glabella, and people entirely lacking eyebrows are described as hyperglabellous, unless this is the result of a disease such as glabellitis. The medical literature reports a few cases of paraglabella, in which individuals’ eyebrows have migrated to unusual places on their faces, such as below the eyes (also known as basal glabella), or arranged themselves vertically on either side of the eyes (paranthetical glabella).

directed mutagenesis  any method of artificially altering the genes of an organism that involves a musical score and a conductor in a tuxedo.

-dactyly  having to do with the fingers. The root has been enhanced to create the following terms:

polydactyly  orignally, the ability to play the piano with more than one finger. Nowadays the word is also used for touch typing or the capacity to type text messages with more than just the index finger.

brachydactyly  the ability to play the piano or type despite having very short fingers. Performers are permitted to use alternate fingerings, as well as their toes, if the work contains intervals they are unable to reach.

pterodactyly  the ability to play the piano while wearing wings, such as when a performer is wearing an angel costume. Also applies to birds that have been taught to play the piano or to send text messages, which happens more often than you think.

aquadactyly  moving splayed fingers through a liquid, such as while swimming badly, or stirring your coffee with your fingers when you haven’t been provided with a spoon.

pastadactyly  to eat or strain spaghetti without the aid of utensils, using exclusively fingers.

peridactyly  pertaining to or residing in the empty space between the fingers. Recent studies indicate that an individual’s peridactylic environment is unique and contains its own microbiome.

psychodachtyly  unconscious movements of the fingers which occur while imagining playing the piano, flute, or another instrument.

omnidactylic  any process which requires the use of all ten fingers at the same time, such as kneeding dough, washing hair, squeezing breasts, or gestures made upon being startled.

quotadactyliac  a person with the annoying habit of using the fingers to form quotation marks in the air when quoting someone or to indicate that a phrase is being used ironically.

autodactyly  activities in which the fingers have learned to perform on their own, without the involvement of the brain or consciousness. Scratching an itch, picking lice from a spouse’s hair, or texting on a cell phone are all examples of autodactylic behavior.

single nucleotide polymorphism  a case in which a letter generally found at a specific location in the genetic code (or another text) has been replaced by another letter. This can change the phenotype of the organism. In the following text, for example:

“The barn is fallin’ apart”

Replacing the letter “a” with an “e” produces the following text:

“The bern is fellin’ epert”

and changes the speaker from an American to a Scotsman.


If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

On the publication of “Remote sensing” by the magazine Occulto


Tips for reducing talk anxiety (2b, more responses to reader comments)

This is a follow-up to the original piece.


Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa wrote: Well, if you are an introvert, your brain goes haywire with the great stimulation given by larger audiences (an introvert’s mind needs less stimulation to have the same level of understanding about a situation). Controlling it is more important, according to psychologists, before thinking about the points given in the blog. Only when the stimulation is controlled you can control other things. That is why introverts try to hide behind something, look at their papers or at the screen instead of the audiences in the initial stages. They try to reduce the stimulation by doing so.
I would be grateful to you if you could give tips on how to reduce this ‘too much stimulation’ issue.


Hi Krishna – an excellent point! My experience with students suggests that there are surely “types”, such as those you call introverts, who dislike being the focus of attention and whose brains experience an exaggerated response that powerfully influences their bodies and behavior in public presentations and similar situations. Usually giving them help requires close observation, then developing an individual plan of practice that addresses specific behavioral symptoms – like those mentioned in the earlier post. This will take time and patience. Here, too, it can be useful to help them focus on the content of their presentation, and this is a theme to be covered in a future post. That said, I’m not a psychologist, and some types of anxiety clearly have very deep roots that need to be addressed therapeutically before any satisfying “cure” is really achieved.

But still there are things that can help: It’s crucial to try to define the parameters of the problem as precisely as possible. Are there any situations in which the person manages to handle their anxiety? Are they equally affected if they give the presentation to two or three close friends, or their lab? Is one of the issues trust: with people they know, does a fear of disapproval or a negative response disappear? If they can handle small groups, then this can become a cornerstone of practice. They need to give the talk as often as possible in such settings in a way that helps them internalize the positive effects and extend the experience to situations with larger audiences.

Personally I learned something about this through music. My first violin teacher, Lewis Hoyt, said that one of his teachers had always told him to imagine the heads in the audience as cabbages! Later he began studying through a new method which took exactly the opposite approach – enjoying the presence of an audience and fully engaging them as human beings in your personal music, work, or story. Over the long term, if one can manage it, this tends to work better than pretending like they aren’t there.

Your point about “control” reminds me of the student I discussed in point 9 of the original article – where the issue was managing all of the ideas bombarding his brain and the flow of the content. A few simple strategies to ensure that you can stay on track (point 8) and won’t get lost go a great way toward reinforcing confidence. The trick is to extend them to behaviors that are really hard to control: blushing, stammering, shaking, etc.

Each speaker needs to build on the strengths she/he has and use them to support areas of weakness. Can you tell a joke? Can you tell a funny little personal story about something that happened during the project? If some weird little accident happens, can you improvise and get people to laugh? There are lots of potential methods to change the atmosphere – disasrming a stressful situation – which can almost instantly relieve a lot of the tension. As a teacher or speaker you may have to dig deep into the rhetorical repertoire to find something that works, but there’s often something there to draw on.

A lot more needs to be said about this; I’ll keep thinking about it, and the comments on the piece have been extremely helpful in pulling out essential points for consideration. I’ll be teaching several courses over the next couple of months and will be able to report more specific examples from actual practice.


If you like these pieces, you might be interested in the article:

“The Dinner Party: Learning to explain your work to a general audience can make you a better scientist.”


If you’d rather enter the bizarre, twilight world where science collides with humor, check out the Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases, or the text of a talk I gave in Oslo in 2015, plus everything else in the categories “Hilarious moments in science communication” or satire.


And if you haven’t yet seen the most popular post so far from this blog, check out the “God” article:  “Even God’s first paper got rejected.

Tips for reducing talk anxiety (part 2a, first feedback from readers)

Wow! The article on performance anxiety is getting a lot of traction; thanks very much for the feedback and I’m hoping for a lot more. (See the full article here or just scroll down if you’ve landed at the blog main page. Click here for a list of other pieces devoted to teaching and training.)

Two readers have provided tips that I include here with a couple of comments:

From Jennifer Kirwan, the head of the Metabolomics Unit at the Berlin Institute of Health, come two pointers:

Two tips I was given years ago when public speaking:

1)      Never ever use a laser pointer or wooden stick. Instead, use powerpoint animations to circle or otherwise highlight the point of interest. Not only does this eliminate the issue of shaky hand syndrome, but it also serves to engage your audience more as frequently people have to struggle to see the laser dot on the screen, especially when it’s moving.

2)      Many people tend to find they blush when faced with public speaking. We were advised if we have this problem to wear clothes that cover our shoulders and avoid low cut clothes. It makes the blushing less obvious and, if you are less worried about people seeing you blush, you’re less likely to start.

Great points. A couple of remarks:
To 1: It’s absolutely true that the spot from a laser pointer can be hard to see – especially under certain lighting conditions and on some slide backgrounds. And a pointer can be terribly distracting in the hands of speakers with that awful habit of drawing really fast circles around the thing they want you to look at. (…which may be an unconscious strategy they’ve adopted to hide trembling – or the effect of a major caffeine overdose). And the pointer is often a lazy person’s way of compensating for a slide that’s crammed with too much information, or whose design is unclear and hard to scan. (And, of course, if the audience is looking at the laser dot, they won’t be looking at you.)
Caveats: Some people (including me) aren’t very fond of PowerPoint. I’m not as fanatical about this as other people (including the peerless Edward Tufte), but they make very good points. It’s crucial to map out content and your message before you choose the template for each slide and the talk in general. When you do, you’ll often find that none of the templates really fits. Most people do it the other way around. They pick some template, or simply start with the default that some other user set up long ago, and try to fit their information into it. This can impose a structure on the message that doesn’t fit it at all, and you may not even be aware of it.
But for anyone who does use PowerPoint, or another system with similar animation features, Jennifer’s advice has some clever added benefits. Picking spots to animate or highlight will force you to plan a rhetorical path through the information on the slide – those points represent the key landmarks in this chapter of your story. Defining that path can help you distinguish important information from unnecessary details, showing you things that can be left out. (General rule: leave out as much as possible, and then a little bit more.) Animations can also help during your presentation. If, God forbid, you do have a blackout, the next highlight will point you back into the story.
Even so, I would always have a pointer on hand: you may need it for other reasons. Someone may pose a question that requires you to return to a slide and focus on something you haven’t anticipated; you may need to point it out for the rest of the audience. Secondly, something can happen that makes you abandon your original plan. If time gets short you may need to skip things
Suppose, for example, the topic of the last speaker overlaps with yours. You  may want to build a bridge between the talks that you hadn’t anticipated: “The previous speaker addressed this question at the level of the transcriptome. At the level of the proteome, however, we didn’t see any upregulation of pathway components – as you can see here, and here.” (Since the focus of your talk is slightly different, you hadn’t highlighted those particular molecules.)
To 2); I really like Jennifer’s second point about using your wardrobe to cover blushing. That makes great sense.
(Although in my personal case, I’d need a different strategy, being the kind of person who rarely bares his shoulders or exposes much cleavage during a talk. Maybe I could wear a bright scarlet suit that made my face look pale, or go to the Solarium and get a mild sunburn beforehand, or blind the audience with my laser pointer, etc. etc. … Sorry, Jennifer, I couldn’t resist.)

The second comment came from my friend and former colleague Alan (aka Rex) Sawyer, and is interesting on several levels: cultural, pharmacological, and rhetorical:

I needed this advice 25 years ago while preparing for my first paid gig as a counter-tenor soloist (Friedenskirche, Handschusheim, Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 4, “Christ Lag in Todesbanden”). But what broke the ice as I went on stage was that the stagehand had failed to provide a seat for me. The audience laughed good-humouredly, which totally banished my case of nerves as it got the audience on my side. Later I got a top tip to eat three bananas about an hour before going on stage. Bananas contain trace quantities of a natural beta blocker. The effect is subtle, but it really works.
To that I can only say: if you’re already taking beta blockers, consult your physician before eating bananas; otherwise you may be comatose when it comes time to give your talk. Wait several hours before operating any heavy equipment. A laser pointer is probably safe.
And don’t get confused and eat three watermelons by mistake. The effects might resemble those of another pharmaceutical product: reports claim that a substance called citrulline in watermelon acts as a sort of natural Viagra. Although you’d probably have to eat an awful lot of it to experience the effects. And at that point, you might not want to walk onstage to give a talk.
If you like these pieces, you might be interested in the article:
If you’d rather enter the bizarre, twilight world where science collides with humor, check out the Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases, or the text of a talk I gave in Oslo in 2015, plus everything else in the categories “Hilarious moments in science communication” or satire.

Tips for reducing talk anxiety (part 1)

This is part of a series of articles on the blog (a few already published, more in the works) devoted to didactics and the communication of science (and other things). I am currently working on a handbook that includes ideas such as these and explores in depth the myriad problems of presenting content. More pieces to come on that.

The tips given here are related to performance anxiety and represent just a sample of things I’ve learned from my own excellent teachers, from my experience in training lots of scientists and other types of speakers, from my own experiences in public speaking, and from the process by which I completely eliminated my own stage fright when performing as a musician (yes, it’s possible – and that’s when the fun and the real music begin!). In the courses I give we always find a way to adapt these principles to individuals and their problems.

Please help me by contributing your own experiences and tips, so we can build a useful, very practical resource that will help as many students and teachers as possible! I will add your points to the list and mention their sources!

The first step in learning is to identify any barriers that exist – to define the problem as clearly as possible. So it’s crucial to carry out some self-exploration: you need to carefully study your own body in situations of fear, anxiety and stress.

These mental and physical techniques require practice, and they work best if you imagine yourself as concretely as possible in the environment you will face when giving a talk. Visualise the room – ideally, visit it ahead of time, and maybe go to another talk there. Sit toward the back and listen. If you can’t visit the room, then imagine various scenarios: a large classroom, an intimate seminar room, a packed auditorium, an almost empty auditorium.

Next close your eyes and imagine the moment before you are invited to speak. Imagine someone getting up and introducing you; you’re sitting there and will be headed onstage in 30 seconds. Find out if possible whether you will be standing or sitting down; imagine the size of the audience you will be facing, mentally prepare for a moment where the beamer doesn’t work and needs to be fiddled with, if the microphone suddenly doesn’t work, etc. Have some strategy for “vamping” the time, with a joke or some other device that engages the audience. (“While we’re waiting, I’d like to conduct an informal survey about a question of tremendous scientific relevance: Where does that stuff in your belly button come from, anyway?” There’s actually a very interesting study out about this… )

  1. Nervousness is usually accompanied by various physiological and mental symptoms, and here the goal is to deal with common and specific symptoms such as stress and tension, a nervous voice, a wavy pointer, and blackouts. By removing these symptoms you can trick your body into thinking it’s comfortable, and the cognitive issues often fade along with them. But there are clear strategies for dealing with blackouts, too.
  2. The first step is to try to replicate the condition of your body when you’re nervous, by imagining you’re in the situation, or remembering the feelings you had the last time.
  3. Anxiety is usually marked by muscle tension in very specific parts of your body. The first goal is to be aware of their positions and consciously relax them. My own technique is very simple: I totally relax my ankles, letting go of all tension in my ankles and then my feet. When I do this – and it’s true for most other people as well – it is very hard to maintain tension anywhere else – in my back, my vocal chords, etc. Try it – totally relax your ankles, and while doing so try to make a muscle tense in your back, or your arms. If it’s difficult, that means you can use this approach as well. If not, you need to find some other part of your body that you can deliberately relax and thus force yourself to relax the stressed muscles as well. Stand up and relax your ankles. This should be the first thing you do after you’re standing at the lecturn or whatever, and you’ll have to practice remembering to do it.
  4. Remember that the first 30 seconds or so of a talk are less about the content than about the audience learning to listen to your voice and style. If you realize that, then you realize that it’s also a time that you can use to get comfortable. First of all, BREATHE. Then speak SLOWLY and CLEARLY and have a clear strategy prepared to invite your listeners to engage with you right from the beginning. This is something you have to practice as well – people are usually most nervous at the beginning of a talk, and that’s when they usually talk the fastest. Additionally, for predictable reasons, they tend to say the highly technical terms they are most familiar with the fastest – and these are just the words that need to be spoken the most clearly and distinctly. Practice the beginning of your talk with a metronome or by slowly pacing around in a way that forces you to slow the rate of syllables as you speak. You’ll have to practice this a lot of times until you instinctively start slowly rather than with the rush of nervousness.
  5. Engagement #1: try to engage the listeners at the very beginning. Before you speak, look around at some of their faces and smile. If you’re not fixed to a podium or a position at the front, move toward them, as if you’re in a more informal setting.
  6. Engagement #2: if possible, start off with a real question that interests you and has motivated the work, if you can find one that’s general enough to be grasped by the entire audience. Why? If you’re lucky, they’ll actually try to come up with an answer in their own minds, or focus on the question. This immediately draws the audience into the content, rather than a focus on you and your behavior. At that point you’ve engaged them in the subject matter. If they really try to answer the question, they’ll think something like, “Oh, that’s interesting; I would have tried to do it this way…” and you’ll immediately have set up a dialogue that will continue throughout the talk and will provide plenty of good feedback at the end.
  7. Engagement #3: Rhetorically speaking, most data slides are also shown to answer specific questions. (“Does protein A interact with protein B?” Well, to find out, here’s what we did. You see the results here, which provides the following answer…) Unfortunately, most speakers don’t realize that this is what’s happening. They use the ANSWER to the question as the title of the slide, and often start trying to explain the answer before clearly presenting either the question, the methodology, and the results. This confuses the rather simple story-line inherent in the slide. It can also disrupt the talk as a whole because an answer (end of slide) usually stimulates the next question (beginning of next slide). You don’t have to make all the titles of your slides questions, but you should realize this is what is going on (and actually, why not do it?). It has the benefit of gluing separate slides together in a smooth story. And it also can stop a big problem that occurs if the order of information on a slide is different from the order you are using while speaking. When that happens, people are trying to read and listen at the same time, are getting different information from those two channels, and probably won’t remember anything.
  8. Boiling a talk down into a big question and many sub-questions can have a huge effect on anxiety when you’re worried about content blackouts. All you need to remember (or have on tiny cards in your hand) are the questions. You know the answers – that’s what you’ve been doing for the past 100 years. The question-answer method serves to create a real dialogue that engages the public and also an outline of your talk.
  9. Practice other specific performance problems that you are aware of. The first step in finding a cure is to identify what has been disrupted at the right level (it’s just like practicing music that way). A while back I had a student who was having what looked like blackouts during a talk. Later he explained that they weren’t blackouts – instead, every idea was bombarding his brain at once, and he couldn’t figure out where to start. I suggested a method by which he put up a slide and practiced fixing his eyes precisely on the thing he would talk about first, then moving them to the next thing, and so on. The very next day he gave a talk in front of 400 people without a single glitch or “brain freeze.”
  10. Shaky voice. If your voice quavers or trembles while you speak, the problem may be tension in some part of your body (see number 3 above). Often there is another problem, especially (but not only) if you are speaking in a foreign language. You may be pitching your voice too high or too low, which puts tension on your vocal cords and that will extend into your face and throat and shoulders and then the rest of your body – and then you’re doomed! This often happens in a foreign language, where people sometimes choose a “base pitch” (the tone – in a musical sense – at which you would speak if you were talking in a monotone) that is at the wrong place of the spectrum. This is really likely to happen if you subjectively consider your voice too high or too low (to be “sexy”) and try to place it differently. How do you know the right base pitch that your voice should have? A friend who has become a well-known speech pathologist gave me this tip. Go to a piano, and find the highest and lowest keys that you can comfortably The appropriate ground tone for your voice should be between the half-way mark and a third of the way from the bottom of this range. If you try to speak at a pitch that’s too low, you’ll experience the “creaky voice” phenomenon. If your voice is too high, in general, you’ll strain your vocal chords and eventually get hoarse or lose your voice. If either of these things happens to you anyway on a regular basis, you may be pitching your everyday voice too high or low. Also try different volumes of voice. You may arrive in a big room with no microphone, and you’ll have to project. Aim your voice at the person in the back, without shouting at the people in the front row. Your diaphragm and vocal cords have the potential to cause all the air in the room to vibrate and communicate your message. Singing teachers know the secrets of projection. I don’t, but it has a lot to do with breathing deeply and comfortably, and not tightening your throat or larynx.
  11. Shaky pointer syndrome. The reason a pointer shakes is because of tension in the muscles that control your arm and hand. The solution is to let your shoulder hang, without any muscular activity from the back or upper arm, and imagine that all the weight is on your elbow, and that it’s sitting on a table. Now use only the muscles you need to raise your forearm (preserving this feeling of all the weight in your elbow) and aim the pointer at a spot on the wall. Let it remain on the same point for a while. If it shakes, there’s probably some tension still in your upper arm (it’s really hard to make the forearm tense if your upper arm and shoulder are relaxed). Once you can hold the point relatively still, try moving it back and forth in a horizontal line. Here, too, you should imagine that your elbow is resting on the table, taking all the weight from your shoulder, and you’re just sliding your forearm back and forth.
  12. Those nerdy, highly technical slides… Although most scientists tell me that nowadays, most of the talks they give are to mixed, non-specialist audiences, you’re bound to have a few slides that are complex or obscure and you won’t have time to teach people “how to read them.” Example: I’m working with scientists who are developing mathematical models of biological processes, and at some point in their talks they want to show the real deal – math and formulas. They know a lot of people will be intimidated by this, but they still need to show the real work. On the other hand, they don’t want people to “tune out” and give up on understanding the rest of the presentation. At this point what I recommend is to say something like, “Now my next slide is specially made for you math nerds out there; the rest of you can take a short mental vacation and I’ll pick you up in just a minute on the other side.”
  13. Imagine the “personality” you’ll project when you become the leading expert in your field. Pretend like you’ve given the talk a hundred times to enormous success, and now you’re on the lecture circuit, giving it to audiences that think you’re the Greatest and are eager to provide input and their own ideas. How will you look up there? What kind of voice will you have? What types of rhetorical devices can you use to project “modest authority”? When a musician has practiced and practiced a piece for months, and gets stuck, sometimes all you have to do to make the next big step is to imagine what it will sound like when you play it a year from now. If you can imagine that, as concretely as possible, usually the next time you play it will be much closer to that vision. The same thing goes for giving talks.
  14. Criteria for success… If I give someone directions to a party, there’s a simple test that reveals whether I’ve done a good job or not – whether they arrive on time, on the right day… What’s the equivalent for a talk? (Pause while you think about it a minute…) The best answer I’ve heard is this: Imagine you leave the room and there’s somebody waiting outside who says, “Damn! I really wanted to hear that talk; what did he/she say?” At that point a member of the audience should be able to give the person a short summary, and it should fit two criteria: 1) the speaker would agree with it, and 2) most members of the audience should give very similar answers. As a speaker, how do you ensure that this happens? Well, the most obvious way – which few people really ever consider – is to close your talk by saying this: “Now imagine when you leave the room, there’s somebody standing outside who tells you, ‘Damn, I really wanted to hear that talk; what did he/she say?’ Well, here’s what you should tell them…” And then sum it up in a nice little package that’s tight enough to be remembered, with a clean, predictable story line. Remember you’re not trying to simply communicate single facts! You’re trying to answer a question – which you have to be able to articulate very precisely – and you need to explain the meaning of that question in terms of models and concepts that you share with the audience. You need to put information into a structure that can be grasped and remembered, in a way that holds the attention of the audience and engages their intelligence. This means you have to provide information in a relational, coherent structure – and if they don’t share your background and models, you’ll have to provide it. If you do that, you’ll get the kind of smart questions and feedback you’d like, the kind that will help you improve your thinking and your research.

The last points relate to content, which will be the subject of more articles very soon.

ALL of these points require practice – numerous repetitions while mentally imagining the real-life situation as it will feel, as closely as possible. You may always feel anxious before or during a talk; it may never go away. But most people can deal with the symptoms, using strategies like these, and that makes all the difference.

Two final points: First, remember what it’s like to be in the audience when a speaker is really nervous. Everybody is rooting for him or her – they’re on your side! Take comfort in that and try to engage people in the sense that “you’re all in this together”: you’re inviting them to think about an interesting question with you, rather than waiting for them to throw rocks (or shoes) at you.

Secondly, you’ve got to be engaged in the content. Even when you think your story isn’t that great or sexy, or leaves lots of questions up in the air – well, that’s what most science is like, folks! Remember that you’re presenting something that has an inherent interest to a lot of scientists. And negative results are useful as well because they can save your colleagues a lot of time; it will prevent them from following the same old leads, time and time again, without realizing that other labs have tried and failed and been unable to publish their results. Closing off blind alleys is a great service to scientists everywhere – it’s a key step toward progress by forcing people to rethink and revise the basic models they are using.

These are some of the very basics I’ve learned through experience in many performance situations of my own as well as working with a lot of students with different problems over the years. I have learned a lot from the fantastic teachers I have had the privilege of studying with (and continue to do so in the life-long process of learning). I also absorbed a lot from a fantastic book about performance anxiety, whose focus is music but every bit of it is applicable to public speaking, which I highly recommend here:

The Inner Game of Music
Overcome obstacles, improve concentration and reduce nervousness to reach a new level of musical performance
Barry Green with Timothy Gallwey (co-author of the Inner Game of Tennis)
London: Pan Books, 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4472-9172-5

At Amazon, also available on Kindle

For other articles on science communication teaching, click here.