Friday, May 10, 2013

Speak Up!

Know what drives me nuts?

Louder, Yorick, I can't hear you!
Source: RSC
Sitting in the back of a seminar room after a fantastic talk.

I can never hear anyone's questions! 

We scientists aren't always the most talkative types, but you'd think we could eke out some volume when it counts, right?

Wrong. I can't tell you how often I've cupped my hand to my ear, leaned so far forward I'm nearly doubled over, and all I get are vague "Charlie Brown's teacher" noises directed at the seminar speaker.

Thoughts race through my head: "Was that my question? Will the speaker repeat it? Don't we have a microphone around???"

Well, let's try to set some ground rules to follow before the next occurrence.

Physiology - Ever take voice or speech classes? There's some easy steps to take to project your voice:

1. Prepare. Don't fumble for words or go 'round in logical circles. One of my colleagues writes his question down on paper before he asks, and then reads from the script. Try it.

2. Breathe. Before you speak, take a deep breath, filling bottom-to-top (diaphragm to chest). Your air supply governs your voice, so fill up!

3. Open up. Your soft palate, the tissue near the back and top of your mouth, needs to be open to allow your voice to resonate in your nasal cavities. One trick to accessing this space? Pretend to yawn, but stop yourself before you do. Feel that heightened, awake moment? That's the soft palate moving, permitting increased air flow.

4. Speak. Use full sentences, and make sure you're communicating the central point of your question. The goal is for the speaker - and the audience - to hear and understand what you're asking. Pause as necessary, using measured spaces between words to drive home important points.

Etiquette - Never just shout out your question, or attempt to cut someone else off while asking theirs.

It's not necessary to overly praise the speaker for his unbelievable oh-my-gosh best talk I've ever heard in my life so thoughtful and well-arranged, etc, etc. The speaker knows they're competent, or they wouldn't be at the front of the room, lecturing...

It's also unnecessary to show your wittiness and intellect by recounting your personal lab highlights, or how much literature you've read on the topic. It's the speaker's moment, not yours.

Always use common courtesy: "Please," "Thank You," "You're Welcome," "Professor," "Dr," "Sir," "Miss / Madame," "Excuse Me," "May I." A few gracious words in the right circumstance could catch the eye of a future collaborator or postdoc advisor.

All else fails? Ask the speaker after the talk, when you can get them one-on-one.

Readers: Have more tips for our seminar questioners? Talk to me in the comments!


  1. I've always been too shy at large conferences to ask questions. Not sure why, I love public speaking and I've loved every seminar or talk I've done. Maybe I'm afraid my question will have an obvious answer in the literature that everyone knows and I'd look like a fool for asking.

    But, I've always loved finding speakers after the session and chatting with them. To me that's what conferences are about. A good lecture/seminar/talk will introduce a topic, but it's not until you talk one-on-one that you really flesh out the really cool stuff. It's also a great compliment to the speaker to be approached about their work as well as a great way to network.

  2. I am apparently known for asking questions in seminars. I try to ask questions in seminars and conferences in order to engage the speaker and get clarity that I think the audience would appreciate, and because I am naturally curious and get excited about cool research.

    Of course, this burned me when I was a grad student. I asked a stupid question in front of an entire room of the biggest names in my field, and promptly got a veiled "that was really stupid of you" response from the speaker. I hope that most of them don't remember it! Since then I have been more careful about thinking of questions and asking them in seminars.

  3. "Professor," "Dr," "Sir," "Miss / Madame,"

    I would add "most benevolent overlord" to the list of salutations.

  4. I hate it when I can't hear the questions as well. I've noticed, and greatly appreciate, that some of the best speakers will repeat the question for the benefit of those who may not have heard it. This way the speaker makes sure he heard the question correctly, and gains a little time to formulate an answer. A great strategy I wish all speakers would adopt.