The Woman Physicist’s Guide to Speaking


Heidi Newberg

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

July 29, 2004


            One of the most difficult and important skills for scientists of any gender is giving lectures.  Public speaking is a learned skill that requires practice, effort, and building up confidence.  Lectures are a tremendous opportunity to tell other scientists what you have accomplished, and to influence scientific discovery.  Lectures on research are required in job interviews for all scientist-level positions.  In a lecture, a large group of people pays attention to you and your accomplishments for typically 50 minutes, during which they are going to form some opinion about your ability as a scientist.

            Women know that the way we dress has a big effect on others’ first impression of us, and there are many pitfalls involved with dressing to give a lecture.  The most serious wardrobe mistake that can be made by a young woman giving a professional talk is to wear clothing that is designed to make men think about sex.  While you might get away with plunging necklines, bare midriffs, low-cut pants, shirts without sleeves, mini-skirts, spiked heels, and overly dangly jewelry in other contexts, even in the workplace, this clothing is far too distracting for a presentation in which you are already the focus of attention.  Wearing suggestive clothing is guaranteed to focus your audience on various parts of your anatomy, rather than listening to the message you are trying to communicate.  This is confusing to young women, since women are routinely expected to wear such things when they dress up for a “formal occasion.”  When men dress up for work, they wear a suit.  When men dress up for romance, they wear a suit.  Women must make a distinction here between appropriate professional clothing, which can look feminine and pretty but not sexy, and appropriate dating-wear, which is supposed to look sexy if you want it to work.  I have been at talks in which a young woman has worn clothing that is so distracting that even I have had some difficulty paying attention to what she was saying – and of course when she was finished there was not a single question from the audience.  One of the ways a speaker measures the success of her talk is by the quantity and quality of the questions received at the end.  If there are no questions, then people either are not interested or had absolutely no idea what you were saying.

            The pitfalls of dressing for lectures do not end here.  The first thing that happens when you stand up to give your lecture is that the organizer or session chair hands you a microphone.  Women typically do not have the deep booming voices that carry over lecture halls, and should use amplification at every opportunity; there is nothing worse than preparing and delivering a perfectly inaudible lecture.  The microphone comes with an alligator clip that is designed to attach to the front of a button-down shirt such as is being worn by most men giving talks, and a battery pack that clips to the pocket, belt, or pants waist included in all male attire.  Women who are not prepared for this often start their talks with an awkward exchange with the session chair while they try to figure out how this apparatus might be attached.  I used to wear men’s plaid or striped short sleeved shirts and Land’s End khaki pants for lectures, since the alligator clips used to only clip in the direction that men’s button-down shirts open.  Short sleeved men’s shirts look like they could be women’s shirts when worn by women, but the extra-long sleeves and wide wrist closures on men’s long sleeved shirts make them difficult to feminize.  Nowadays, most of the microphone clips can be switched from one orientation to the other, so they can be clipped on to women’s shirts as well.  If you wear a skirt or pants made of a sturdy fabric, then you have a waistband on which the battery pack can be clipped.  Once I wore silk pants when giving a talk, and the battery pack bulged out on the side, threatening to rip out the pocket.  When speaking, I usually wear a wool or cotton skirt, a cotton button-down shirt, and a jacket or vest.  If the alligator clip cannot be attached to my shirt for any reason, it can be clipped to the jacket or vest.  Fashion boots can be easily worn with a skirt, and if chosen well are a comfortable and secure alternative to heels, which are a trip hazard when nervous and walking on polished floors crisscrossed with temporary wiring.

            It is important to test both the verbal and visual presentation of your talk before giving it.  Beginning speakers should always practice their talks before giving them (once for hour long talks, 3 times for 20 minute talks, and 12 times for 5 minute talks).  Your advisors probably finish their talks the night before or on the plane on the way to the conference, but they only get away with this after long practice and because each talk at this stage in their careers is not as critical.  Good speakers make all of their most important points in the allotted time, with sufficient time left over for questions.  The shorter the talk, the more planning this requires.  If the presentation is being made with transparencies, the important points can be written on Post-It notes attached to each slide as a reminder.  PowerPoint slides can be printed out in thumbnail size with reminders written next to each slide.  In most cases you can put these on the table next to your laptop.  Alternatively you can write your points on 3x5 cards and hold them in one hand.  You should practice your talk once in front of friends or co-workers who can offer you constructive suggestions.  Listen constructively to any criticism, and revise your talk in any way you feel is beneficial.  Live audiences give you a better assessment of how your talk will come off under pressure.  These practice talks are often more difficult because you feel silly explaining your project to a group of people who know most of the information already, but they are necessary for beginning speakers.

Always test your visuals enough before the presentation to make changes if necessary.  If possible, these should be tested in the room in which the presentation will be given.  Photographs are often difficult to make out on overhead transparencies (and black transparencies heat up quickly).  Computer projected (e.g. PowerPoint) slides often appear different colors in the projector than on your laptop, and innumerable technical problems can be encountered with connection cords, screen resolutions, operating system incompatibilities, movies that will not load or play, etc.  Sometimes conference organizers request electronic copies of the talk ahead of time since they will be played on local equipment.  Sometimes the speaker brings the talk on her own laptop.  In either case, the visuals should be tested by the speaker on the same equipment that will be used for the talk, enough in advance so that technical problems may be addressed.  As a backup, always have a copy of the talk on separate electronic media (CD, memory clip, etc.) or available for electronic transfer over the Worldwide Web.  Alternatively, the most important visuals can be printed out as transparencies.  If you are traveling to speak, your talk should come with you in your carry-on luggage.

            When young women start their talks, the first words are often an apology or self-deprecating comment of some sort.  I once saw a young woman win one of a handful of national awards for astronomy given out once per year at the American Astronomical Association.  In her first sentence, she declared that the judges had made a big mistake in choosing her for the award.  Although I think this was supposed to be partly a joke, it was also a statement of her recognition that the research for which she was receiving an award was really the combined work of many minds and fingers.  As women, we tend to see scientific endeavor as a web of activity, and to work in groups to accomplish a common goal.  It is somewhat foreign for us to think about distinguishing ourselves - moving ourselves up through a ranking or pecking order.  The boys learned these techniques on the playgrounds.  We were instead learning empathy, understanding our emotions, and helping each other in daily chores.  It is true that for any award there may be many others as equally deserving of the award as the person who received it, and that no great scientific discovery is really the result of just one person’s work and ideas.  However, each of those awards is deserved.

            With each general tendency I identify between the way women and men conduct their lives, I ask myself whether this trait makes women less capable as scientists.  Working together in daily chores can be an advantage to the pursuit of new knowledge.  However, the expressions of self-doubt are distracting and serve little purpose in a lecture.  It is somewhat of a taboo in a circle of women to assert or assume that you know everything.  It is a sign of weakness for men to question their own abilities.  If a woman shows through her words and manner that even she does not believe in her own abilities, then a man will find it quite reasonable that he should not believe in them, either.  So don’t start out communicating your self-doubt, and don’t slip it in periodically as you speak.  Listen to yourself when you practice the talk, and make sure you sound confident.

            A particularly important example of why the male way of thinking can be a real asset to communication involves answering a simple question posed about research results.  Sometimes I have been asked what the size scale of an image that I am presenting is, or how long it takes for a dwarf galaxy to orbit around the Milky Way, and I have said, “I don’t know.”  Big mistake.  While it is sometimes okay to say “I don’t know,” in a dismissive way that communicates “I don’t know, I don’t care, and it is not important” when asked a detailed question about a fine point you have not thought about, the questioner will be much more satisfied and everyone will learn more if you tell the audience what you do know about the question.  The person who asked what the scale of my image was did not care whether it was 5 arcminutes or 10 arcminutes, but would have been happy to know that it was at least not arcseconds or degrees.  I knew that it was a piece of a 13 arcminute image, but did not know how big the piece was so I simply said, “I don’t know.”  This answer gave the audience the impression that I did not have any idea what I was talking about.

            In that same lecture, a physicist asked me what a quasar was.  Now, of course I knew that most astronomers think that a quasar is a black hole with stuff falling into it in an accretion disk, and that for some reason it is ejecting charged particles along its magnetic poles.  But I haven’t critically reviewed the literature and I don’t know that’s what it really is, and I do not understand the physics of how energy of stuff falling in with the accretion disk is channeled into charged particles spewing out of magnetic poles, so my first reaction was to say, “I don’t know.”  It is a much simpler answer than the complex thoughts I am having in response to that question.  I then realized that was the wrong answer, and communicated basically what I have said above while waving my hands around and saying that was a hand-wavy answer.  Although I think my answer was a fair assessment of the definition of a quasar as I know it, I am afraid it lacked the clarity and confidence that would have given the audience confidence in my answer.  I communicated instead my incredible ability to lose confidence in myself.

            After the talk, the head of the laboratory came up to me and said, “You know what your problem is, you do not say what you know.”  My first (internal) reaction to this was angry and defensive.  I grouped this comment with a consistent history of people who had come up to me after my talks to give me negative feedback.  Ever since I had started giving professional talks in graduate school, someone important had given me a negative comment or suggestion for improvement after every talk.  And I heard the criticism loud and clear while I barely registered the positive remarks I received (those after all, were expected).  I had become more nervous about speaking with every negative comment from a senior scientist.  I realize now that the laboratory director was really trying to help me out – the best way a male scientist born well before 1945 knew how.  Those of us who have been mothers or wives know that the best way to effectively deliver criticism is to mix praise with criticism, and we would never start with anything like “You know what your problem is …”  It took me a long time to hear the rest of the sentence.  Maybe if I had been a male he wouldn’t have said this to me at all, or I wouldn’t have heard it, or I wouldn’t have made the mistake in the first place.  It is an advantage for us as women if we can hear this criticism, ignore the parts that are unfair, hurtful, untrue, and break down our confidence, and use the helpful parts to improve our performance in our careers.  Our most devastating disadvantage comes from ignoring the helpful information and dwelling on the voices that doubt us.

            Before any talk, it is important to figure out what you would like your audience to remember after it is over.  There are some people who are very good at listening, and will hear and understand every sentence that you utter.  Most people, myself included, lapse in and out of attention during the presentation.  One way to reach those with questionable listening talent is to outline the main points that you are going to present right up front, when they’re still awake.  Then, you spend the body of the talk explaining the main points, being sure to spend sufficient time explaining each plot, picture, or idea.  You then end with the conclusions, which reiterate the main points you want to get across, trying to keep them all on the same visual if possible.  The visual parts of the presentation should be self-contained and self-explanatory.  Some people don’t listen well, but read everything on the slides.  The labels on all plots should be large enough and the symbols defined well enough that the person who returns to consciousness in the middle of your description of the plot can attempt to catch up with you.  At the end of the talk, which you end by saying, “I will end there,” or “Are there any questions?” your list of conclusions should still be visible.  Many people in the audience at this point are going to search themselves for questions, and the conclusions will jog their memories as to what you have said.  It aids in the formulation of questions, which are one of the more important components of the talk.

            For the beginning speaker, the prospect of a question can be daunting.  No one, even the most expert researcher in your particular area, will know the answer to every question.  What is important in the question session is to make sure you understand the question – sometimes by repeating it, to think about what you know about the answer, and to answer it as fully and correctly as you are able, while displaying confidence in your answer.  People ask questions for many reasons.  Sometimes, they ask a question because there is something about your talk that they truly do not understand.  Sometimes they ask a question because they do not believe something that you said.  Sometimes they ask a question in an attempt to cut you down and make themselves look important.  Sometimes they ask a question to make themselves look knowledgeable.  And sometimes the question is merely an attempt to get you to speak some more because they are interested.  Whatever the question, it can be answered with respect and dignity, to the fullest extent you know the answer, and without apology for those parts you do not know or techniques you have not tried.  Try to spend more time telling us what you do know or think about than what you do not.  If a question is very detailed or in your opinion not of general interest to the audience, you can offer to answer a complex question in person after your talk; but do not overuse this response as it could be interpreted as “I don’t know.”

            Do not worry if you do not get everything exactly correct, but just try your best.  It is an advantage of your colleagues that they do not remember ever having been wrong.  I learned a lot about the male mind one day from my husband, who is also a scientist.  He was pouring water from a plastic bottle into a glass, and when setting down the bottle managed to knock both the glass and the bottle off the kitchen table.  He caught the glass before it fell, but the bottle and its contents spilled out onto the floor.  He turned to look at me and said, “Hmm, it’s a good thing I noticed that the bottle was plastic and saved the glass instead, or we would have had broken glass on the floor.”  I thought, “The guy just knocked a bottle of water off the table and all over the floor, and his reaction is to congratulate himself on not having broken the glass as well!”  The ability to see your own faults can be a big advantage to making scientific discoveries or managing a project, but it can also be major handicap.  The men are just forging ahead and getting work done while we are reflecting on how we could have handled it all better.

            Women who have on previous occasions responded to male egos with paralysis, and discovered to their surprise that they are therefore not thought to be intelligent, sometimes react by covering their insecurity with anger and frustration.  Instead of respecting the question and answering in the best possible way, they attack.  It is altogether too easy for a woman to be labeled, “difficult,” because of her negative reaction to a playing field that she never understood, and a lower ranking in the pecking order (that she never understood she was fighting for) than she thinks she deserves.

And always keep smiling.  There are men out there who walked into the room not understanding why you are pursuing your career in the first place.  If you give them the impression that you are not enjoying it, or are not successful, they will be sure you will not survive in your career.  In hiring decisions and conferring awards, a scientist’s enthusiasm and commitment to the field are often held in even higher regard than the assessment of talent.  In a world that judges us on the success of our associates, who wants to risk a relationship with a person who might not be serious about continuing?  Women hear the doubts, the criticism, and the fears of the scientific community loud and clear, even when unspoken.  If we turn that external doubt into self-doubt, then our failure to succeed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Note from the author:

The Woman Physicist’s Guide to Speaking does not cover all issues faced by women physicists, but instead gives one example that partially illustrates the tilted the playing field.  Very rarely does a male physicist ever face a clothing issue, miss the need to establish a pecking order, or waste energy on water that has flowed under the bridge.  Men are never assumed to be products of affirmative action or accused of sleeping their way to the top.  Physicists usually do not question the sensibility of their male colleague’s career choices or wonder whether they will leave the field when they become parents.  All male physicists have to think about is doing their job, and doing it well.

The good news is that the great majority of the barrier to becoming a successful woman physicist in today’s climate can be overcome by making very small changes to ourselves.  How hard is it really to put together a few good outfits for giving talks, to learn to speak with confidence, and to curb our response to negative feedback?  And if we do this, our natural abilities to handle several issues at once, work and manage teams, communicate, prioritize our time, and pay attention to details will make it even easier for us succeed in our chosen career.