The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful; Public Speaking Lessons From the 9th Annual SoNG Meeting.

The Southampton Neurosicences Group held their 9th annual meeting this past Thursday. The theme was early career researchers and so included some of our best graduate students as speakers on the same day as two very prestigious speakers: Lord Robert Winston of BBC fame and Prof. Trevor Robbins. One unexpected lesson from the day was a display of the best and worse in public speaking expertise.

The Good:
Our graduate students were magnificent. Everyone one of them gave textbook and well practiced talks timed to perfection. They were prepared, had very good visuals, covered the material in an understandable way and all gave top notch talks. There was a prize for the best talk and the decision was so difficult that two were given. There was a third who also deserved to be top tier. At least on of these exhibited the poise and professionalism of someone with many more years of experience.

The Bad:
If preparation is the key, then Lord Winston broke his off in the lock. Lord Winston is a well know and accomplished front man for science with his outstanding BBC shows, books, and work in government. On this day however, he looked exhausted and failed to prepare a talk. The result was predictable. He wandered around talking about the politics of science in very general terms while casting hopeful sideways glances at the clock the whole time. Every once in a while he started to riff on potentially interesting topics (genetic manipulation in humans, GM plants, science funding policy) but then flitted away before saying anything interesting or provoking any controversy. Here is a tip if you ever find yourself adrift like this. Don’t look at the clock for a lifeline, look to the audience to save you. All he had to do was to engage the audience in a debate on any of the controversial subjects he skipped across, and then let the audience take it from there. This kills time and lets the audience supply content that you might be missing. It can get messy and wander off topic, but the audience will usually end up blaming each other rather than the speaker if things go too far astray.
In the end what I found most annoying about the talk was that he said nothing new. This idea of novelty is the most important aspect of any oral presentation whether it be a public talk or a simple presentation for work. All speakers need a hook to keep an audience’s attention. That hook must either tell the audience something they do not know or to get them to think about something in a new way. This is the fundamental core around which any speaker should build their presentation. Ask yourself what is new for the audience in what you are trying to communicate, then think about the best and most exciting way to present that. If you don’t have anything new to say then you really don’t have anything to say at all.
I can forgive a speaker for having an off day, especially one like Lord Winston who works so hard on promoting science and the arts. After the talk, many of audience were not so critical of him as I was.
For me, the two take home lessons from Lord Winston’s talk were 1) to have something to say, and 2) if  you are exhausted and unprepared you are probably better off cancelling.

The Beautiful:
After Lord Winston’s talk and a tea break, those who stuck around got to hear the best talk of the day by Trevor Robbins. This guy is really sharp. He has an H index of 123! This means he has published at least 123 papers that have each been cited 123 times or more. This very senior speaker told us about the neurobiology of impulse control underlying conditions from drug addiction to ADHD. His main point was that there are populations of people and higher animals who have problems putting the brakes on their impulses. This “type” maps to a specific region of the brain that functions to stop behaviour which is where Ritalin and abused drugs work. He termed this phenomenon an endophenotype and argued that we need to understand and define these behaviour/neurophysiology types more clearly.  It was amazing how he integrated so much neurobiology from real clinical behavioural problems to neuro-anatomy to pharmacology for such a broad audience. Note that SoNG members span many disciplines from social workers, to neurosurgeons, to people like me working on the very basics in model organisms. He was facing an audience where no one had all of the required background information, but everyone was an expert in part of what he was talking about. Only after thinking about his talk did I notice where the graduate students fell short. Where as the grad students gave picture perfect talks that one would expect at scientific meetings in their specific fields, Robbins gave a broader talk aimed exactly at the level of this particular audience. Gauging the level of an audience like SoNG is something that requires much experience.
Another thing Robbins did well was how he used images and figures to explain his points. Using graphics properly is not easy. You need to use them to reduce the amount of talking required to make your point clear. Images are not to be fillers, they are tools to shorten the presentation by making key points in the most efficient way possible. The Strunk and White principle of removing everything not necessary applies to Powerpoint slides as well.  Even though Robbins had to skip over some for time, it was only because he talked slowly while carefully explaining things as he moved from point to point. He knew what his goal was and got there without rushing or skipping key points. Robbins understood and put into practice that adage that you should never over estimate your audience’s knowledge nor under estimate their intelligence. It was one of the best and most interesting talks I have seen in a long time.


  1. I think Lord Winston was speaking for free, which explains some of it. I agree, though. I thought he was most interesting when answering questions at the end. It's a shame he didn't open it up to questions a bit sooner. I'm sad I missed Trevor Robbins now, though. (Cats come first!)


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