John was not used to speaking in front of a group, and it showed. He hunched his tall and lanky frame, clutched the chair in front of him, and when he began to speak, he blushed.
Although he was a guest at the meeting of BioToasters, a group of local scientists that practice public speaking together, he had been asked to start the meeting with a joke. He spent five minutes telling a story about a man stuck on a desert island.
“There was nothing on the island but a treasure chest,” he said. “No, wait, a treasure chest and two palm trees. Actually, the treasure chest was on a different island a little ways away from the man, so he couldn’t reach it. Oh yeah, and the man had an ax with him, so he cut down one of the palm trees to make a bridge to the treasure chest. When he got there, he opened it, and guess what he found?
John was met with blank stares.
“Get it?” he asked.
His audience didn’t. John blushed more.
“You know, because he’d need both palm trees to hang up the hammock, but he cut one down,” he said.
“Ohhhh,” the assembled group said. A few gave him a sympathy chuckle.
John said he always struggles when he speaks in front of a group. (We agreed to withhold his last name so we could watch his experience at BioToasters.) His struggle is exactly the reason why groups like BioToasters gather every week across San Diego. Many scientists are shy and reserved by nature, and choose their careers because they are excited by research and discovery.
But public speaking is also a big part of their jobs. From academic researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who give seminars to the scientists at the region’s biotech companies who tell investors about their findings, scientists repeatedly have to stand in front of groups of people and talk.
For many, hardly anything else is as terrifying.
“A lot of people get into sciences because they don’t want to have to talk to people,” said Bernard Delacruz, a 39-year-old former vice president of BioToasters who holds a doctorate in cellular molecular biology.
Delacruz joined BioToasters last February both to work on his communication skills and because he hoped to network with people in his field. The group is one of more than 12,500 clubs that make up the nonprofit Toastmasters International and is one of several local groups organized to give speaking tips to scientists.
Groups gather here at the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. BioToasters meets in a large room in the biopharmaceutical Celgene Corp.’s office in University City.
The groups aim to help scientists with a wide range of communication problems. Some are there to become more eloquent in everyday conversation, some are foreigners hoping to improve their English and some want to be more engaging when they explain science to the general public. And some are like Delacruz, who didn’t want to learn communication skills when he first began his science career.
“I thought, ‘I have my Ph.D., I’m qualified,'” he said. “But in the business world, it’s just as important that I can talk to people from across the company and communicate with people outside the company.”
Although still soft-spoken, Delacruz articulates his thoughts clearly and speaks without any umms or ahhs. Once after explaining an idea, he paused for three seconds and said, “I’m sorry, I feel like I’m not articulating this point correctly.”
Whether he can hear it or not, Delacruz is a skilled speaker, and he owes some of his abilities to the military-like drills and rituals practiced at BioToasters meetings. Each person called to speak rises from his seat, strides to the front of the room, and greets the meeting’s host with a firm handshake.
An appointed grammarian counts each speaker’s grammatical mistakes: umms, ahhs, likes and you knows. A designated timekeeper holds up yellow and red sheets of paper to warn speakers when they’re about to go on too long. At the end of each meeting, all the members vote on who gave the best presentations and the winners receive colored ribbons.
Delacruz started a new job a month ago, and said he thinks his speech training and communication skills helped him land it.
“It made me more cognizant of the skills I’d developed, and made me able to leverage those in my interviews,” he said.
For other scientists, public speaking skills are less about landing jobs and more about communicating with their peers and the public.
“Public speaking is one of the most important things you do as a scientist,” said Ruth Musgrave, a second-year doctoral student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “You have to be able to communicate your research to your colleagues, otherwise they won’t take you seriously.”
Musgrave remembers the first scientific talk she had to give while defending her honors degree thesis in Australia.
“I can’t describe how nervous I was,” she said. “I seriously considered giving up my entire career right there.”
With practice, she’s grown more comfortable speaking in front of groups, and felt very few nerves taking a 75-minute oral exam in front of four professors. But Musgrave, who speaks so quietly it is sometimes hard to hear her, said she wishes Scripps gave its future scientists more training in public speaking.
Another Scripps student, Melania Guerra, is comfortable giving scientific presentations, but says she wants to improve her discourse with the public.
“Science should not be something that stays at the level of people who have Ph.D.s,” she said. “Scientists have a responsibility to tell people better decisions to make in the long term. And that means scientists have to be able to explain things in ways that are simple enough to understand.”
So two months ago Guerra joined Toastmasters of La Jolla, which holds half of its meetings at Scripps. On the night of her first big speech to the group, Guerra said she felt some nerves, but nothing she couldn’t handle.
When Guerra’s speech began, those nerves seemed to have melted away. She bounded into the room wearing what looked like a bright orange astronaut suit, which she usually dons while researching Alaskan whales.
Guerra smiled brightly and spoke loudly and clearly while showing her audience a slideshow of icebergs and whales.
When she finished, she received a hearty round of applause — none of which sounded sympathetic.