When I started my PhD, the thought of public speaking was terrifying. I had never done presentations in the English language, and even less so on my academic research. Fast forward almost four years later – and a PhD thesis behind me – there is nothing I like more than public presentations on my research. The key to achieving confidence in public speaking is...public speaking!
I gave my first presentation in the spring of my first year of PhD in Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum, and I specifically chose a topic that I was familiar with, and that was not my PhD topic. I presented about the restructuration plans of the Musée du Louvre’s stored collection, while my PhD research was on Egyptian mummies in museums. I had just interned at the Louvre as part of my MA in Museum Studies at the School of Museum Studies ,and I had read a lot about this plan; it was something new to a British and international audience, but importantly, it wasn’t on my research, which was very new and a little confusing to me. It was a really great opportunity to get my strength and courage together and just stand on a stage and speak to strangers. After this, I realised not only that public speaking isn’t that scary, it’s actually quite fun. I then talked during Research Week and jumped at the opportunity to give a one hour talk for an Egyptology society in Birmingham. Fast forward, I have done a lot of talks and learned a lot from engaging with specialists, but I remain committed to public outreach. I truly enjoy the idea that I can make a somewhat daunting topic interesting to the public. (Egyptian mummies can be seen as fun, but I deconstruct cultural engagements with questions of race, medical dissections, and so on that are not your typical mummy talk.)
So, when I found out about PubhD, I was immediately interested. PubhD is an initiative that exists now in quite a few university cities in the UK, and the idea is to have PhD and postdoc researchers come to a pub and present their research in ten minutes in a simple, no-jargon way. The public is invited to attend and listen to up to three speakers: ten-minute talk + twenty-minute questions each. The strength of this initiative is that, even though lectures in societies for example are open to the public, they are not usually free, but also often wrapped with an aura of academia. It is sometimes difficult for some individuals to feel that they belong there (although, of course, they do!) But setting talks in a pub in a city centre is a brilliant way to encourage individuals to come and listen and take part in a great conversation.
Photo of Angela Stienne presenting at PubhD.
Photo courtesy of Angela Stienne.
I had never attended PubhD before I decided to present on 13 March 2018, purely out of a busy schedule, and living between Paris, London, and Leicester. I was told to prepare 10 minutes with no jargon and only a white board to help. Because I cannot possibly draw (and even less so when it comes to mummies), I brought with me a few notes and 5 black and white A4 pictures to pin on the board. For me the key was to make my research relevant to the public, so I introduced the idea that they are probably familiar with Egyptian mummies in museums, because Leicester has four on display, but they might not know the histories of how and why these objects arrived in museums. Then I offered five episodic examples of mummies that were studied for different reasons (racial studies, medical dissections, emotional engagement), and then to connect these to our contemporary reality, I pointed out that these objects still exist today in some big museums, such as the Musée du Louvre. The key for me is to make sure that the public can relate and that what I am talking about never feels too alien.
I really enjoy the conversation part in talks. I think quite a few people find this part daunting, because of tales of people in audiences asking horribly difficult questions: maybe it is pure luck, but I have never had this experience. I always get asked interesting, thoughtful questions – the worst for me is no question at all, as I don’t know if they just want to run away for a drink, or if I lost them with jargon. I found the audience at PubhD really nice and really engaged, with some great questions. It was interesting to see which questions come to mind to a public audience, and it really made me think about my research.
I recommend PubhD to all researchers at any stage. It is a friendly environment if you are starting out in public speaking, a good place to think about your research, and just a good thing to do as a researcher. I strongly believe that the strength of our research and our being as researchers is the public outreach: any and every topic has incredible breadth of interest and it would really be a shame not to use platforms like this one to communicate exciting research.
My favourite book for public speaking is: Carmine Gallo, Talk Like Ted (2014).
This entry was written by Angela Stienne, who graduated from the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies with her MA and PhD. Her research into Egyptian mummies and museums can be accessed through the University of Leicester Library. She also runs the website, Mummy Stories. Twitter: @mummystoriescom and @angela_stienne