the visibility paradox

Growing up in a family of nine children, it was sometimes difficult to get the attention you wanted from mum or dad. There were, quite simply, too many little and not-so-little people clamouring for attention. Pushing the boundaries too far, acting up, or failing an exam at school could be guaranteed to get parents to focus on you alone to the exclusion of other siblings. From a personal point of view, that attention was not a good thing. On the other side, being singled out for positive attention could be achieved by, for example, cracking a funny joke (the Martins love a laugh), winning the school footy game (the Martins love their sport even more than they love a laugh), or making a chocolate cake (the Martins love their food even more than they love their sport). But doing what was expected of you, helping with meals, keeping the house (relatively) tidy, mowing the lawn, taking the bins out to be emptied, basically being orderly and keeping things ticking over – well that was baseline. No brownie points for that, only demerit points if you messed up.

It’s a cruel fact of life for researchers too that doing what you are supposed to do – being clever, curious and productive – is not always enough to succeed. Yes, these are prerequisites, the baseline if you like, but progress through the ranks is improved with visibility. Increased visibility helps get that job, grant, fellowship, promotion, award. One way of getting increased visibility is by speaking about one’s research to an audience – taking opportunities to talk about your favourite scientific subject.

Many new to research and academia don’t know this golden rule and let opportunities slide. They prefer to think they’ve dodged a bullet by avoiding having to speak to an audience. When the call comes out from PhD supervisors asking for volunteers to speak at a symposium/seminar series they don’t respond. When they attend a conference, they choose not to be considered for a talk. It’s too difficult, the work isn’t complete, the questions might be really tough, it’s easier to sit in the audience and listen to others. There are always many reasons not to put their head above the parapet.

This is the visibility paradox. Researchers benefit from increased visibility, but a lack of confidence or self-belief stops many – especially early career researchers (ECRs) – from seeking visibility.

This missed opportunity will then go to someone else who does accept the challenge. As a result, that someone else becomes more visible and moves ahead of the pack. That someone else may be naturally more self-confident but is probably no more clever, curious or productive than those that don’t put their hand up.

The increased visibility will have knock-on effects. Their speaking experience builds up a bank from which that someone else draws strength when they volunteer for the next scary speaking opportunity. Their CV will be bolstered, peers will respect them for taking on the daunting challenge of speaking in public, and research leaders in the audience will recall their work when the ECR’s name comes up on selection panels, or when ECRs need to be identified to speak at conferences. Increased visibility leads to increased success, leads to more visibility, leads to more success.

Sadly, many excellent researchers, especially women, lack confidence. As Greg Petsko noted in his Genome Biology commentary “Almost without exception, the talented women I have known believed they had less ability than they actually had. And almost without exception, the talented men I have known believed they had more“. This observation is supported by recent research in the field of mathematics, reviewed by Curt Rice who summarised that “Men tended to overestimate their future performance on the arithmetic task, and women tended to underestimate it“.

So, how can we ensure that all clever, hard-working young researchers have an equal chance to succeed regardless of their level of confidence starting out?

Here are some thoughts.

If you are an ECR:

1. First, recognise that you are not alone in being nervous about public speaking. Most people are ridiculously apprehensive when they start out; I certainly was. Panic attacks, weeks of sleepless nights, wobbly voice, I have had them all. I still get edgy before a talk*. Fortunately, speaking in public isn’t actually life-threatening, and nerves do disappear to a great extent with experience. On the other hand, as my mentors advised me early on, nerves shouldn’t disappear altogether – a little adrenaline helps ensure a great presentation. One other thing to remember, people in the audience will want you to succeed – they were young researchers themselves once.

2. Volunteer. Take on the challenge when there is a call for speakers. Yes, it will be tough to put yourself out there, but there are rewards to be gained as well.

3. Practise, practise, practise. The one sure-fire way to help overcome nerves is to take control. Work out what you are going to say, and practise saying it to make sure that all the important points are presented within the allotted speaking time. Don’t read the talk from notes.

4. Ask for help. Give a practise talk in front of your colleagues/ supervisors or anyone else available. Ask for feedback on the presentation (was the text on the slides readable? did the data make sense? was the importance of the work clear? were the conclusions sound?). Ask for questions on the research, to prepare answers in advance of the real thing. Change the presentation in response to your colleagues’ feedback.

5. Celebrate afterwards. With others. Yes, it is stressful to present in front of an audience. Reward yourself on your achievement.

6. Learn and improve. Perhaps you didn’t get across all the points, or you fluffed an answer to an easy question. A day or so after the event, do the post-mortem. Work out how the talk could be improved for next time and make the changes there and then.

If you are a supervisor (or mentor, sponsor, colleague, friend) of an ECR:

1. Don’t assume that every new researcher automagically knows that speaking in public is important for success in research. Share this knowledge with each new team member when they begin their career, and frequently thereafter. Let the message sink in. Ensure ECRs have opportunities to gain confidence speaking, and to hone their presenting skills in group meetings. Reinforce the message when seminar series and conferences come up. Encourage ECRs to nominate to speak.

2. When asked to nominate speakers from your group for a departmental seminar series, don’t request volunteers. Instead, tap people on the shoulder: team members will gain a level of confidence simply from your belief in them. Share the speaking opportunities across all members of your team, especially those that shun the limelight. Ensure diversity – gender, ethnicity, seniority – when you are program coordinator. (check out my post on conference speaker policies).

3. When an ECR asks to be excused from giving a seminar because they don’t feel confident about speaking publicly, or don’t believe they have enough to speak about, don’t let them off easily. Explain the precious opportunity they are giving up.

4. If an ECR lacks confidence in their work, assist them to develop the research story they can present. Offer to help further by listening to a practise talk and providing constructive feedback.

In the end…

….overcoming the visibility paradox is not just about giving talks, it’s about building confidence and supporting diversity in the career progression of the next generation of research leaders.

So, back to the beginning of the post, am I now getting the attention I want from my parents? Well, my mum is now following this blog. Perhaps that might be just a little too much attention.

Only kidding mum! Happy 80th birthday for April 11.



Feeling edgy about talks probably harks back to the time when I started in research – and 35 mm photographic slides were used rather than a software program. The slides had to be loaded into a cassette upside down or back to front (or both?) to be projected correctly on to the screen. “Recipe for disaster” is an understatement there. Then there was the cassette. Inevitably, if you didn’t put the lid on carefully you’d end up dropping the whole thing on the floor, and there’d be a mad scramble to put all the slides together again in the right sequence and the right orientation. The most memorable occasion was when an eminent scientist discovered upon beginning his talk that the slide projector had morphed into a toaster. Every touch of the slide forward button launched another slide several metres into the air. Truly, it was hilarious. I have to say he took it in very good grace.


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1 thought on “the visibility paradox

  1. I just love that footnote! I’ve never had to work with anything other than powerpoint, but I can see how hilarious that toaster must’ve been…

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