Good science presentations – don’t forget to chunk

Listen to past and present world leaders like Barack Obama, Tony Blair and even George W. Bush and you’ll hear a particular speech-making tool in action – chunking.

I was introduced to chunking today at a presentation at the Foo Camp “unconference” held at Mahurangi College just out of Warkworth by Olivia Mitchell, a speech expert with Effective Speaking.

She had a room full of scientists and technologists who had similar hang-ups when it came to getting across often highly-technical concepts in speeches to laypeople.

Many in the room talked of getting tongue-tied, using fillers like “um” and “ah” to fill awkward silences and talking too fast due to nerves. For myself, I’m definitely familiar with the latter, particularly in front of large crowds, when the presentation can feel like a hurtling train ride to the final slide. The only time things seem to slow down is when there’s a glitch with the presentation or your computer crashes – in which case a few seconds can feel like a minute.

Enter the method of chunking, which is designed to slow down your speech, give you time to think and your audience time to absorb what you are saying.

The key to chunking is to think about how you want to break up your sentences to deliver aspects of the concept you are explaining. Talking for a few seconds followed by a pause of a second, then another burst of speech and so on, is an effective way to deliver an impactful speech without becoming flustered and adding in those clunky and noticeable fillers.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few tries in the session today, I was talking fairly smoothly in chunks about a fairly complex science-related topic. The regular pausing means you can collect your thoughts to find the right words to start your next sentence and means you are lest likely to ramble on just to fill dead air, which the public speaker naturally dreads.

Chunking teaches you to make good use of regular pauses, which also allows you to pause for impact as you let your audience absorb your words.

Tony Blair is apparently the master of chunking, as numerous Youtube clips illustrate. Blair earns in the region of $600,000 per public speaking engagement, such is the effectiveness and impact of his speeches. He had extensive training in the art of chunking early in his political career.

Mitchell touched on an aspect of speech delivery that is particularly distracting and unfortunately, fairly common among public speakers in New Zealand – the high rising change in tone at the end of a sentence. It’s particularly common among females apparently. Here’s Mitchell’s tip to avoid doing it – think about the end of the sentence – where you want to end up with this particular chunk of speech. If you know the final words you are going to deliver in the sentence, you will have more confidence in the style in which you delivering, eliminating the uncertain, questioning tone that the rise in tone suggests.

We only had a short workshop with Mitchell, but I’ll be working on my chunking ahead of my next presentation!

More on chunking:


  1. Alison Campbell

    I really really dislike that high rising tone at the end of every sentence! Always makes me feel that the speaker isn’t really sure of what they’re saying &/or needs people to nod in agreement with everything they say.

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