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FF sake – what musical notation can teach presenters and public speakers

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Mozart was a dab hand at the piano. Which is putting it mildly. A veritable child prodigy, by the age of five he was already performing for royalty. And by the time he died – at just 35 – he’d written 600 works including his Piano Concerto 21 shown above.

I mention all this because more than 200 years later Mozart’s music has something to teach us as presenters and public speakers. He knew how to captivate an audience with high notes and low notes. Fast sections and slower, more reflective sections. Louder bits and quieter bits. In short, he scored his compositions in such a way that made them captivating. And I’d argue that you should score your presentations to make them captivating.

Far too many of the presentations I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through wash over me. Not because the content is dull (although it may be) but because the delivery is dull and as a consequence the content, however important, fails to register.

“Blah, blah, blah…

Nobody uses these exact words, of course. But they do use words that when spoken by the same voice, at the same pace and the same tone end up sounding so samey they may as well be.

“…blah, blah, blah.

The net effect of which is to send the audience to sleep. So how can we turn our presentations from unintended lullabies into stirring sonatas?


Well let’s start with tempo. You’ll see the word “andante” appears above the bar at the beginning of the sheet music at the top of this post. This notation of Italian origin is an instruction that the movement or passage should be played at a moderately slow tempo. If the whole concerto was to be played at the same tempo it’d sound much less impressive. It’s the juxtaposition of different tempos that make each stand out and contribute to the overall effect. And so it is with presentations. What bits of your presentation are best delivered allegro – that is fast? And which sections might best be delivered adagio – slowly?


Back to that sheet music you’ll see the letter “p” appears under a couple of notes. This means that the note should be played piano or softly. Two ps together as in pp means the note should be played pianissimo or very softly. It seems counterintuitive but if you want your audience to take notice of a really important point, saying it more quietly than your usual presentational volume (p or pp in musical terms) forces them to listen more carefully and helps reinforce the point. Although not if you’re too quiet – ppp!

At the opposite end of the dynamic range are the effs – f, ff and fff. F stands for forte or loud. FF for fortissimo or very loud. And FFF for fortississimo meaning very, very loud. I’d avoid fff altogether as it can seem really rude and shouty unless done for special effect, in which case it’s probably best to forewarn the audience or, at the very least, explain immediately after the very, very loud passage why it was so. And even ff should be used sparingly as it’s tiresome to listen to permanently loud speakers.

The knack is to vary the volume in a pleasant sounding and naturalistic way just as we do automatically in conversation. Think of your presentation coming to a crescendo – another musical term that means increasing or, literally, growing. Build to a major point or a call to action.


Look carefully at the sheet music above and you’ll see what looks like a fat or bold hyphen at the end. This is what’s called a rest (actually it’s a half rest but let’s not get too technical – this is presentation skills not piano grade 8). A rest mark tells a musician to pause for a period of time to let the previous note die away. To echo into the distance. To be savoured to the very last decibel. And so you should pause for effect in your presentations. Carrying on before the audience has properly understood and appreciated your previous point is to cheapen that point. A tip here. A short pause for the audience can seem like an eternity for us presenters – especially if we’re nervous in which case silence can really spook us. So in order not to under do the pauses count to five in your head in one thousand chunks before moving on.

“One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand. Four thousand. Five thousand.”

In summary, the human voice is a musical instrument. So play it like one. And if you feel the audience may be getting bored listening to the same old instrument playing the same old song can you change the instrument (if not the song)? By that I mean can you change the presenter? Most presentations tend to have just one voice (you) but can you recruit co-presenters and double-head or even triple-head your next speech? The simple expedient of a change of voice can keep an audience attentive for longer.

Forgive me for a final foray into this musical metaphor. Make sure your presentations are well orchestrated. Be a maestro. Just like Mozart. Aim for a bravura performance.

This post was first published as a podcast (complete with extracts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21) in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.

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How to stay in control of media interviews

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

Answering a journalist’s question is all very well when it’s a helpful question. But if it’s unhelpful, unanswerable or unwelcome, responding is often better than actually answering – providing you don’t sound evasive, ignorant or both. So in this short talk our lead media trainer, Richard Uridge, show you how to switch your interviews from a question and answer template to a question and response approach.

This podcast episode is just one of a series of audio, video and written “how to” guides that form part of ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series.

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Why First Person isn’t bad for science communication

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Traditionally scientists have used the Third Person when communicating their work – particularly to fellow scientists. But in the cult-of-personality, social media age might the First Person be better? ACM Training’s lead media, communication and presentation coach, Richard Uridge, argues the case for scientists putting themselves centre stage.

Not so long ago science students were encouraged to write in the third person. “I did this” or “we observed that” first person communication was struck through with the bright red slash of a supervisor’s pen and replaced in spidery handwriting with “this was done” or “that observation was made.” Why? Because an aloof way of writing – and even of speaking – somehow reinforced a scientist’s sense of detachment from her or his research.  Get too close, put yourself at the heart of the experiment and you’ll compromise your independence or even corrupt your conclusions.  Or so the argument went.

Well after sitting through two days of presentations at a post graduate student event in Birnham, Perthshire, organised by the James Hutton Institute, I have to say it’s high time we overturned the archaic orthodoxy. The presentations that this, admittedly non-academic, member of the audience understood and enjoyed the most (and the two aren’t mutually exclusive) were those that unashamedly put the scientist centre stage. Being a part of your endeavours not apart from them isn’t bad science as anybody who’s been cured of a stomach ulcer (I speak from personal experience) ought to appreciate thanks to the pioneering work on Helicobacter pylori of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. By drinking a bacterial brew to prove their theory (that it wasn’t spicy foods that caused gastritis) Marshall couldn’t have been more first person. And it certainly didn’t stop him and his colleague picking up a Nobel Prize.

The fact that the pair were plain speaking Australians helped. You can’t imagine Warren saying “a beaker of H. pylori was consumed and 48 hours later vomiting and fever were observed in the patient.” You can imagine him saying “Bazza chugged a tinny of the stuff and was crook as a dingo on dodgy dog food before you could say surf’s up. “

Okay so I’m exaggerating but you get my point: first person doesn’t equal bad science. And what’s more, first person does equal more effective communication. In short because it’s more engaging. Engaging an audience is a necessary precursor to communication. Think of engagement as opening up the pipeline between you, the scientist, and your audience. Once it’s open you can push information, data if you will,  through it from your brain to theirs. If the pipeline’s closed conveying that data is impossible.

Here’s the Who Goes First? podcast. It’s not about first person science communication per se but more about scientists who’ve experimented on themselves and are very much centre stage in the way I discuss above. It includes discussion of the ethical dimension of Marshall and Warren’s work.  


Please note that this programme was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result it contains copyright material so is strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.

NEXT Rumours of its death may be greatly exaggerated but why PowerPoint is in intensive care and may not be the most appropriate tool for science communicators.

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Approx. reading time: 7 minutes

The following is a guide to what you need equipment-wise to start podcasting. If it’s in CAPITALS it’s pretty much essential although if you’re on a really tight budget you can get away with just a computer and its built-in microphone plus some free software.

Most people already have a COMPUTER that’s good enough for making podcasts. Anything purchased within the last few years will do because it will almost certainly have a reasonably good soundcard pre-installed. And while each has pros and cons there’s not really that much to choose between Macs and PCs. A laptop gives you added flexibility. You can turn it into a mobile recording studio with the addition of an audio interface (see below) and, of course, you can take your work with you wherever you go and edit at home or on location late into the night with a glass of red wine (or whatever takes your fancy).

Of all of the AUDIO SOFTWARE available I’d plump for Audacity. It’s free and what’s more it’d still be a bargain if it cost £100. So Google it or click

You’ll also need a bit RSS SOFTWARE to help you write the really simple syndication files that let your subscribers know when there’s a new episode. I like FeedForAll which you can buy with complete confidence for under £30 by clicking on a logo below. This clever package also uploads your podcast audio and any associated images. The first logo is for PC users. If you want to try before you buy can download a trial version here (PC only).The second logo is for Mac users.

Buy FeedForAll

Buy FeedForAll Mac

There is syndication software available without this dual function but then you’ll need a separate bit of FTP SOFTWARE. I use a combination of the file transferring abilities built into Dreamweaver and a free piece of software called Cyber Duck which is designed specifically for Mac users. Find it at

Strictly speaking you don’t need a RECORDER because you could use your computer to capture the audio directly into the Audacity software via your computer’s built in microphone (if it has one) or via a microphone plugged into the miniature jack socket on the side, back or front panel. But you’ll pretty soon end up needing a field recorder if you’re doing podcasts more ambitious than a single voice. The advantage is they’re cheaper than laptops so losing or breaking them in the field is less painful. And because they’re designed to do just one job (i.e. record sound) they tend to do it better than a multi-tasking computer. The best in my view is the Tascam DR-100 Portable Digital Recorder.

Tascam DR-100 digital audio recorder

This is one of the few reasonably-priced recorders that has what are called XLR inputs which enable you to directly plug in professional microphones. It costs £325 from Dolphin Music (a reliable firm that I hold no particular brief for but from experience has a great ethos and even greater customer service). Check it out at

The DR-100 MkII comes with a MEMORY CARD but it’s fairly small so you’ll probably want to get a bigger one. I’d go for an 8GB Sandisk SDHC memory card which will set you under £5 and can carry more than five days of audio recorded in mp3 format. You can get cards with up to 32GB of storage but why bother? On the longest of records I’ve never needed more than eight hours of storage and, in any case, when the disk reaches capacity you can transfer the audio to your computer to free up space. A short USB cable is included with the Tascam DR-100 for this purpose. Check out a range of memory cards here at Jigsaw 24 – another supplier of audio equipment that I’ve found is pretty reliable and competitively priced – PC World is also pretty good.

It’s worth investing in good quality MICROPHONES. Your choice is dictated by what and where you’ll be recording. A good quality, general purpose microphone is the Beyerdynamic M58. It’s called a reporter’s microphone because it’s the sort carried by radio and TV reporters and is good for short, news-style interviews and vox pops and, when coupled with a stand (see below), is okay for recording voice overs and longer interviews. You’ll also need what’s called a male-to-female XLR lead to connect the microphone to the XLR socket on the bottom of the recorder. Dolphin Music sell the M58 bundled with a 3m lead (long enough for most situations) at £132.06. See

Holding a microphone still for any length of time is difficult and can give you cramp so a STAND is helpful. At £17.99 the Dolphin Music black microphone stand is good value. See it at black.html

If you’re planning to do lots of interviews and want the interviewer’s voice to be recorded as well as the interviewee’s then you’ve got two options: either move one microphone deftly from one person to the other with a flick of the wrist; or get a second microphone. Two microphones are preferable because It’s easy to forget to point one in the right direction. For this reason a lapel or clip microphone (so called because they clip on to a tie or lapel) is worth adding to your podcasting kit, if not initially, then at some later stage.  Then the interviewer can use the reporter’s mic (see above) and the interviewee can wear the clip mic . And there’s an additional benefit – once it’s clipped in place and the sound level’s taken the clip mic shouldn’t need adjusting because the distance between mouth and microphone stays roughly the same.  At £148.80 the Audio Technica AT831B Omnidirectional Lavalier Condenser Microphone is a good quality, medium-priced example. You can find it at

Both the Beyerdynamic and the Audio Technica are wired microphones – that is they need to be connected to the recorder with a wire. In most circumstances wired microphones are fine but wireless, or radio, mics are essential if you’re recording in any situation where a wire would get in the way or present a trip hazard. I’ve used them to record interviews with rock climbers whilst stationed safely at the bottom of the rock face! Radio mics always come in pairs – a transmitter attached to the interviewee and a receiver attached to the recorder. The Sennheiser ew 122P G3 Wireless System including ME4 Clip-on Microphone will set you back £364 exc VAT but is a nice bit of kit. Find it at

Sennheiser K6 System with ME 66 Shotgun head and Rycote Softie/Handle

If you’re feeling really indulgent or have a huge budget and are planning to record a lot of sound effects – especially outside – then what’s called a gun mic might be a worthwhile addition. The Sennheiser K6 System with ME 66 Shotgun head and Rycote Softie/Handle is excellent and comes complete with a wind guard (see below) but will set you back £379 plus the VAT. See it at

WIND GUARDS are fluffy coats or foam covers that fit over the business end of microphones to prevent, as the name suggests, wind ruining the recording. For what they are – a bit of foam or a dead cat – they’re expensive little blighters but well worth investing in if you’re going to be recording outside because even the lightest breeze can spoil a recording. So too can shaking hands (think nerves or cold) which can be cured by SHOCK MOUNTS. These, in essence, are like pistol grips that hold the microphone in a rubber band cradle to give your poor old microphone a rattle free ride.Have a browse at and at Wind guards and shock mounts tend to be microphone specific so if you’ve got three mics you could well need three wind guards.

Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 80 ohm headphones

HEADPHONES are essential to check the quality of the recording as you go along. The best ones are those with padded earpieces that cut out, or rather muffle, the ambient or background sound and let you concentrate on what the microphone is actually “hearing.” Beyerdynamic is a good brand and the DT770 Pro 80 ohm costs £118.84 at

I find a foam-filled FLIGHT CASE useful for keeping everything together and safe. I got mine from Machine Mart for under £30 A better option if you’re travelling a lot is a Lowe Pro soft kit bag. They come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes some that are worn like rucksacks and some over the shoulder. Whilst designed for still and video cameras they’re perfect for audio recording equipment too. Check out the range at

M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro 4 X 4 Mobile USB Audio/Midi Interface with Preamps

The only other thing you might need and something I recently added to my kit is an AUDIO INTERFACE. This enables you to plug professional microphones into your computer – not a bad idea because the built in microphones are hopelessly tinny. Think of the interface as a middleman – the black box (some of them are pink!) plugs into a USB or Firewire port on your computer and the microphones plug into it. I got the M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro 4 X 4 Mobile USB Audio/Midi Interface with Preamps (sounds more like an car doesn’t it?) which set me back £125. But this bit of kit is no longer available new so instead I’d go for the Tascam US 200 which as far as I can see (without road testing it) does exactly the same job for £129.

If you’d like us to take away the hassle we can source all or any of the above at the most competitive prices and supply it to you under a single invoice with a day’s face-to-face set up and training. Please contact me for details via or post a comment below.

And remember we offer podcast training workshops to either mixed groups or in-house. Find out more at