How my speaking tour became possible!

I’m writing this article while preparing for my next speaking tour in the US, which begins in October of 2019. I had a very enjoyable tour around North America last year, and so I’m really excited about continuing with another tour and sharing more discoveries.

I wrote about last year’s tour in an article for The female Scientist and this article sparked a lot of interest. One of the main things I’ve been asked is how I could get the funds to organize my own tour, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to share my experiences.

How it all began

Before I do so, I need to point out that my experiences in public speaking used to be very limited. In fact, it was a long time before I began attending any conferences, much to the dismay of some colleagues. I had completed my PhD in New Zealand and many of the conferences that interested me were too far away. To make matters worse, my university didn’t provide any funds for conference travel. Eventually, in the final year of my PhD, I managed to scrape together enough for a ticket to the US by applying for numerous small grants and by doing extra teaching at my university. The conference was at Cornell University and I decided to present a poster because it was my first international conference and because I felt daunted. It wasn’t until I was well into my first postdoc when I presented a conference talk for the first time.

My first conference talk was one of the hardest talks I’ve given, but my confidence began to grow when I attended more conferences and gave more talks. Often, I had to travel long distances to attend conferences and I began to favour giving talks instead of posters. At the same time, I was building up a healthy publication record and some people were starting to recognize my name.

As scientists, we each have our own unique voice – our own discoveries – and we should celebrate this uniqueness at conferences. I was starting to see this when people began approaching me after I had given some of my talks. My research is on spider cognition and I soon realized that I was the only spider researcher at some of the conferences I was attending. People started to remember me partly for that reason and this helped me make connections. To be fair, spiders are not the most popular of creatures, but people have routinely commented on how enthusiastically I speak about the research. In fact, if you’re ever interested in seeing me talk about spiders, do check out this short video (4 minutes) which I helped prepare for a children’s TV show in New Zealand, called ‘Fanimals’, earlier this year.

Making connections

The connections that I’ve made at conferences have proven to be absolutely essential for organizing a speaking tour. I’ve kept in touch with numerous people who I’ve met at conferences and this, of course, has been made all the more easier with social media. My speaking tours partly became possible because I had found the time to keep in touch with these people.

Last year, when I was making plans to attend a conference in the US, I got asked to give a talk in Canada around the same time. This inspired me to ask other scientists who I knew in North America, just in case it was possible for me to visit other institutions and to give talks. I quickly received several invitations. Some of these institutions could offer me funding, and some couldn’t. I was offered hotel accommodation in some places and, in other places, lodging in people’s homes. And I was really happy either way. Organizing this tour became an elaborate juggling act, but I managed to pull something together that made good use of the funds to travel to as many places as possible, and to give as many talks as possible, without having to pay out of my own pocket.

When an institution can provide funding, it may be worthwhile to check with other institutions nearby in case they can also fund a talk. This can be helpful in splitting costs between institutions. However, I do like it when funds can also be used to help support talks at institutions without the funding, such as by allowing me to adjust a flight so that I can spend a little more time in a particular city. Ideally, museums, zoos, science cafés and other organizations should have the opportunity to benefit from this generosity as well.

Organizing my latest tour

This year, I have been working for six months at the University of Florida and, very soon after I arrived in the US, I attended a conference. At the very end of my talk, I announced that I would be in the US for these six months, just in case anyone was interested in me giving talks at their institutions during this time. After all, these people had just seen me give a conference talk, so they knew what to expect and I very quickly got some offers. Again, some institutions could provide me with funds and others couldn’t, but I have again worked to make these talks possible for those who invited me.

Organizing a speaking tour is a lot of work. Besides preparing talks for different institutions and audiences, there are the logistics to organize which can often feel like fitting together pieces in a puzzle. This can be very challenging, and it’s not for everyone. It often requires patience, flexibility, time and, sometimes, nerves of steel! However, I have recently looked at various seminar schedules and noticed very few women speakers. Of course, I can’t volunteer to give talks everywhere in an attempt to help solve this problem. That’s simply asking for too much. However, it’s good to do what we can, when we can, one female scientist at a time.


You can follow Dr. Fiona Cross (“Doctor Spider”) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to keep up to date with her latest research news. She also has a personal website dedicated to her work.