Lessons for public speakers from Sir Tim Hunt’s downfall

As a communication skills trainer I have always tried to impress on clients that while good spoken communication can raise profiles and enhance prospects, poor communication can damage careers and trash reputations.

Nothing demonstrates the truth of this assertion better than the vertiginous fall from grace of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sir Tim Hunt, whose poorly judged remarks about women researchers at a global meeting of science journalists made him the target of a vicious social media campaign,which led within hours to the loss of his honorary research post at University College, London, and his place on the Science Committee of the European Research Council, among other indignities.

Toxic, finished and hung to dry

‘I am finished’, Hunt told in last weekend’s Observer newspaper http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/13/tim-hunt-forced-to-resign

‘I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.’

I do not seek to defend Sir Tim’s stupid, sexist and undoubtedly offensive remarks: ‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.’

It would have been deeply foolish to have uttered such sentiments anywhere other than in the privacy of his own home – and maybe not even there, given that his wife, Professor Mary Collins, is herself one of Britain’s most senior immunologists, whose own career has been damaged by association.

How much more idiotic, though, to advance these opinions in any public arena, let alone a meeting of journalists, primed to tweet snippets of interest from the conference via their smart phones.

Trying to be funny is a dangerous policy

Sir Tim says his remarks were meant in a ‘totally jocular, ironic way’, but trying to be funny is a very dangerous policy when you are navigating the choppy waters of sexual politics. Also you have to be there to appreciate it. Jocularity doesn’t travel well in cyberspace; there is no room for irony in the 140 characters-max allocation for a tweet.

The whole sorry affair probably reflects most poorly on the academic institutions that dropped Sir Tim with obscene haste without even offering him the right of reply. Since then, a number of high-level supporters have spoken out in his favour. And it seems clear from what they say that his ill-judged remarks do not reflect the reality of his record in advancing the careers of male and female scientists alike.

But it’s too late and the damage is done. Remarks made in public can never be unsaid, however much effort goes into explaining them away.

Don’t hand journalists controversy on a plate

I doubt if Sir Tim Hunt sought for any advice from a media or communication skills trainer before embarking on his ill-fated trip to Seoul. Had he asked me I would have said what I tell anyone planning to address a meeting of journalists:


  • Prepare what you want to say very carefully, and don’t be tempted to go off piste;
  • Don’t use humour or irony if there is a danger it could be misinterpreted;
  • Remember that journalists love controversy – don’t hand it to them on a plate;
  • Remember, too, that if what you say about yourself is more newsworthy than what you say about your topic, they will go with that;
  • Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t be happy to see in print, broadcast on any channel, or committed to YouTube for all eternity.

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Clearsay Communications helps professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. For more information, click on the Home Page.