How confident are you at public speaking?
“Nobody can intimidate me without my permission” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Think back to the most engaging public speaker you have ever heard – what was it about their presentation that made it memorable? The chances are that the memorable bit had little to do with the content and more to do with the style of delivery. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to everybody and can often seem intimidating, but presenting a paper at a conference is crucial to getting your work seen and known by academics in your field. Good communication skills are also essential for those of you who have teaching and/or lecturing responsibilities. It’s all about regular practice and honest constructive feedback. Even the most competent of presenters have to continue to practice – it is all too easy to rely on past successes and become complacent.
The Faculty runs various workshops on Presentation Skills for PGRs and the tips in this post are designed to build upon some of the important points discussed in those sessions.
When giving a presentation the first thing to consider is your audience. Who will they be and what will they already know? And what will they need to know? Once you’ve researched your audience in advance you are already half way there. The average concentration span of any audience is 5-10 minutes so it is important to make an impression at the very beginning. Although it is essential to keep your audience entertained, you must use your content appropriately in order to avoid losing your credibility.
So how do you remain professional and keep your audience engaged? Although some would argue that the onus is on the audience to maintain their own level of concentration, there are various techniques you can employ to help them to listen, follow and remember what you have to say.
According to Tony Buzan, people remember:
- 10% of what they read
- 20% of what they hear
- 30% of what they see
- 50% of what they see & hear
- 70% of what they talk over with others
- 80% of what they do in real life
- 95% of what they teach somebody else
You have to employ several audio and visual techniques to help your audience follow what you have to say. But the techniques that you do use must be relevant to your discipline. For example, some disciplines do not favour PowerPoint, for others a presentation without PowerPoint will not be tolerated. There is a lot to be learned about this, and about academic audiences in general, from observing your research community. There is a great deal to be gained from being a ‘noticing’ sort of person and this will bring great benefits to you later on.
The content of your paper will be dictated by your discipline and, to a certain extent, the conference at which you are presenting. However, when writing your paper it is useful to consider the following:
- Define your purpose – what is your key message – sum this up in one sentence and keep this handy when you are writing the presentation
- Set some objectives – if your key message is the overall aim then how your objectives will be how you will achieve this aim. For example “This presentation intends to explore new developments in the field of web 2.0 technology. It will do so through outlining several new developments in web 2.0 and a critical assessment of how they impact on the field of researcher development, before providing a detailed case study on…”
- Gather content and presentation ideas – this is where you learn to observe other people. What do they include in the content of their presentations? What assumptions do they make about how much knowledge the audience already has?
- Structure the subject matter. Will your presentation be classical or sequential, where every point is dealt with in sequence? Will it be a comparative study? This is an engaging format in theory but very difficult to do in practice. Problem based? Question based?
- Develop how to present it – how long is your presentation? Conference etiquette dictates that it is very bad form to let your presentation exceed its allocated time slot. Make sure that you practice your presentation in advance to ensure that it is of appropriate length.
Using Handouts and Visual Aids
If you choose to use handouts, the current rule of thumb suggests that these must be no more than two pages of A4 (double sided). Think carefully about how to use handouts too – it’s no use having handouts if you don’t refer to them in your presentation (and I’ve seen this happen a few times!) – they are intended to guide the audience through and this is impossible if they are too dense and difficult to follow. You want your audience to follow you and what you are saying rather than focussing on what your handout has to say. Thing again about your key message and how you intend to get it across. In this case, less is definitely more and your presentation will benefit from handouts that are well crafted and which complement rather than hinder you as a presenter.
This leads me on to using PowerPoint as a visual aid – where less is definitely more. With PowerPoint it is recommended to use the 6×6 rule where you limit your slide to 6 lines, each containing no more than 6 words. Limit the number of slides to below 10. If you are using TV and Video clips then learn how to embed them (there are guidelines on YouTube which walk you through this) and make sure they work on the day.
Venue and Setting
This might seem like an unusual category – but believe me it matters! Often you get no choice as to when your presentation will take place and the venue where it is going to be held. If possible, try and visit the room beforehand to visualise yourself giving your presentation in there. Is the layout familiar? Are there accessibility issues? What equipment/resources are available? What time of day will your presentation take place? If your presentation is first thing in the morning, it is likely that your audience will be alert. If it takes place on the last day of a 3-day conference (and just after the conference after-party!) then you might need to put more effort into keeping your audience engaged.
Once all the logistics are out of the way you can concentrate on developing your delivery style. Wear appropriate attire – some disciplines favour suits, others are happy for speakers to wear jeans. Make sure your voice is projected properly – if you are unsure then ask for clarification from the back of the room as to whether they can hear you. Work on your confidence – if you know that you get nervous then work on a strategy which will help you manage your nerves. And make sure you drink plenty of water to prevent your throat from drying up.
Dealing with Questions
There is more detailed information on handling questions in the blog post on Viva preparation. Most conference papers end in a question-answer session. There are types of re-occurring questions that come up all the time in these sessions and here are a few examples:
- The Summary Question: ‘what you seem to be saying is…Am I right?’ This is often a way for somebody to re-clarify the proceedings.
- The Straight Question: ‘Can you tell me about…?’ This is a direct request for information.
- The Me and Mine Question: ‘When I did X, I found the opposite. How do you explain that?’ Personal experience is used to make a point.
- The Cartesian Question: ‘How can you say X, yet insist on Y?’ Here logic is being used to defeat the speaker.
- The Raw Nerve Question: ‘When are you going to…?’ This is an ill-natured dig.
- The Well-Connected Question: ‘Have you contacted X about this problem?’ Name dropping is used to emphasise power.
There are many resources available to those of you who want to learn more about presentation skills:
•Lawrence, H. ‘Presentation Skills’ in The Postgraduate’s Companion (Sage, 2008)
•Becker, L. Presentation Skills for Students (Palgrave, 2004)
• Presentations, Practice and Feedback Workshops 1 & 2 – appropriate small group tuition – (sign up via the training calendar)
•Improve Your Presentation Skills Workshop – working to improve your presentation delivery style in small groups (sign up via the training calendar)