Public Speaking Challenges

Technical glitches during talks are all too common, but never easy to cope with. Recently I had a simple talk to give, one which could safely be brought along on a memory stick to the event: I was giving a brief talk to a CUSPE meeting on ‘Effective Policy to Bridge the STEM Skills Gap’  in which I had only a handful of slides with some relevant data on, plus a few striking images of the sorts of things that deter girls from sticking with subjects like physics at schools. I couldn’t imagine a problem.

How wrong can one be? I have never seen a computer manage to mangle ten simple Powerpoint slides so comprehensively! Even had I checked beforehand I’m not sure what could have been done. It began with the title slide losing all colour, a trivial irritation. Thereafter it went from bad to worse. The slide advance had a life of its own completely unconnected with the clicker in my hand. This meant the punch of my punchy images was wasted, the slide appearing behind me unbeknownst to me and bearing no relation to what I was saying. Every slide was wrong in a different way. The title words moved randomly over the entire slide, sometimes obscuring the very words/image I was trying to emphasise. The penultimate slide, which contained all my recommendations, appeared in ca 6 point font so that I couldn’t read a word of it from where I stood. So I was left blathering about the policy interventions I thought would be useful since I had no notes to remind me of what they were and peering at the miniscule print did not help. The whole experience was a nightmare.

What should I have done? Done what the other 3 speakers did I suppose. Brought notes written in longhand. One of the speakers had slides but chose not to use them, in the light of my experience (they were all set up in one continuous file); the others had only words and their notes were all they needed. Belt and braces. I’d got cocky and thought I didn’t need anything but that stick. I should have known better (or should have read my own previous post about (Taking Precautions) .

I am, as a scientist, used to giving talks with Powerpoint backdrop. That is the standard presentation format. It works well for other sorts of talks too, when data is to be presented as was the case with this recent failed attempt. But Powerpoint is no use to me in my role as Master of a Cambridge college, in which after dinner speeches – or indeed brief words of welcome and thanks – turn up with a frequency to which I have not as yet got acclimatised. Powerpoint does not work for the after-dinner slot. I fear that if I attempted it I would be met with the barrage of half-eaten rolls I once saw being directed at an after dinner speaker, at a conference dinner held in this very same college of Churchill, when he attempted to sing his way through his speech. He may have been a fine singer, but the international audience had no idea what was going on and lost patience.

So, I am trying to find a new appropriate modus operandi. I have the notes of my predecessor to guide me a little as to content for some of the set piece speeches; but, with the best will in the world, I cannot speak another man’s words in my own voice so on the whole I don’t find these helpful. I have had bad experiences of using paper notes when the venue gave me nowhere to put them and I managed to drop some of the (foolishly unnumbered) pages on the floor. Too often I am given a hand microphone to speak into so that one’s juggling of it plus paper gets irritatingly complicated.

Too often, also, I find that women’s clothes are ill-suited to the lapel microphone (when supplied) with its battery unit. Men in suits have no problem with this: jacket pockets are always available, usually a choice of them. Even if I am wearing a jacket, though, women’s clothes are sadly deficient in pockets. Occasionally I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security at purchase only to find the ‘pocket’ is a mirage of superficiality. Dresses are even worse. It is a rare (and extremely welcome) dress that has useful pockets. I would opt for convenience over the line of my dress anytime, but that is not what the designers believe of us. They dictate what we are allowed to wear and convenience when giving after dinner speeches obviously isn’t high up their agenda. I have, upon occasion, had to borrow a belt from a stranger in order to have somewhere to affix the battery.

My most recent attempts at speech-giving have moved away from paper to iPad (same problem with hand-held microphone of course). This has the advantage of providing its own illumination and I can choose my font size to suit the venue. By which I mean, by the end of a long day in a candle-lit hall, my aged eyes cannot cope with a print size as easily as I can accommodate in full sunshine at 9am. Not even reading glasses can always save the day in bad light. So, iPad speeches with the key facts and headlines highlighted in yellow is my current style. Even this will, regrettably, not solve the problem of the desirability of restricting alcohol consumption through the meal in order to achieve clarity of diction.

Nevertheless I am hoping (at least until I forget to charge the iPad) I will be able to avoid future presentation meltdowns as I attempt to utter words of wisdom to the assembled dinner guests.

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5 Responses to Public Speaking Challenges

  1. Oana Andrew says:

    If you don’t mind me saying, I found out (the hard way) that the safest way to present Powerpoint/Keynote slides is to export them beforehand to a pdf file with all transitions/effects. This removes the problem of missing fonts or other software incompatibilities.

  2. vla22 says:

    So now you just have to make sure you’ve charged the iPad 🙂

  3. Sylvia says:

    I always save my PowerPoint presentations as pdf’s. This avoids changes of font, colour, … when presenting on a conference laptop. If I want part of the slide to appear later, I just make a copy of the slide and erase part of the content on the first one. Simple, yet effective. 🙂

    • Indeed a pdf should have removed the problem. I like always to use my own laptop to prevent problems, particularly with videos etc. But on this occasion I had been careless because it had seemed so straightforward…There were no transitions (or videos) to worry about…..

  4. anonymous says:

    Well, I have to disagree here. It’s not that ‘women’s clothes are ill-suited to the lapel microphone’, rather it’s the lapel microphones that are ill-suited for women’s clothes. There are alternatives to lapel microphones and batteries that have to hang from belts or pockets. What about straps rather than belt clips? Is it really too much to ask that microphones at a conference venue/ lecture theatre could be fitted to both men and women clothes?