Practice, Practice, Practice: Getting that Talk Right

As my last post noted, my mind is inclined to go for a walk during seminars if I’m not careful. Recently these wanderings provoked me to consider all the pitfalls of seminar-giving – by young and old alike. Experience doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom and the best-laid plans can go astray for all kinds of reasons. Nevertheless, the advice to those just beginning to learn the art of giving talks must start with the words ‘practice, practice, practice’ – go through your talk as many times as it takes to feel comfortable. It won’t cure all the problems, or cause the fear to evaporate, but winging it as a novice is never a wise tactic. Indeed, it has to be questioned if winging it is ever a wise tactic but with experience at least comes some modicum of knowing how to pick yourself up when you’ve lost your own train of thought or found the slides weren’t exactly as you’d thought in either order or content.

Here I list some headings of danger areas that can affect anyone, but particularly the inexperienced.

1 Pronunciation

One aspect of practice is to make sure you can actually pronounce the words you are familiar with from reading. It is surprising how even standard English words can suddenly become a minefield. My own bête noire is phenomenology; long, long ago I had a student who always tripped over the word anisotropy – which was very unfortunate given that the word was fundamental to his field of research. But practice may help, though in my case it doesn’t seem to have cured the problem reliably, and at least you needn’t be caught unawares. This also applies to the case of famous authors whose work you want to quote, but whose nationality may be very different from your own with correspondingly unfamiliar syllables in their names.

2 Nerves

Nerves can afflict anyone and probably will. Making sure you have the first sentence or two of your presentation clearly mentally organised in advance may help. But if you are shaking, the use of a laser pointer can be a real give away, particularly if the screen is large and every nervous twitch/shake gets magnified many times for everyone to see. My solution to this is to hold my wrist with my other hand. It has an excellent stabilising effect without being particularly noticeable. Of course, that presupposes that you’ve found the laser pointer: it’s a good idea to try to locate that in advance.

3 Animation

When powerpoint presentations first became common, it was not infrequent to see every slide being animated in extreme ways, with phrases or figures dashing in from all directions in a way that was bewildering or irritating (or both). Mercifully, that sort of animation has calmed down and what is left is usually helpful or at least not distracting. But there is another kind of animation that matters too, the animation of the speaker. You can be perfectly audible but speak in a dull monotone, that doesn’t feel as if you’re projecting or wanting to engage with the audience. In this case it is the lack of animation which is intensely irritating. Inaudibility is always unforgiveable, but it ought also to be unnecessary since any large room/lecture hall should be provided with the necessary microphones. (It is just unfortunate that smart women’s clothes frequently don’t come equipped with pockets in which to seat the mike – and attaching the base unit to one’s waistband can so often end up being undignified, as experience tells me.)

4 Fonts and Colours

When it comes to colour schemes, there are many that work – and even more that don’t. Be aware that a significant number of people are red/green colour blind and eschew pairing those particular colours. The important thing is that your slides are visible, and on figures make sure that different colours are not merely subtly different and hence indistinguishable. I am no fan of fancy fonts, although I can’t get very worked up about the sans serif arguments. But what is undoubtedly necessary is that the size of the font is adequate. Think about this before attempting to squeeze too much information onto a single slide. If you want lots of words to help you remember what you’re trying to say, write yourself notes; the audience doesn’t need to be bombarded with anything other than the salient facts. Which leads me to a common and tiresome phrase….

5 …I know this is a busy slide…

Does it need to be? Do you really need 26 tiny diagrams that no one can see, a table with a dozen columns containing invisible numbers or a bar chart with so much data on it it’s incomprehensible? I think the answer to all those questions is no. If you have a lot of data there are probably simpler ways of representing it, plus a reference to the paper/thesis/report where the full data can be found. What message are you trying to get across that needs all the data to back it up? Typically the audience will not be experts in whatever is your field, although you should always try to establish in advance the likely make-up of the audience. A generalist audience is likely just to want to get the gist of your arguments. Save the detail for group meetings with collaborators, who can appreciate it properly.

6 Timing

Once upon a time, when I was young, inexperienced and overenthusiastic about just how wonderfully interesting my results were, I gave a seminar that lasted an hour and a half at a major research lab. I look back on this episode with shame. Someone should have stopped me after an hour, or at most a few minutes past the hour. If a seminar is scheduled for an hour, that’s the maximum it should last (although I appreciate there are disciplines where longer talks are the norm, that certainly isn’t the case in my field). This is one place where practice really does help, because you can see how long those slides you’ve prepared are likely to take to present. A dry run time isn’t always accurate, for reasons ranging from nerves making you talk fast (or slow) to the talk provoking so many questions as you go along that timing goes out of the window. But, you ought to know roughly how long your material will take to present and, if that vital practice run-through shows you that the material you have is either inadequately short or tediously long, you have a chance to do something about it before inflicting a mismanaged talk on your audience. I wish someone had given me that advice all those years ago to save my embarrassment.

7 Questions

Handling questions improves with practice. Experience will teach you how not to look totally discomfited or dumbfounded by some obvious objection to your analysis you’d failed to think of in advance (though a good supervisor should protect you from this failing by taking you through potential pitfalls); experience will also tell you how to handle the person who has spotted the flaw in your arguments that you did know about but hoped no one would latch on to.  In my experience the worst questions to deals with are the ones you don’t really understand and you cannot tell if the questioner has completely missed the point of the entire seminar, has some bee in their bonnet that you don’t know about or genuinely has some deep concern that you’ve failed to appreciate. Sometimes they are simply asking the question in imperfect English quietly from the back of a large lecture theatre, which makes it difficult to understand however hard you try. All these situations are very tricky but often the best solution is to suggest you discuss it all later over the tea break. This is also the case if some long-running argument is dug up again.

9 Eye Contact

The speaker who stares at their shoes or only looks at the screen is not going to engage the audience. I’m not proposing that you should make eye contact with any specific individual in the audience (unless you’ve agreed this tactic with a friend), but I do think you should look in the general direction of the audience. I find looking at the back wall works quite well, so you don’t have to stare at anyone in particular, but you might fool the entire audience into thinking you’re looking at someone else as long as you look at an appropriate height. You just want to look as if the audience actually matters to you; you may even want to gauge whether they’re nodding and smiling at your jokes. But staring at the floor because you’re frightened you might see someone dozing off or frowning will only make them more likely to do so.

10 Know your slides

Above all, make sure you are familiar with your material. To be honest, I think this is more of a problem for the experienced speaker than the novice, someone who has given a similar talk before, perhaps many times and simply cannot remember which particular slides are included in this particular version. You may think you’ve got that clever schematic to explain a tricky point later, only to find that you’d ditched it for the sake of time and you end up looking wrong-footed if not actually stupid. Even worse is when you find you’ve inserted a slide, perhaps borrowed from a colleague or nicked from the web, that you suddenly can’t remember anything about. Perhaps it uses a technique you can’t explain, or you’ve forgotten the details of the sample. If you get caught out like that all you can do is laugh it off, but it doesn’t look very professional.

There are other pitfalls it is hard to prepare for.  GMP has recently published a post on her blog  where she discusses problems with lecture theatre lay-out (where should you stand relative to screen and computer?) and the dangers of having to speak into a fixed mike if you like to perambulate. These are things it’s very hard to prepare for, because you won’t know the set-up till you arrive and they are concerns I share.  All you can hope is that if you’ve got these 10 potential disaster areas happily sorted, you will have energy and confidence left to cope with any remaining but unknown problems that may turn up.

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5 Responses to Practice, Practice, Practice: Getting that Talk Right

  1. Owen says:

    How well do you think equations work on slides? They were the part that used to make some seminars at BSS hard for me to follow but I can’t tell whether that was because they’re often poorly suited to powerpoint slides or if it was just my poor maths…

    • Jonathan says:

      Purely a personal view, but I like equations in a talk. If you follow them then they can be a huge aid to understanding exactly what the speaker is getting at, especially for physics. The trick is that they’re information dense, just like a complicated figure, and need to be unpacked for the audience. A good equation in a talk comes with explanation and ideally subtitles identifying the key elements, so that even if the audience doesn’t follow the maths they get the key ideas.

  2. Athene, I agree with everything you say and I can still feel embarrassed at the thought of the 75 min seminar I gave as a postdoc. You only do it once though!
    Many potential problems with seminars can be overcome by trying to imagine yourself in the audience and thinking long and hard about what would be acceptable to you as an audience member (you do partly discuss this but I think it is worth emphasising).

    Some years ago I wrote something myself about seminars:

  3. A good couple of tips I heard recently from a workshop on giving presentations:
    -Stance: to avoid slouching or being too tense, imagine a string running through your spine that pulls you up. Go from the string having no tension, hence you are slumped, to being fully taut such that you are overly extended and tense. Then “release” the tension in the string to a comfortable medium. Do this in private and get used to a comfortable stance.
    -Focus on audience/room: to “open up” your focus and attention, before starting a talk take in the whole room by looking into all the corners.

    Interesting points about answering questions. In my experience, students often go into talks really worried about having to answer tough questions. Surely the outcome you want when giving a talk is an interested and engaged audience, which will manifest itself in questions and discussion. Getting no questions, or one’s that don’t challenge or expand your understanding, suggests your work might be utterly tedious or incomprehensible.

  4. KK PhD says:

    Great collection of suggestions.

    I laughed when I read the pronunciation section because I have a habit of mispronouncing or tripping over certain terms like anisotropic, spatial, homogeneity.. In fact it happend in a lecture I was giving today. Embarrassing!

    When I give talks I really like using the “presentation mode” in powerpoint, which gives you an on-screen timer and preview of the next slide on your laptop screen while the full-screen slideshow is showing on the projector. This eliminates the problem of not knowing what’s coming next (and helps you keep on track if there’s not a visible clock in the room)

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