How-to

The mind of a public speaker

Blaise J. Arena
By Blaise J. Arena
August 13, 2020

Some years ago, I was waiting my turn to speak at a big technical conference in Hyderabad, India. There were more than 600 scientists and engineers in the audience. I noticed an Indian army soldier carrying a machine gun on his shoulder appear just a few feet from me. I glanced around and saw another dozen soldiers around the enormous room.

Are they here for my protection? Probably not. Are they expecting a terrorist attack? Well, maybe.

Actually, it turned out that there was a high-level government minister in attendance, and they were there for his protection. I was unmoved. I gave my talk to the biggest audience I’d ever addressed and took some written questions afterward. All went well.

I reflected on the experience later that evening and thought about how far I’d come. Early in my research career, I would have been terrified by the prospect of presenting to a huge audience (or a small one). But I had looked forward to this and had delivered a smooth, well-received talk, unfazed by machine guns. I had made a consistent, long-term effort to develop my presentation skills and overcome stage fright.

I was motivated by two things:

1) The research organization I had joined put high value on communication skills. It wasn’t enough to do good research; you had to explain and convince effectively.

2) I did not want to suffer forever from any anxiety associated with giving a talk.

My approach to developing my presentation skills may help you.

What can make or break a presentation?

Make (you’ll know it when you see it)

  • The speaker is smooth, at ease.
  • She is enthusiastic but explains at a comfortable pace. She highlights transitions when moving to new topics.
  • The speaker admits to some blind alleys and surprises; there are bumps in any research road. She explains how she adjusted and learned. Being candid makes a more personal and interesting story.

Break

  • Slides are too hard to decipher.
  • The speaker switches tracks without warning.
  • He is too slow or fast, or uncertain.
  • The speaker gives a chronological account of every single one of his experiments. This is monotonous and confusing. It prevents the audience from seeing the big picture, if there is one.
  • The speaker ridicules others in his field. I have seen this only a handful of times. Don’t do it, as it leaves a horrible impression. Instead, acknowledge inspiration from others.

Preparation

Preparation will get you 75% of the way toward a good presentation. Too often, people dismiss this and think, “I’ll just wing it.” Some seasoned presenters can get away with this, but for most of us, it is a mistake. It’s lazy and will lead to trouble. Some advice:

Begin preparing well in advance. Take the time to make a thoughtful presentation — and refine it. Throw it together the night before, and everyone will know it. But if you have no choice but to do a rush job, all of these suggestions, condensed in time, will help you. As will becoming more experienced.

Know your audience. Are they unfamiliar with your area? Do they already know your work; that is, are you just giving an internal update? You must design your presentation accordingly. I once saw a world-class paleontologist give a presentation (dinosaur cladistics!) about his work to a large audience of research chemists. We were all mesmerized. When done well, crossover talks can be a thing of beauty.

Tell a story. The beginning-middle-end format has been used for thousands of years because it works. Decide what your core message is and develop a narrative around it. Highlight mysteries and struggles and reach a resolution. If you have engaged the listeners, they will feel a stake in your success.

Choose key experimental results to illustrate your points, without regard to chronology. If you find yourself saying, “And then we did this, and then we did that,”stop and revise. This is absolutely not the same as cherry-picking your data. In fact, it’s fine to show some outliers. This is a matter of presenting relevant information — not showing how much work you did.

Show an agenda slide and tell the audience what will be covered. Refer to it as you move through the story. This keeps your audience with you, and that is what you need. I always have done this, and it really helps everyone, including me, stay on track.

  • Practice your presentation a couple of times, but don’t memorize it. Memorized talks are wooden. By practicing, you become familiar with the flow of your story and can check the length. You may notice areas that are a little rough; refine them.
  • Prepare your introductory remarks. You’ve said good morning — now what? Write a sentence or two to keep in your pocket to get you going. Maybe some background on your work or a big-picture remark about its relevance to the world. Anything to get you off to a comfortable start.
  • Your slides can make your presentation and are worth lots of effort. They will help both your audience and you. They must be readable from the back row. Don’t jam a slide with so much text and imagery that the viewer struggles to decipher it instead of listening to you. Generally, less is more.
  • Here is one of my pet peeves: The speaker presents an elaborate or unfamiliar graph. He has studied it a hundred times, but it’s new to you. He blows through it, assuming it’s obvious to everyone. While the viewer is still trying to decipher it, he moves on. I’ve seen this mistake many times; good speakers don’t do this. Instead, they stop and walk the audience through an unfamiliar plot. Here’s where you put your laser pointer to good use — focus on key features and orient the audience.

Giving your presentation

Stick to your time allotment. It shows respect for the audience and other speakers. If you run over, it means you haven’t prepared adequately. I once attended a talk by a prominent, crusty professor who kept talking past his 45-minute slot, undeterred by pleas form the session leader to wrap it up. He used his time twice over and then announced, “I’m sure you will agree that my work was so interesting it was worth the extra time.” It wasn’t.

Be animated. Point, gesture, walk around a little. Make casual eye contact with the audience; don’t just stare into space. Enjoy yourself.

It’s usually a good sign if you get questions. You can anticipate some of them and be prepared. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.

Stage fright

Most people suffer from this, some severely. There are famous performers who have been incapacitated by stage fright. Don’t let it make you miserable. Let’s try to manage or overcome it.

Preparation is essential. Beyond everything I’ve already said, preparation should also moderate stage fright. Being ready helps!

I’ll add my tips and tricks to the mountains that already have been written on this subject.

The audience is with you. They want you to succeed. Believe that.

Visualize! It really can help to imagine yourself in front of the audience, being interesting and cool. It’s far more effective than visualizing fear and failure. Try it. You can even think of yourself as an actor on a stage.

Train yourself to speak at a comfortable pace. Nervous energy can make you race, leaving the audience wondering what happened.

I once co-authored a paper with an experienced, very articulate colleague. The paper had been accepted by a prestigious chemistry symposium, and we agreed that my colleague would give the talk. I was surprised by how this confident person let the large audience unnerve her. She rushed through. It was a missed opportunity.

The lesson here is that this can happen to anyone, including me. Something I’ve done for years is to write on my notebook, in large letters: “Go slowly, teach.” I stare at it in the minutes before my talk. Yes, you are a teacher, an explainer. You must calm down and move at a moderate pace.

If possible, do a little advance work. If you are to speak in an unfamiliar venue, check it out. Scout out the room during a break, even wander on the stage to get the feel of it. Chat with a few attendees beforehand. This will make you feel part of the scene instead of like an outsider.

You have important experiences to draw on use them. Everyone has faced some life challenges that threatened to overwhelm them. A serious health problem, the death of a loved one or some other tragedy. Keep your public speaking challenge in perspective. No doubt you have overcome far worse things. You can do it.

Conclusion

Over my long career, I have been fortunate to see many technical presentations in a wide range of disciplines — everything from highly detailed internal updates to keynote lectures at major conferences. I have tried to learn from each one. What did the speaker do that was great, or not so good? You should do this too; always learn from others and let them learn from you.

I believe that your speaking goal should not be just to get through it but rather to look forward to it and enjoy yourself.

Let public speaking be a satisfying experience.

Giving a virtual talk

If you haven’t given a virtual presentation already, you will soon enough. This now-common way of communicating comes with some unique challenges. You are right in the face of the viewer, yet you are remote. This makes it much easier to lose your audience. But there is a silver lining in this virtual approach: Stage fright should be greatly decreased.

Here are some tips: 

  • Everything I said about preparation and presentation still stands, and it may take on even greater importance in the virtual world. But two items stand out, and they both relate to how easy it is to lose your audience in a virtual setting:
  1. Give special emphasis to preparation of your slides. Keep them straightforward and easy to grasp. It’s better to have more slides with less information on each slide than the other way around.
  2. Start off with an agenda slide and bring it up as you move along. Again, keep the audience with you by referring to this slide before any transition. You may think you’re treating the viewers like children, but believe me, it will be appreciated.
  • You must find a way to make your presentation stimulating. Don’t let it be just your face on the screen. Nor should you only talk over static slides. It’s best to alternate between your face and the slides.
  • Be animated and upbeat. This will make a good impression, so much better than coming off as uninterested (even if you aren’t). I recently attended a virtual talk by a professor who was obviously excited to talk about her work. She really made it enjoyable and memorable.
  • Make sure beforehand that your setup is effective, including lighting and camera. Avoid a distracting backdrop. Some people show their book collection, knick-knacks, cats, artwork and stuff you can’t even identify. The viewer may want to scrutinize those things instead of paying attention to you. Keep it simple.
  • Some virtual presenters like to have someone in the room with them to serve as a live audience. If this might help you, give it a try. I’m concerned that I might keep looking at the person in the room rather than at the camera. That could be very distracting for viewers, so be careful. Perhaps have the person sit behind or beside the camera.

—Blaise J. Arena

Blaise J. Arena
Blaise J. Arena

Blaise J. Arena is a retired research chemist and project manager with a developer of petrochemical processing technology. He is the author of over 50 patents and publications.

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