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How to Give a Good Talk

How to Give a Good Talk

When I first started laboratory research, I was terrified of presenting at lab meetings. The thought of speaking publicly outside a scientific setting was scary enough, and the thought of speaking about science to a group of people who were way more experienced than me was nearly vomit-inducing. Over time, I have improved and even earned awards for my presentations. I have been asked how I became a confident and effective speaker, so I thought I would share 10 tips that have proved especially useful.

  1. Make your visuals clear and uncluttered. Everything you show should have a purpose. Do not throw up a random graphic simply to fill space. Every visual you show should convey valuable information, and this information should be organized in a way that helps you follow a logical thought trajectory.
  2. Know your audience. Speaking to a group of specialists is a different beast than speaking to the general public. Your specialist colleagues will not appreciate an intro that sends them back to college survey courses, and your generalist audience will equally loathe field-specific jargon and technical tedium.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. You know who can pull off an unrehearsed talk? Experienced, talented speakers. You know how they get that experience and hone their talent? Practice. (Pets are excellent judgment-free practice audiences.)
  4. Consider writing out your talk to practice, but do not read in front of your audience. If you are having trouble getting through your introduction without saying "um" 30 times, sometimes it helps to just write down the train of thought you want to follow until you hit your stride. Just do not read at the actual talk - it is a huge barrier to your connection with the audience.
  5. Wear something comfortable yet professional. If you feel itchy and awkward and stiff, you will be perceived as itchy and awkward and stiff.
  6. Breathe. Instead of saying "um" or "like," if you feel you need to pause, just take a breath. It is far less distracting (and ditzy sounding) than the alternative.
  7. Use a laser pointer & slide advancer. Possibly nothing is more awkward than watching someone contort their limbs into unnatural positions to point out something on a screen, interspersed with sprints back to the computer to switch the slide. All this movement is distracting - for both speaker and audience. Devices exist to help you avoid these problems. Invest in one of these devices, or borrow one from someone. (I swear by this one.)
  8. Have your computer situation on lock. If you need to load your presentation onto someone else's computer, do this as early as possible, and test that everything is working properly. Many an excellent speaker has been derailed by an ill-tempered computer.
  9. View your presentation as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Giving a talk can be genuinely fun once you realize it is a chance to show off all the hard work you have put in and seek valuable feedback from your peers. Be proud, and get the recognition you deserve.
  10. Teach and/or go to Toastmasters. Face the fear head on. If you are truly panicked at the thought of speaking in front of people, both teaching and Toastmasters can really help with this. Yes, you will be anxious, and you will likely loathe the experience (at least in the beginning) for the stress it induces. But it will truly help you master your fear.

None of these tips will instantly turn you into Martin Luther King, Jr. (the God of all speech givers), but they will certainly help. For me, the ability to give a good talk was mastered by steps 1 through 9, but it wasn't until I taught my first class as the sole instructor that I finally stopped feeling like I would poop my pants each time I stood up to speak. Thankfully this never happened, and here's hoping it never does - to any of us.

Above photo: Dr. Sheila Patek demonstrating how a polished, charismatic, engaging explanation of science can convince even Republicans that science funding is important. (That's seriously what's happening in this photo, which was originally posted here by Duke's The Chronicle.) Check out Sheila's TED talk here.

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