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Advice to speakers

The postdocs here are about to be sent on a communication skills course. The idea is to improve our presentation skills to help both our careers and the outward impression of the institute (if the staff are more articulate when speaking in public, people go away from talks with a better impression of the place and are more likely to remember the cool stuff happening here). It's not a bad idea and I'm actually looking forward to it, but personally I think such training would have been useful at PhD level - not everyone who does a PhD goes on to become a research scientist, but everyone needs to communicate and scientists do have a bad reputation for this particular skill (it's not hard to see why).

I've lost count of how many talks I've given since I started my PhD back in 2003. A great number of those have been public or schools talks rather than scientific presentations (in reality these are a lot closer in form than you might think - a conference talk does not have to be incomprehensibly full of jargon in order to be good), and I've taken part in science debates and radio shows. One reason I started doing outreach was precisely because I hated public speaking: I knew I'd have to overcome this if I was going to stay in research. Today I still get very nervous before standing up to give any kind of talk, but I have become much better at hiding it - to the extent that people no longer believe me when I tell them I get nervous...

So, having given many talks at all levels, recorded some of them so I could listen back and find ways to improve, listened to a great many good (and bad) colloquium and conference speakers, interviewed people, been interviewed myself, been a guest on the odd talk show, and recorded many hours of podcasts, here are a few bits of advice I would give to speakers based on what I've observed:

  • Do not address the screen - you are meant to be talking to the audience; they came to hear what you had to say, not read your slides and admire the back of your head (however impressive it might be).

  • Do not assume your audience has the same knowledge of the subject as you and your collaborators: some of them might, but many wont. This is especially important in a public talk, but it also goes for conferences - do not assume the audience knows everything about your particular bit of the subject (I've seen speakers get this badly wrong and send a room full of physicists to sleep - it's not a pretty sight).

  • Do not assume the audience want to know the subject in the same level of detail as you and your collaborators - this is a one-off talk after all, not an undergraduate lecture series. If someone really does want all the gory details, they can always ask you later.

  • Do not fill your slides with words - trust me, your audience can read faster than you can talk. If I want to read what you did, I can look at the conference proceedings later. On a related note....

  • Use images wherever possible. Make yourself short notes if you need them (there's nothing wrong with that) but make them short enough you can remind yourself of what you wanted to say with a quick glance - don't stare at your notes either!

  • Project your voice - if your audience can't actually hear you, what's the point in talking? This can be a tough skill to master, but it's worth it.

  • Talk at a reasonable pace - too slow and your audience will fall asleep, too fast and some of them will be unable to keep up. (This is one I know I'm often guilty of myself - I often speak quite quickly, especially when I am excited by the subject, and it is something I have consciously been trying to change. May be I should stick to researching boring stuff?)

  • Don't talk with your hand in front of your mouth - as well as making your speech indistinct, if anyone in your audience is hard of hearing (what's the average age of a conference audience?) they may well need to see your mouth in order to understand what you are saying.

  • Make sure you end with a conclusion - remember the old adage: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell you what you've told them. A talk without a conclusion is like dinner without dessert, you leave the audience feeling like something is missing (and wondering what the point was).

  • Don't spend 45 minutes of a 50-minute talk introducing the background information, your audience wants to know what you found, not take a lecture course in why you asked the question.

  • Record yourself - it may be painful to watch/listen to yourself give a talk, but at least you will discover what mannerisms you have and can then learn to avoid them in future.

This is just what comes to mind at the moment of course, it is far from a complete list of things to avoid / common mistakes made when giving presentations. The important thing to remember is that you could be doing the most exciting science in the world, but if you are unable to communicate it then you may as well not do the research in the first place.

Oh, and for a highly entertaining read on the subject of scientists and communication, I'd recommend Don't Be Such A Scientist by biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson.

Posted by Megan on Saturday 05th Nov 2011 (17:03 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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