“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy” – Jerry Seinfeld
Here’s a question for all those beginning their PhDs in the sciences. What’s the point in carrying out those great experiments and collecting all of that intriguing data if you can’t effectively communicate it to others in your field? Many people struggle with public speaking. There’s no magic trick to improve, it’s just like everything else, it takes regular practice.
Before my PhD, I did not enjoy public speaking, and would become increasingly anxious the week leading up to my presentations. Often losing sleep over it. However, after much practice, I now no longer suffer such anxiety, I thoroughly enjoy giving talks and seek out more public speaking opportunities.
This year, at the Microbiology Society Conference in Birmingham, I gave a very successful talk about my research. Shortly after I won an award for the best talk at our annual 2nd Year Postgraduate Symposium. This would not have been possible if I had not attended a public speaking course during the first year of my PhD.
In this course, we were divided into small groups, and each week 3 of us would give a 20 minute presentation. At the end there was time allocated for questions as well as constructive criticism. Aside from the practice in public speaking, the critique was the most useful component of these sessions. After a while, I began to notice some common mistakes often made during a talk.
In this post, I will outline these mistakes as well as suggestions on how to avoid them. Hopefully this will be useful to anyone looking to improve their presenting skills.
Timing & Pace
The first thing I need to know before I begin to plan my talk is how long I have to speak. This has a huge impact on the content of my presentation. If the talk is short, I will only include the most essential information. People often make the mistake of talking faster, rather than removing non-essential information from their talk. The only thing this guarantees is that the audience will not understand what you were talking about. You should always aim to deliver your talk at the same pace you would use in a conversation. If you do this, there is a good chance your audience will understand and remember your talk.
Everyone gets nervous, some just show it more than others. Nerves can make your voice shaky, you can forget things, and in the worst case, completely freeze. My solution to this is rather simple. At least 5 minutes before you begin your talk, start taking slow, deep breaths (my smartwatch has a neat function for this purpose). I find that once my breathing is under control, the rest of my body is under control. My heart is no longer pounding, my hands aren’t shaking, and the feeling of being nervous has decreased. I still feel a little bit nervous, but I think that’s important in order to remain focused.
Language & Terminology
This depends on the audience, but in general, its best to avoid using overly-complicated language. Scientists have a tendency to use complex words, sometimes to make themselves sound more intelligent. More often than not it simply leaves listeners confused. If there are complicated terms that you simply cannot avoid, be sure to provide enough explanation so that the audience understands what you are talking about.
In my opinion, a talk is 1/3 planning, 1/3 verbal, and 1/3 physical. Therefore what your body is saying is just as important as what your mouth is saying.
The audience will notice if you deliver your talk looking at your feet or the screen in front if you. They will then quickly conclude that you lack confidence. When giving a talk, always face your audience directly. For small venues, make eye contact with different areas of the room. If you’re not comfortable with that, look at foreheads instead of eyes, you’ll usually be far enough away that the audience will not be able to tell the difference. If you can do this successfully, people will take note of how confident you are in what you are saying and they will be drawn in.
Don’t Hesitate, Gesticulate!
When I’m giving a talk, I find it easier to focus on what I’m saying when I pace around, and I very often use my hands to emphasise the point I’m making. Maybe you don’t like to move around, that’s fine. However, try to avoid delivering your talk with your arms completely stationary. Whether they’re by your side, fidgeting, or across your chest, this will again make you appear to lack confidence. So try to use your hands at least to some degree when giving a talk. Maybe you’ll find it won’t help you, but it may help your audience better understand you.
(Sidebar – I’m not a fan of Trump but he’s a great example of someone who uses their hands to emphasise a point)
Most talks will include a short Q&A session. In my experience, people seem to dread this almost as much as the talk itself. This fear seems somewhat irrational to me considering the following:
- People typically ask questions because they are genuinely interested, not because they want to trick you.
- If you’re delivering a talk on your own research, it’s likely that you already know the answers to most of the questions that will be asked.
- Don’t be afraid of the question you don’t know the answer to, these are often very insightful and can help your project by highlighting potential experiments you would never have thought of.
- If you’re stuck and you don’t know the answer to a question, just say you don’t know! (Be sure to expand on this, see below)
Q “Have you any idea what the mechanism behind X is?”
A “At the moment, we’re not sure, however it was recently reported by another group that X may be interacting with Y to bring about changes in Z. This is something we’re very interested to look into”
If you can master those tips, you’ll likely notice a significant improvement in your presentations. However, the way in which you organise your powerpoint (if you are using powerpoint) is just as important as the points outlined above. But I’ll have to make another post to cover this area in sufficient detail.