I’m writing this a week before I’m due to give a talk at ENTO’19, the Royal Entomological Society’s annual meeting (I’m also on holiday in France, so don’t tell my wife that I’m working). I’ve been struggling a bit getting my talk prepared, probably because being on holiday makes it hard to concentrate on work, so to try and get in the right frame of mind I dug out the talk that I give to our PhD students about how to prepare for and give a presentation 😊 What I say in my talk, which is actually a demonstration, is that the pointers I give are transferable to all types of talk, be it a lecture to university students, a departmental seminar, a talk to a local natural history society, a garden club, a youth group or whatever. The general principles remain the same. As this post is a result of me getting ready for a conference, I will, however, aim this at those of you giving conference talks for the first time, although I hope that some of you with more experience, will read this and add your thoughts in the comments section.
The first thing to remember, is that, as with writing a paper, you are telling a story. You need a clear idea of where you are going, and in most cases, your audience also likes to know where you are planning on taking them. It might seem trite and boring but a slide like this spelling out exactly what you are going to do in your talk, does no harm at all and also helps you get off to a good start, by allowing you to get your thoughts in order.
Tell them what you are going to tell them
So, what is your story? How much time have you been allocated? Who are you talking to? What do they know? The more au fait your audience is with your subject area, the less time you will need to spend on your introduction and the more time you will need to spend on your results and what they mean. On the other hand, if you are speaking to a more general audience you will need to have a relatively long introductory section in which you spell out why what you are talking about is important and worth listening to.
Keep your story straightforward, simple and linear.
You will note that I have put a bullet point called know your stuff. By this I mean make sure you know something about the areas that your subject might impinge on. You never know what someone might ask you, especially when you are talking to a general audience. For example, whenever I am talking to natural history societies, garden clubs or Rotary Clubs, I always check what might be a problem in people’s gardens at that time of year, regardless of what subject my talk is about. Entomologists are always being asked how to kill things. For a conference talk, you won’t have to be quite as broad as all that but do think about what sort of question someone not working in your discipline might come out with. Going back to your timing and structuring, do remember to keep your conclusions (not discussion as you are not writing a paper), as simple and as short as you can. Preferably one or two succinct bullet points, and whatever you do don’t start on to another slide. My heart always sinks when I see a slide come up with the heading “Conclusions (1)”, because as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be another slide with the heading “Conclusions (2)”. At a conference you are competing with a lot of other talks, you want to leave you audience with something that they can grasp easily and which when they leave the lecture theatre is firmly embedded in their minds. The more conclusion points you make the more confusion you sow, you want them to be talking about your work in the bar afterwards, not the number of slides that you had 😊
Avoid big blocks of text, even in lectures; anything that gets in the way of your story and makes it harder for your audience to understand what you are saying is not a good thing.
Not what your audience wants to see
In the same vein, and also something you should avoid, even in a conventional lecture setting, but definitely in a conference talk, are tables, no matter how simple you think they are. Anything that needs the speaker to go through line by line, unless it is in a classroom situation where you are explaining the workings of a calculation, has no place in a talk. Avoid tables, even simple ones, use figures instead. People can absorb figures much more easily than they can text. Keep thigs simple for your audience, don’t get in the way of your story by making things too complex.
Face your audience, speak up and make eye contact. I don’t mean find someone in the audience and stare lovingly into their eyes; scan the whole audience so they feel that you are speaking to them personally. Keep looking at the audience, don’t look at the ground. Don’t use pointers* – they encourage you to turn your back on your audience, they reveal how nervous you are and if your slides are well designed you shouldn’t need them.
Use PowerPoint (or whatever you use for presentations) to point it out for you. Absolutely no need for a pointer, laser or otherwise.
You need to feel comfortable to give a good talk, and this can be affected by what you are wearing. The degree of formality expected, will, to a certain extent, depend on your audience and your seniority. I have written about this before, so will not repeat myself here, but my take-home message is to feel comfortable in yourself and if that means dressing smartly then so be it.
You may be wondering about how to remember what you are going to talk about, do you need notes? Fortuitously, this brings me on to aide memoires and hands and feet. A good talk is a performance. I am, like many scientists, (or is it just entomologists?), an introvert. To give a good talk means engaging with people and projecting your personality.
A good talk is a performance. Use those hands!
A good talk is a performance. This means that you may have to exaggerate parts of your personality, you need to be outgoing, voluble and perhaps even funny 🙂 I wrote about the dangers of unscripted humour last year; unscripted is the key word here. To give a good talk, you need to feel at ease; as well as dressing comfortability and being confident about your story, you need to be able to tell your story without using notes. Notes steal your spontaneity by encouraging you to read from them, they aid and abet introverts by giving you an excuse to look at them instead of the audience. Notes should be avoided. This is where rehearsal and acting comes to the fore. I have been giving professional talks since my first disastrous PhD Departmental upgrading seminar in 1979. I was nervous, ill-prepared, unrehearsed and, as result of a lunchtime drinking session to calm my nerves, slightly drunk. Since that fateful day I have run through my talks at least five times. When I say run through I mean I give my talk, albeit to an empty room, exactly as I am going to give it to a real audience, I use arm movements, I stride around the ‘stage’, I speak as loudly as I will on the day. Treat your practice talk as a rehearsal but not as a ‘by rote’ script, otherwise you run the chance of losing the spontaneity factor. Your choreography and rehearsal should be the only aide memoires you need, although I do find it useful to have a little hint on a slide to tell me, for example, that the next slide is a picture, in this case a red bullet point. Doing a proper, out loud performance also makes sure that you will keep to your time limit.
Two of the slides from my, because I have been on holiday, very under-rehearsed ENTO19 talk 🙂
Use your hands to emphasise points, there is nothing wrong with a bit of arm waving – I do it all the time as you can see from the title pictures 🙂 I also think, unless you arc anchored by a fixed microphone, to walk around a bit. Movement adds life to your presentation. If you just stand behind the lectern in the dark and fixed to the spot, your audience might as well listen to a recorded voice over. Add personality to your talk by being an active participant although too much running around the stage and excessive arm waving might make your audience think that you are attempting take flight and prove distracting 🙂
Something to bear in mind if you are feeling apprehensive, is that the people in your audience have chosen to come to your talk because they are interested in what you are going to say. They have not, well I hope not, come to hurl abuse at you or laugh at your performance. They are a self-selected set of fans, they have come to be informed and entertained, and, if you are confident, have a good story to tell and are well rehearsed, your talk should be fun for you and them.
And my final bit of advice. We all know when we have been at a good talk. What was it that made Dr X’s talk so good, what did she do that you can ‘steal’ to make your talk even better. Conversely, we have all been to bad talks, what made that talk by Professor Y so awful, what did he do that sent you to sleep or made you cringe? Do you have any of those bad habits? If so, brutally excise them from your next performance.
Don’t worry if you feel nervous before giving a talk, I still do after 40 years of standing up and talking at conferences and other venues. A bit of adrenaline helps give your talk that ‘real’ feel.
*I’m not the only one who hates pointers, see this post by Steve Heard