Express Yourself: Giving Good Presentations
I was recently apart of an interesting conversation about speaking styles. Robin, a frequent poster, mentioned that she mentors her students on speaking styles when they are practicing giving talks for conferences or for interviews. We were particularly discussing Up Talking. First, let’s define Up Talking. Up talking is when every sentence sounds like a question – even if it is a declarative sentence. Here is an example:
Regular declarative sentence: “The sum of the angles on a sphere is greater than 180 degrees.”
Now, restate the sentence with up talking: “The sum of the angles on a sphere is greater than 180 degrees?”
This speech pattern is often designated to young women – particularly teenagers. It is called up talking now, but when I was a kid, it was called a Valley Girl accent. In its native environment, it is often associated with a huge number of “ums” and likes,” as so, “Like, the sum of the angles on a, like, sphere, is um, like, greater than 180 degrees?”
Like Robin, I mentor my students about their presentation styles and specifically point out when they Up Talk. It is not just a plague of young women, I should note. I have met several male professors who Up Talk during regular conversations or during presentations. There are other things to keep in mind about presentations.
(1) Tone of voice. We just discussed Up Talking – don’t do it. Every fact should be declared, and the end of the sentence should go down in tone – not up like a question. You should also have a lower voice. Especially if you are in a male-dominated field – which is almost every field of science once you get to the professorial level – you need to speak with lower tones. Men have a harder time hearing higher tones. If your audience is mostly men, you want to be heard, so you should practice lowering your voice during speaking. Also, avoid too much “vocal fry,” the rasping vocalization that is now attributed to young women, too. I should note that some recent press has pointed that a little vocal fry helps women to lower their tones and be taken a bit more seriously. Hilary Clinton uses mild vocal fry to accentuate points with lower tones. If you are worried your voice will waver due to nerves, you just need to practice, practice, practice.
(2) Use of pointer. If you are nervous when speaking, your hands might shake. You should put two hands on the pointer to steady it. Also be careful not to point off the projection screen and not in the faces of the audience. Make sure you are pointing where you want the audience to look. If you cannot use the pointer well, it is better to not use it at all.
(3) Body movements and gestures. I am a really animated speaker. I gesticulate a lot with my hands and have been known to use my entire body to make a point about my science. I try to do at least one dance in each talk I give that illustrates my point. But, I try to not randomly pace back and forth. I try not to fidget too much. I want my gestures to have meaning for my presentation, and I try not to gesture for no reason.
Another good hint for presenting both in seminars and when teaching – go into the audience. I know it sounds strange, because there is this barrier between the speaker and the audience, but walking into the audience can connect you to the audience. It works very well during questions if you walk toward the person asking the question – into the audience if you can – it demonstrates a caring for their question and ideas. It shows warmth and respect, but you still command the presentation.
(4) Demonstrations and Active Learning. This sounds like I am talking exclusively about teaching, but I am not. If demonstrations and active learning can wake up an audience of students who might not want to even be there or listen to your lesson, think of how powerful it could be for a group of people already interested in the topic of your talk. At a recent SmallResearchConference, I gave a 20 minute invited talk. The 3rd of the day of 12 talks that ran from 8 am to 10 pm (with a long afternoon break). I used demonstrations and active learning techniques to engage the audience. I let them know what I was doing, and many loved the active learning aspects of the talk. I had a number of people ask me about best teaching practices afterward, and many loved the talk – even if they didn’t work on exactly what I did. One conference attendee came up to me and said, “I am from a SmallLiberalArtsCollege, and I use active learning in class. At first, I thought it was stupid to use it in a talk at a conference. But, you know what, I remember your talk better than any of the others. So, I think it is good to do.”
If you are giving a job talk, you should definitely do this. At many research universities, you don’t give an example teaching lecture, so your research talk must demonstrate how well you can teach as well as your past, present, and future research. Using demonstrations and active learning techniques will enable the interviewer faculty that you are good at presentation and will likely be a good teacher.
I am sure there are other things to consider, but this is what I thought of at first sitting. Post and comment to give more advice about best practices when presenting your work.