I’m going to get this out of the way and first say…presentations are terrifying…for me, they are anyway. BUT my adversity to public speaking has definitely become less daunting over with repeated exposure. I’m not sure why, but throughout my ENTIRE undergraduate degree I never had to stand up and give a presentation, so when I had to give my first presentation in my Masters I had no idea what I was doing…
Be prepared. Be really prepared
My first and foremost tip for anyone who is uncomfortable with public speaking is to plan ahead so you can have enough time to prep. I am an anxious person, I literally schedule a two-week reminder for when I have to give a talk, so I have enough time to think about the audience, the story, the format and style.
Hello, meet Practice and Feedback
When it comes to really nailing a talk, practice and feedback are the key. Although too much practice can also be a bad thing! You don’t want to come across as too scripted or even bored because you have practiced too much! Testing out your talk helps you getting into the flow of speaking in front of other people, it also helps you to identify parts of the talk where you are stumbling on, etc. Recording yourself is also another good way to do this.
Organise a practice session with your lab group, your office buddies and other students that might be presenting at the same event! Seeing other people’s talks can also spark ideas for your own. Practice with people that you feel comfortable to receive (and give) honest, constructive feedback, because that is the only way to improve. I find practicing with people that are not directly in my own field invaluable. I practice with my writing group which consists of a bacteria bioinformatician, a marine biologist, a plant geneticist, an avian evolutionary biologist and a invertebrate ecologist and honestly… this is where I get the best feedback. Explaining concepts to a broader audience helps you communicate your ideas more effectively. If you can explain a highly specialised jargon-y concept to someone not working in your field, then you are winning at science communication!
Slides are your sidekick
Depending on what type of speaker you are, the amount of text on the slide is really up to you. If you need some bullet points as prompts, then do it! But let’s all remember a time where we painfully watched someone read off their slides… again balance is important!
I never use animations. There is just too much room for error when transferring your files between different operating systems etc. However, I do use multiple slides to sequentially pop up elements on my slide. Like a flipbook, each slide is almost the same of the previous slide but with some small adjustments. (See here for some examples). I end up with a lot more slides but now I have fail-proof animations! Another trick is to export and transfer your slides as a .pdf so all your customised text and figures don’t move because of incompatibilities between different computers
Sequential ‘pop ups’ help you guide your audience’s attention to exactly what you want them to focus on. Do all the work for your audience by walking them through your argument step-by-step. Never assume they know what you mean. I use a lot of boxes to conceal parts of graphs, I cover my data, and first explain the axes, I even put some made-up data to show them how to interpret these when I finally reveal my own graph. Here’s one of my recent presentation as an example
Questions time is like a box of chocolate
The presentation, you can practice, you know what will happen. But with question time…it is a mixed bag. One trick, I’ve been told, is to anticipate what kind of questions you might get.
Think about: “If I watched my talk, what would I ask?” Practice sessions can help you identify these as well. My supervisor, Dan, even tries to strategically guide the audience to ask a particular question by providing less detail during the talk(!). Having an expectation of the range of questions you might be asked allows you think of a response in advance and even prepare some additional slides that you can tack on to the end of your presentation to really address the question thoroughly. Genius!
I wanna talk like you
One thing I find really helpful is to think back to a memorable presentation you’ve seen and identify what made that presentation so effective. I find myself thinking back to a presentation by an old lecturer A/Prof Greg Holwell. He effortlessly conversed with the audience with stunning photographs on his slides. I think of Dr. Camilla Whittington who had complete control of the whole room while she posed a pressing problem in her field and seamlessly addressed it with her own research. I am reminded of a keynote by Dr. Anne Gaskett, whose personality and casual presenting style made her research even more engaging. Drawing ideas from those that inspire you will help you develop your own style. Channel their confidence and composure!
Everyone responds to public speaking differently. Some thrive in the arena, while others just need “fake it before they make it”. I, for one, definitely fall in the latter category. However, over the many conferences I’ve been to I have managed to see presentations as a fun thing to do where you can show off your own work! Remember to enjoy the process and know that you are the expert of your own work.