I know that I do. Unfortunately, as scientists the medium through which we often present our findings is through either a poster or seminar presentation. Either way, it involves standing in front of a group of people and telling them the story of your research. Easy, right? Wrong.
Apparently more people have a fear of giving presentations than of dying! I am happy to share that I do not enjoy giving presentations. I get horribly nervous before hand, the night before might be sleepless, and then you have the anticipation of the questioning afterwards. However, I learned during my graduate studies that, no matter what I am going through, it is unusual that the audience will realize, and that helps my confidence. I saw a wonderful presentation recently given by Jean-Luc Doumont ( www.principae.be ) about how to give an effective oral presentation. I won’t reiterate his points about how to structure it (for that you can easily buy his wonderful book – Trees, Maps and Theorems), but I will share the key points about the “art” of giving presentations.
I will tackle my major problem first. Being nervous is natural, and it shows that we care. We need to accept it. The stress is going to give us the energy to get through the performance. Try to reduce the stress by eliminating all the unknowns – therefore know your content and practice it for timing and vocabulary (be able to do the talk without the slides!!), know who you are presenting to and why, if possible know the room you will be in. During the talk try to pace yourself, talk and breathe slowly. If you feel that the talk is going badly, take a moment to collect yourself. If you are quiet for a few seconds, no one will notice, but they will appreciate the improvement in your presentation.
We need to remember that we are presenting for our audience and not for ourselves. Therefore, we need to beat jetlag, bad food, language barriers, and problems with the room by being well prepared and confident; speaking slowly and keeping things simple. A number of the people watching the talk may not be experts in your field so assist them by spelling out why they should care about your research. Once you have hooked them in, you can become more detailed – but ensure they are along for the ride and not a confused observer.
To keep the audience’s attention, alter the rhythm, speed and pitch of your voice. Speaking softly and slowly is a very effective attention grabber – but you can only do it for short bursts of time; use it sparingly to highlight key points. Repetitive gestures or sayings will also distract your audience. Try to keep everything from your chest down still as this also has the advantage of projecting confidence. What do you do with your arms when you aren’t making specific gestures to highlight points? Keep them by your sides, in your pockets (but don’t play with their contents) or behind your back. Try to eliminate unnecessary words – Umm, like, okay should not be fillers, a moment of silence is preferable and actually allows a longer period of thought. Make eye contact with the audience. If you look over or between people, they do realize and it is off putting. Smile at the audience, it actually improves the quality and tone of your voice!
Finally, how do you answer the long anticipated questions? Do not rush your answers. Repeat the question to ensure you understand it correctly and don’t be afraid to be honest. If you don’t know the answer; admit it. If you think the questioner won’t like the answer; say it but don’t be offensive. If you are being aggressively questioned, the audience is automatically on your side. Therefore, don’t lose their support by being aggressive back; remain calm and professional. A pause before answering can quiet the atmosphere. You can acknowledge the person’s concern at the emotional level but disagree with their opinion at the intellectual level. Ask the questioner for specifics and turn the questioning back on them. The power is held by the person asking the questions, not the person who is speaking!
As I have presented more, I am slowly gaining confidence. I am not convinced I will ever enjoy it, but I have used a lot of the advice given by Jean-Luc over the years, and it has certainly helped. One thing I found very useful was to be videoed and to replay it. I realized I had a nervous tick of playing with my hair. For the past 8 years, I always presented with my hair tied back to reduce the temptation to fiddle with it. I have now mastered talking without playing with it as shown in the photo. I presented in March 2012 for the first time with it down and am pleased to report I didn’t touch it once! Giving presentations is a skill that we improve each time we do it, and we will each have our own coping mechanisms. What do you do to keep your cool during a talk?