Tomorrow I travel to Saarbrucken to give an invited  seminar at Saarland University. It will be my seventh and penultimate talk of the academic year (with my last talk scheduled for ICOM in York at the beginning of August).

Chris Moulin
Chris Moulin: My PhD supervisor and one of the best academic public speakers I have encountered.

I don’t much enjoy giving talks.  In fact, if you had told me a year ago that the within my first year as a full-time lecturer, I would be obliged to give eight academic talks, I may well have reconsidered whether I wanted a career in academia at all! This may sound like quite a strange position to be in given that my job-title, ‘Lecturer’, doesn’t exactly lend itself to someone who doesn’t enjoy speaking in front of an audience. But my enjoyment of conducting research and disseminating it through written media generally overrides the revulsion I feel for public-speaking enough to make me think of my job as one I love doing.

I haven’t always disliked giving talks as much as I do now.  In fact, I can pin-point the moment my healthy disdain for them matured into a bravado-less fear to the moment I realised that my talks were sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally unpredictable.  This realisation came as a direct consequence of feedback I received from my postdoctoral mentor following a rather bad talk given for the  Brain and Behavior Colloquia series at Washington University in St Louis.  I hated receiving this feedback, but it has done me the world of good, and I’m thankful I went through the few seconds of intense personal embarrassment and the couple of days of painful rumination to get to where I am now.  The feedback I was given was a much more tactful paraphrasing of:

“You’re no Richard Burton. You can’t talk endlessly and engagingly about something that people don’t inherently find interesting. You therefore need to plan and practice your talks accordingly.”

Receiving that feedback made me realise that I wasn’t going to get better at giving talks by simply giving more talks as I had been giving them.  I’m not a natural public speaker, so I shouldn’t expect to adopt the style, in preparation and delivery, of a natural speaker and hope everything falls into place. I was going to get better at giving talks by honing how I prepare to give talks and practising the hell out of their delivery.

I now hate giving talks because I’ve experienced the clear benefit that a revised, personally-appropriate talk preparation has on the quality of my delivery. I know that the quality of my talk reflects directly how much time and effort I have put into its preparation. The audience’s judgement of my talk feels like much more of a valid judgement of me than I used to think it was, and of course, now, it is. I now hate talks because I know that if I spend weeks preparing them, they will go well. To do anything less for a talk I care about would simply be irresponsible.

I now have a quite rigorous regime for talk preparation and delivery as follows:

  • I plan and construct the slides for the talk weeks in advance.
  • Once the slides have been written, I script the talk. I don’t think there’s any shame in this as long as you have weaned yourself off the script by the time you deliver your talk and it seems that others agree, see Lifehacker’s post on nailing your talk à la Malcolm Gladwell.
  • I iteratively refine my slides and script through daily practice. Easy for a 15 minute talk, more challenging for an hour-long seminar.
  • I learn when I can ad lib, and when I must stay on script. Some points are so complicated or nuanced that they require minimal deviation from your script.
  • I wean myself off my script through dress rehearsals. I don’t mean that I wear my conference garb every time I  run through my talk, but I try to deliver the talk as I intend to deliver it on the day. I practice my pace, my volume, and my phrasing. For example, when I am delivering a bad talk, I speak too slowly, too quietly and I tail off at the end of sentences. Reversing all of these bad habits during practice runs has stopped me defaulting to this state on final delivery.
  • I use my own laptop (PC) to present the talk.  Conferences tend to provide additional VGA cables to which Mac users can connect their laptops. Using my own PC laptop with this cable instead of the pre-supplied PC minimises the chances of media files going astray and Powerpoint versions causing problems.
  • I remove myself from the lectern. This takes a bit of guts at first, but it removes the temptation to read slides. It also introduces more naturalistic and conversational hand movement. I not a big gesturer, so I don’t think too many people find my hand movement off-putting. If you look like a semaphore signaller when you talk, this might be something to work on reducing!
  • I make sure there is water available to sip on during the talk. Again, taking my first sip is sometimes awkward, but not nearly as awkward as a gummed up mouth adding unnecessary consonants to my otherwise well-delivered talk.
This regime helps me to deliver better talks, but it has also had knock-on benefits to other aspects of my presentation:
  • I now write better slides because I have more confidence in my delivery.
  • I can upload my slides with script to the blog. Of course, the final version of the talk I give will deviate significantly from my script, but the script is still useful in helping people make sense of my slides.
  • I don’t overrun my scheduled time because I have had so many opportunities to practice this. This helps to keep stress levels down.
Of course, this approach is totally unsustainable when delivering a programme of lectures, but it’s great for one-off events.  In fact, I would go as far as saying that it got me a job and helped me to deliver a some of the best academic talks of my career along the way.