When giving a talk, many people worry about what they will say and getting the facts right. In other words, they think first and foremost about the quality of the content. This often comes from years and years of experience listening to teachers and experts deliver advanced-level knowledge in their chosen field.
In fact, taking the perspective of a listener—rather than a speaker—means that form is equally as important as content. Paying attention to facts like length, speed, organization, clarity, succinctness, approachability, memorability, and energy of delivery exert even more influence on what a listener is able to understand, remember, and feel inspired by than the quality of the content itself. Even if you have brilliant ideas, you’re short-changing yourself—and your audience!—if you neglect to practice your delivery.
Corollary to this, many people think that being an engaging speaker is an innate ability, rather than a skill that can be learned. They think that charisma is something you simply have or don’t. The reality is that engaging public speaking is a form of leadership that can be practiced, honed, and incorporated into your personality by shifting your attention. These skills can apply not just to lectures, conference presentations, and job talks; they can also be applied to networking, negotiating, project management, and even persuasive writing (such as grant writing).
How to Give a Bad Talk
Striking the right balance of form and content is sometimes easier by understanding how not to give a public talk. Here are some things that are sure to distract and annoy your audience, and lead them to tune out from what you are saying:
- Don’t let them see your face (for example, staring down at your notes without acknowledging your audience)
- Don’t let them hear your words (for example, speaking too fast, not enunciating clearly, or stacking up too much unclear jargon)
- Make them worry about you, rather than your talk (for example, by being too fidgety, or by affecting behaviors that signal confusion, bluster, distraction, or overwhelming anxiety—although having the right amount of anxiety can indeed help you be present in the moment, which is a good thing!)
- Bore them to tears (for example, by rambling down garden paths without a clear focus or direction that the audience can discern)
We’ve all seen bad talks, and yet many successful scholars persist in giving them. Why? One big reason is nervousness in public speaking. Commonly cited as the second most common fear after the fear of death, fear of public speaking is incredibly common even among veteran teachers, professional performers and leaders! The trick is to embrace your jitters and channel them into your energy, presence, and engagement. Put differently, don’t try to defray or eliminate your nervousness by hiding behind your lecture notes.
Second, people often misunderstand the purpose of a talk. It isn’t just to deliver information—say, by reading a journal article you’ve written. Rather, a talk has to both interest and entertain your audience. Ironically, doing both of these things isn’t accomplished so much by what you add to your talk, but rather by what you take away to leave just the simplest, clearest, most engaging formulation of what you have to say.
Third, they try to wing it.
Preparing your Talk
Rhetoricians say that public speaking, at its best, is conversational. While the onus is on you as the speaker, you can simulate a conversational style by considering the needs of your listeners.
In general, an audience only remembers 20 to 40 percent of a speaker’s ideas. Even three weeks after a lecture, students typically remember only 10 percent of the lecturer’s main points. What can you do to ensure that your audience remembers the key points of your talk?
It helps to be clear (speak simply), to be organized (to present a logical structure), and to lead with substance (to give clear examples and highlight real-world implications).
From a listener’s perspective, this process involves three steps:
- First, the listener must decide what to pay attention to. Therefore, you need to capture the audience’s attention and retain it.
- Second, the listener must create a mental structure to organize and assimilate the knowledge they are acquiring. So, you need to offer them a conceptual structure—like a roadmap, an outline, or a story—that allows them to easily and intuitively make sense of the facts you are delivering.
- Third, the listener needs to move the facts you deliver into long-term memory. To do this, drive home your main points by emphasizing similarity and contiguity with what listeners already know and understand.
With that in mind, how should you prepare your talk?
- First, generate a lot of ideas. Then trim down the extraneous information, and select only those that are relevant to the story you want to tell. Ask yourself: what are the questions you are most commonly asked about your research?
- Second, narrow down the scope of your topic by asking yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish?” You need to be very specific in your answer to this question. Your answer should also depend on the knowledge level of your audience. This lets you start with a clear vision, and understand which aspects of your work to highlight. Let your goal be the guide of your organizational flow.
- Third, bear in mind how much time you will have to deliver your talk. Many lectures are over-stuffed with more information than the audience can digest, so be sure to include only what is necessary.
- Fourth, prioritize and organize your main points into a structure that is coherent and that flows logically.
- Fifth, consider turning your talk into a story. The most common format for relaying research is to summarize the process of inquiry: for instance, by talking about your research question, your hypothesis, your methods, and your findings and conclusions.
- Consider, instead, that your talk may be more engaging and memorable if you frame your talk as a story (read more about storytelling in our blog post here). Stories entertain, build rapport, and teach. By telling a story, you can naturally arouse your audience’s curiosity, sympathy, and rapt attention.
- One way to do this is by structuring your talk like a quest. This involves telling your audience about what drew you to this research, and why it matters for society:
- Mention why you decided to study this topic in the first place.
- Describe the struggles and difficulties you faced.
- Tell your audience about the discoveries that surprised you.
- Tell them about your “aha!” moment, the turning point when the significance of your work became clear to you.
- Conclude by telling them what you discovered, and why it matters.
The Secrets of Giving a Great Talk:
- Remember that a talk is not a journal article or a book chapter. Listeners can’t process as much information as readers.
- The first thirty seconds have the most impact. Listeners tend to remember what they hear first and last. So, begin with a bang. In the first thirty seconds—roughly the length of an elevator pitch—you need to connect with your listeners, arouse their interest, supply the context, and give a roadmap of what is to come.
- Address the ‘so what?’ question. Make it clear to listeners why they should care by pointing to the bigger stakes of the question.
- Offer a roadmap. Share the structure of your talk with your listeners. This provides them with mental reference points to make sense of your story.
- Maintain eye contact. Eye contact keeps you in touch with your listeners and primes their engagement. Make sure that you don’t go more than 10 seconds without making eye contact with your audience.
- Provide clear, explicit signposts that frame your key points and analytical moves throughout your talk. This reminds your audience of your main argument, and helps them to keep track of where they are in relation to the roadmap.
- Break up your talk every 10 or 15 minutes to refresh your audience’s attention. People often have trouble following a verbal stream of thought after ten minutes, and sometimes even less!
- Use a simple syntax. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and overly long sentences, as these are hard to understand in the context of spoken language.
- Use concrete examples. It’s difficult for listeners to understand a stream of abstractions for very long. Using examples from real life (including popular culture or current events) makes the material relevant and shows how it can be applied to real-world problems.
- Sustain audience engagement. Don’t simply read your talk. Engage and involve your audience through active learning. For example, you can pepper your talk with challenging questions that speak to different orders of abstraction, encouraging your listeners to probe the material more deeply. You can take a break to encourage listeners to share their thoughts about the material with a partner seated next to them (an exercise called ‘think-pair-share’). Or, you can present a case study and ask your audience to express an opinion or comment about the case.
- Finally, use visual or auditory learning cues (such as data visualizations, a PowerPoint presentation, or handouts), or even a demonstration that the audience can respond to. Also remember, though, that these tools can also be a distraction. The golden rules is less (text) is more (engagement)!
Eight Rules of Thumb:
Keep these simple rules in mind and you’ll be sure to give a great talk. Overall it is better to:
- Talk than read.
- Stand than sit.
- Move than stand still.
- Be lively and enthusiastic. Use body-language for emphasis.
- Vary your vocal pitch rather than speaking in monotone.
- Speak loudly and face your audience, rather than speaking into your notes or the blackboard.
- Use visual aids.
- Provide your listeners with a roadmap, an outline of your talk at the beginning.
- Prepare for the worst! Have multiple copies of your presentation in case of contingencies.