Some more tips on presenting

I experimented a few things with my Preliminary Exam (PE) talk. I think those ideas worked, so let me do a quick recap.

Begin with a personal story
I started the talk telling why I became a water guy. I wanted to lead the audience to the idea that “The key to the future lies in the past”, and I did that by telling about my past and how that influenced me to change the future. I wanted to tell the audience—my Thesis Committee—why I wanted to pursue this topic.

Title at the end
Most of the talks I’ve seen show the title at the beginning—the conventional way. The exceptions are TED talks which don’t display their titles. Since I wanted to frame the beginning of my talk like a TED talk with a personal story opening, I didn’t have a title. My advisor told me that a PhD thesis must have a title (why didn’t I think of that), so I came up with a solution: put the title at the end. Some movies show their titles at the beginning while some other do so at the end; I reckon a talk can do that too. And I built the content of the talk towards that title. So by the time the title came up, the audience knew why and I hope it stuck with them.

The pause
This was actually unintentional, I didn’t realize that I was doing it until later while reflecting on the experience. I presented the main results of the Ping River streamflow reconstruction paper many times before at EGU. During these one-on-one encounters, when explaining that my model fits better to the data than the benchmark, I often paused and let the listener see it for themselves. While presenting the PE talk yesterday, I just felt like it was EGU all over again, and I did the pause too. I’ve read about “the pause” before but haven’t really practiced it. I guess it came subconsciously. But now that I’ve got real experience with this technique, I think it’s cool and I’m gonna use it more.

Rehearsal
Special thanks to my friends J, G and Z for listening to my rehearsals! Always always rehearse your talk. TED talks are all scripted but with countless practices they all sound unscripted. Academic talks are not TED talks, but they need to be well rehearsed too.

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Look at the whole audience, and live in the story

Look at the entire audience, not just the most important person in the room. Student speakers often do the latter. Their eyes are drawn to the figure of authority—in the classroom, it’s the instructor, and in a seminar, it’s the department head or a senior professor. While this is still better than no eye contact at all, it is certainly not ideal. Putting aside the fact that the rest of the audience is ignored, this act weakens your position as a speaker. When you speak to the entire audience, you are a scientist sharing your results with the group. When you speak to only the instructor or the chair, you are a student presenting to a professor (and waiting to be assessed). The two positions are different!

The next piece of advice came from S, my unofficial mentor. He said that when he presents, he lives in the story. Now that just brings the “presenting science is telling a story” idea to a whole new level. If one is able to imagine the entire talk as a story in which he is a character, one can actually act out the story. The message will be loud and vivid.

Now, bring the two pieces together: look at the whole audience, and live in the story. The whole talk has just come alive.

Some notes on academic talks

Over the past two years, I have listened to many academic talks, and I have been paying attention to the speakers. Through these observations, I have drawn some important lessons for my own talks. Here are a few things to look out for.

The title carries the most important ideas of a talk, yet many speakers often fail to highlight it. Most speakers, especially younger ones, just quickly read through it from the slide and jump to the next slide. Experienced speakers, however, often pause to tell a bit more; sometimes they tell a story about the origin of the work, and sometimes they explain one or two key terms in the title if the audience are not experts in the field. Personally, I like to use the title as an outline for the talk. I emphasize several keywords, which appear one at a time on the title slide, and tell the audience that these are the things that I will talk about. I then show the remaining words, those that link the keywords, and along with them I give the overall story of how everything comes together.

The “Table of content” slide is a dreaded one, especially if you show 10 items and read through them one by one. Some avoid this by showing 10 items, saying “This is the outline” then jumping right to the next slide. That does not work either. The content slide, if present, should contain only three or four big ideas that strongly resonate with the title (which, by the way, is still fresh in the audience’s mind). Avoid boring content slide that says “Introduction, Methodology, Results and Discussion, Conclusions”. In an academic talk, these go without saying.

To make people interested in your talk, you must motivate it well. The way to do that is to answer why. “Why this? Why now? Why this way? Why should the readers care?” are the four crucial questions in the introduction of a paper, according to Jean-Luc LeBrun¹; certainly they must be addressed in the introduction of a talk as well. Tell the audience why your work is important. Tell them why you set out doing what you did. Tell them why you did it in this way and not that. Tell them what the results mean to science and to the world. Don’t just tell them “This is the problem, this is what I did, this is what I found, and in summary, we have ABC”.

This one I learned from Joshua Schimel²: end your talk with the Conclusion slide, and leave it hanging there during Q&A until you have to go back to another slide to answer a question. The Conclusion is the juice of your entire work, the “smile” of your paper (Jean-Luc LeBrun again), and the take home message you want the audience to remember. So stay on the Conclusion slide. There’s no need for a “Thank you” slide or worse, a “Q&A” slide; just say it out loud, e.g. “Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your questions.”, and leave the audience time to read and assimilate your conclusions.

Be aware of filling words. One speaker starts every sentence with “OK”, another with “So, OK, so…”, and another with “Basically,…”. One speaker fills every sentence with “like”, and another ends every sentence with “alright”. These filling words are naturally present in speech, but when they appear in every sentence, the speech becomes heavy and distracting. Avoiding them takes a lot of self-conscious effort, but it is doable.

Always leave ample time for Q&A. Questions are very important. Firstly, they help you gauge how well you presented—having many questions indicates that you have engaged the audience and triggered their curiosity. Secondly, questions offer you critics, feedback and new ideas, so make sure they happen.

These are my personal lessons I learned from observing others. This blog post is my self-reminder, but maybe it can help you along the way. Don’t take my word for it though, draw your own lessons from your own observations, and you’ll remember those much better. Have fun doing science and sharing science.

Footnotes:

1. Scientific Writing 2.0—A Reader and Writer’s Guide

2. Why do people blow the punchline in scientific talks? The destructive effect of acknowledgements slides