A good public talk is like an entertaining, coherent conversation. It requires careful preparation.
As a research communicator, you may be invited to speak at a conference or a public gathering about what research communication is and why it is important. You may also find yourself in a position where you have to help scientists prepare public talks.
“I remind scientists (and myself too) that when talking about your work, it’s often best to tell your story as if you were talking to friends who appreciate you and are hanging on your every word. Let your audience meet the real you. You’ll see their eyes light up and their attention engage.” Nancy Baron, Director at COMPASS, USA
The following guidelines should help you to improve your own performance and help scientists too.
Being boring is the ultimate sin in public talks or presentations. A good presenter is enthusiastic about the topic, and will make the topic come to life with metaphors, analogies, stories and emotions.
The people in the audience are giving their time to listen to you. Ask yourself why they are there and what benefit you can give them. Think about the content, style and visual aids that will appeal to them.
‘Super-prepare’ the opening and final statement of your talk. This way you will start confidently and finish with a memorable exit line.
Breathe deeply, relax and smile (if a smile is appropriate) during your talk. Be authentic and remember to make eye contact with different individuals across the audience while you are speaking.
Speak slowly and use pauses to focus attention.
You do not have to use slides at all, but if you do, use them wisely.
Your slides are not meant to be your speech notes. If you read one text-heavy slide after another, you will bore and frustrate your audience.
Keep text on slides to a minimum — use no more than six words per line and six lines per slide.
Use visuals (diagrams, pictures, charts, etc.) that are relevant to what you are talking about. Stay away from clip art and poor quality images.
You don’t need slides all the way through your presentation. Press the ‘B’ key on your keyboard to fade the screen to black. A mouse click or pressing the ‘B’ key again will redisplay the slideshow.
Avoid the animation function on PowerPoint® where things dissolve, fade, and slip in all different directions onto and off the screen. Instead, use the ‘appear’ function.
Rehearse your talk (out loud) several times and make 100% sure you are well within the time limit.
Visit the venue beforehand if at all possible and introduce yourself to the people providing technical support. Make sure you are familiar with the technology that they use and that everything is working as needed. For example, make sure that the sound system is working if you have video or audio clips embedded in your presentation, and that you know how to adjust the volume if necessary.
In a large room, you may need to use a microphone. Test it beforehand (or during the tea break before your talk).
Take your own remote control and pointer with you, and make sure you always have fresh batteries in your bag. (Be careful not to over-use a pointer and never shine the light towards your audience.)
Dress appropriately and professionally. Avoid “loud” colours and chunky, swinging jewellery that may be distracting. (High heels are also not advisable if you have to get on a stage.)
“When I present science to an external audience, I try to make it personal and make the stories human. I share my passion for making science work for the public good. If I am speaking at a conference, I am amongst my peers who understand the jargon of my research field. But, it would be totally wrong to speak in the same way when I’m addressing teenagers. It is critical to know your audience and to find a way to connect to their interests.” Prof Nox Makunga, plant science researcher at Stellenbosch University
Seeing yourself on video may be the best starting point for improving your presentations skills (and the same is true for researchers that you are assisting with their presentation skills). You don’t need professional video recording for this – just someone with a smart phone recording your talk so that you can watch it afterwards and take note of what aspects of your presentation you need to work on.