Ronni Grapenthin - Notes
(he / him / his)
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Geophysical Institute
2156 Koyukuk Drive
Fairbanks, AK-99775

Public Speaking

Published: 2013/04/05

A few days ago, I gave a seminar at a university; they invited me to come visit: flight, hotel, the complete package. I like these kinds of visits! During the day, I didn't just talk for that one hour. I talked all day long meeting with members of the department - faculty, staff, students - answering and asking questions, explaining stuff. Talking science! Most of the people I met with work well outside my area of expertise; although there was a common interest in either volcanoes or GPS. This is really cool because I get to figure out how their work may fit into what I'm doing and vice versa. Also, I get to convince them that what I am doing is worthwhile.

This “giving seminars” business is turning into a more and more prominent part of my work life over the years - as I grow as a researcher, publish more, work at different institutions, and meet more people, my work becomes more visible. This means I get invited to explain what I've done and it becomes more visible - recursion! It's a long, slow, but fun process (advertising your work known that is). Why do I mention this? Because I enjoyed the entire day ... and public speaking used to be something I hated and dreaded! A lot!

Looking back at my history as a public speaker, which I am sure, is shared by many (but I don't have any hard numbers on that, just a hunch - from a small sample of empirical observations, e.g. here), I remember times in school when I pretended to be sick, just so I didn't have to present. I “forgot” materials at home only to have the teacher send me to get them during resess. Later, I made it through my undergraduate years in computer science with the minimum of presentations possible (I think it was 2 presentations in 6 years or so). Not only was I extremely nervous, every single one of the few presentations I gave turned out to be a disaster. This only reinforced my sense of being an awful presenter. Why?

  • I didn't know how to prepare a talk
  • so I wasn't motivated to prepare until the last minute
  • therefore I had a crappily prepared talk
  • therefore I had no time to practice
  • which meant I couldn't figure out that it was awful.
  • which resulted in me even less wanting to give a talk.
  • which meant I was an awful presenter

This list contains two keywords that, when considered, may result in reducing the level of awfulness of your presentation: preparation and practise. I will get to them in a little bit.

At some point in my school career, I am sure, at least one teacher must have explained to me how to give a presentation. It may have been a boring class, or I may have been mentally checked out thinking about playing in the woods, drawing, writing a story, making music, girls, anything, really. I most definitely didn't get the memo that public presenting is something utterly important for a wide range of jobs. But then again, I didn't really know what I wanted to do until much later. So I stumbled along - certainly much to the despair of my teachers and audience. My apologies. And if you have seen one of my recent talks and wonder why I claim any authority on presenting ideas - well, imagine how bad it could have been had I not made any progress at all!

It took several things for me to get to a point where I am mostly enjoying public speaking. Much of this happened during an exchange visit to Iceland where I took a Glaciology, Volcanology, and Image Processing course:

1. I was forced to do more of it: Each of these courses required one or two presentations. In a semester that amounted to about 5 presentations. Most of these ranged from 10-20 minutes, but that's still more exposure to public speaking than I had racked up in my entire “career.”

2. Presenting own work rather than “known stuff”: The courses required us to work on projects which we could mostly come up with on our own. At the end we had to present our results (some times there was a “half-time” presentation as well). While summarizing a paper publicly certainly provides for a good public speaking opportunity, I found showing my own work much more exciting: I was more invested in doing a good job, which resulted in me actually starting to think deeply about how a presentation should be set up - and more importantly: I searched for and discovered lots of advise on this on the Web. I started preparing well in advance.

3. Switching languages helped me turn the presentation into “a show”: It's no secret (at least not to me anymore) that, in addition to conveying your results and ideas, public speaking is a lot about putting on a show. In Iceland, speaking in English rather than German already got me into “pretend mode” and so the public speaking -somewhat unintuitively- became a lot easier. Putting on a show doesn't take away from professionalism and all the serious stuff some academics find extremely important. Understanding that part of your job as entertainment makes the experience much more pleasant for everybody involved: If you're excited about your work it's much easier for everybody else to get excited and follow you along. Keeping a high level of excitement even if you show your work repeatedly is where the “show” comes in: Pretend some excitement if necessary - your audience hasn't seen any of this; likely they don't even know much about the background in your field (that's similar to teaching once you get into this).

Now, I haven't made it to the point where I keep everyone on the edge of their seats for an entire hour, but the number of sleepy eyes and faded faces is continuously being reduced! If people start falling asleep during your talk, they may not dislike your presentation or find your work uninteresting - it's usually dark and late in the day - change your intonation for a while to reel them back in. It's not their fault, they're smart about other stuff, have lots going on, and it's your job to provide them with an exciting, yet somewhat gentle ride.

While learning and understanding these things, I still neglected practicing the talk. For some reason I thought speaking freely prohibits practicing, or else you would end up memorizing the talk. Well, that's wrong! I learned this and a few more things over the last years (and I am sure there's much more to learn):

4. Practice! ... This should be basic knowledge, but even though I write this, I didn't do this until my M.Sc. years in computer science. One reason I mentioned above: the fear of memorizing. I don't want my talks to sound like something read off of a piece of paper - it messes up the intonation which results in unnatural delivery; plus you're less flexible and more scared of interuptions (which happen frequently, esp. during longer talks). The other reason I didn't pratice was that I thought you're either naturally good or you're always gonna suck at it. Turns out that's wrong and I don't know where I got it from. Here is what practising does for you:

  • check of logic / flow of the talk
  • you have to think ahead of time what you want to say about each slide/figure (sanity check, business check -see below)
  • control timing
  • program the auto-pilot which really helps when you're nervous in front of people

5. I started telling stories: That's really the core of what's going on! People like hearing stories. So rather than worry about the Intro, Background, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion standard outline thing, I started to talk more and more about ideas, puzzles, confusion, solution, and speculation. The bottom line is the same, maybe it's all the same. What's different is my attitude: telling stories is fun. Kinda like a treasure hunt towards scientific understanding and new knowledge. This also provides tools to decide what to put in a talk and what to leave out: If something doesn't contribute to or distracts from my story, it gets thrown out. When practicing, it's easy to find out which parts of the story are sticky and should be fixed, where I provide too much detail with respect to the overall point to be made. If the talk ends without a climax then it's organized wrong etc. You'll find that the seasoned scientist will often talk about the “story” they are telling. They mean it.

6. I suffered through much more embarassing stuff: Trust me, the only thing more embarassing than (voluntary!) public singing when you can't hold a tune is public rapping when you can't feel a beat! I did both a few times but retired from that rather quickly (your friends can pretend only for so long). Sometimes I think back to those times and know “at least I won't be doing that!” Since then, I improved my feel for beats, but my skillz in modern rhyme and holding a tune won't make it into public display any time soon.

7. I got to teach / TA: Doing this may be a little more out of your control than any of the other items I listed, but developing and teaching my own course as well as TA'ing labs for intro level courses helped me tremendously in getting used to standing in front of an (extremely critical) audience. Doing so for several hours, several times a week turns the act of presenting stuff publicly into something fairly natural. Although the style of presenting is certainly very different from that of, say a scientific conference. You've gotta make use of what's available.

Here are a few more hints on what to think of when you give/prepare your talk

  • Learn what makes for pleasant visual experiences: Most figures you prepare for a journal article are too busy for a talk - simplify them or your audience will be distracted by trying to figure out what all the stuff means. Really, you should guide your audience through all aspects of your figure. If that takes minutes, it's too busy! Consider throwing stuff out or bringing it up in “packets”
  • Learn to speak freely without memorizing or reading your talk: It messes up your intonation and sounds rather fake!
  • Be excited about what you present! / or upset if something's seriously wrong:Your audience won't be, if you aren't.
  • Be critical with talks you attend: What works/doesn't work? How would you tell the story?
  • Search the web: You might find stuff like this or this

ronni <at> gi <dot> alaska <dot> edu | Created: 2013/04/05 | Last modified: March 12 2019 15:11.