Changing Academic Public Speaking

by Paul Edwards | April 19, 2004

The Awful Academic Talk

You've seen it a hundred times:

The speaker approaches the head of the room and sits down at the table. (You can't see them through the heads in front of you.) They begin to read from a paper, speaking in a soft monotone. (You can hardly hear. Soon you're nodding off.) Sentences are long, complex, and filled with jargon. The speaker emphasizes complicated details. (You rapidly lose the thread of the talk.) With five minutes left in the session, the speaker suddenly looks at their watch. They announce -- in apparent surprise -- that they'll have to omit the most important points because time is running out. They shuffle papers, becoming flustered and confused. (You do too, if you're still awake.) They drone on. Fifteen minutes after the scheduled end of the talk, the host reminds the speaker to finish for the third time. The speaker trails off inconclusively and asks for questions. (Thin, polite applause finally rouses you from dreamland.)

Why do otherwise brilliant people give such soporific talks? One reason is stage fright. It's easier to hide behind the armor of a written paper, which you've had plenty of time to work through, than simply to talk. This is a perfectly understandable reaction, and in some circumstances, it's still the best thing to do.

But a much more important reason is that this kind of boring, incomprehensible talk has somehow become a part of academic culture. Graduate students may actually learn it from their professors. Or professors may not consider teaching the skills of public speaking a legitimate part of graduate education. The sciences and engineering have, on the whole, done better on this score than the humanities. Science and engineering students learn early in graduate school to give short, snappy presentations, heavily spiced with helpful visual aids, in direct, ordinary language that focuses on memorable conclusions. Yet even in these fields, many people still have a lot to learn about the skills of public speaking.

One reason this has happened is the dominance of written language in academic culture. Although writing and public speaking are very different arts, it has become acceptable to treat public speaking as the mere reading of a written text. Ironically, rhetoric -- the skill of persuasive oral argumentation -- is one of the most ancient academic disciplines, dating to Plato's Dialogues and before.

Stage fright is something everybody has to handle in their own way. But academic culture is something we can deliberately change. This article reviews the principles of academic public speaking, in hopes of contributing to the long-term improvement of our norms.

Principles of Effective Talks

Any effective talk must do three things:

  1. communicate your arguments and ideas,
  2. persuade your audience that they are true, and
  3. be interesting and entertaining.

In our obsession with persuasive argumentation, academics sometimes forget about the third item on this list. Some people think it follows automatically from the first two. (It doesn't.) Some even scoff at the goal itself. Perversely, we seem to have come to believe that if a talk is entertaining, it's probably not very deep.

These attitudes are seriously mistaken. It is impossible to communicate and persuade effectively without entertaining as well. Keeping your audience interested and involved -- entertaining them -- is essential because in order to communicate your work and its value, you need their full attention.

Listening is hard work. Especially at conferences, where audiences attend many talks over many hours, people need the speaker's help to maintain their focus. This is the true meaning of "entertainment." In an academic talk, entertainment doesn't mean making your audience laugh or distracting them from their troubles. Instead, it's about helping them stay focused on and interested in what you have to say.

No rule applies always and everywhere. But the following principles work almost all the time. Try them! The more you understand the reasons behind these principles, the clearer their importance will become.

  1. Talk rather than read. You'll be easier to understand, and you'll be better able to make genuine contact with your audience. Furthermore, ultimately talking will help you think more clearly by forcing you to communicate your points in ordinary language. There's nothing virtuous about perfect grammar, complicated sentences, and sophisticated vocabulary if your audience can't follow you.

  2. Stand up. This is better for two reasons. First, people can see you better. Second, standing puts you in a physically dominant position. This sounds politically incorrect, but in this context it isn't. Remember: you're the focus. The audience needs your help to maintain their attention. They want you to be in charge. By standing up, you accept this invitation -- making both your job and theirs a little easier.

  3. Use visual aids. This is one of the most important principles of public speaking. People are visual creatures. The old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" is especially apropos in the context of a conference talk, where you don't have time to say very much.

    At a minimum, have an outline of your talk on overhead transparencies. Some people seem to think they're giving everything away by showing people what they're going to say before they've said it. But the effect of a good talk outline is exactly the opposite: it makes your audience want to hear the details. At the same time, it helps them understand the structure of your thinking. Talk outlines should be extremely concise and visually uncluttered. 12-15 lines of text per transparency is plenty.

  4. Move around. It's easier to keep focused on someone who's moving than on a motionless talking head. Hand gestures are also good. It's possible to overuse these devices, of course. Simply crossing from one side of the room to the other every three or four minutes is probably enough.

  5. Vary the pitch of your voice. Monotones are sleep-inducing. Since it's possible to speak in a lively, animated manner without changing pitch, many people don't realize they have this problem. Get a trusted friend or colleague to listen to your delivery and give you honest feedback. (This is an important principle in itself.) Even better, tape or videotape yourself and check out how you sound.

  6. Speak loudly, clearly, and confidently. Face the audience. An important element of vocal technique is to focus on the bottom (the deepest pitch) of your vocal range, which is its loudest and most authoritative tone. (This can be especially important for women.) Speak from the gut, not the throat. Breathe deeply -- it's necessary for volume. Don't be afraid to ask for feedback: "Can you hear me in the back of the room?" Be careful, when using visual aids, that you continue to face the audience when you speak.

  7. Make eye contact with the audience. If this is anxiety-inducing, at least pretend to do this by casting your gaze toward the back and sides of the room. Be careful not to ignore one side of the audience. Many speakers "side" unconsciously, looking always to the left or to the right half, or only to the front or the back, of the room. Here's another place where feedback, either from friends or from videotape, can be helpful.

  8. Focus on main arguments. Especially in a conference situation, where talks are short and yours is one of many, your audience is not going to remember the details of your evidence. In such a situation, less is more. Give them short, striking "punch lines" that they'll remember. They can always read your written work later, but if you don't get them interested and show them why it's important, they won't want to. A good rule of thumb is to make no more than three main points in any given talk. That's about all most people will be able to remember.

  9. Finish your talk within the time limit. Not to do so is disrespectful both of any subsequent speakers and of your audience. Most people's maximum attention span is 40-45 minutes. If you exceed this limit, you'll probably lose them.

    The only way to be certain you can keep within your limits is to rehearse your talk. After lots of experience, some people can gauge talk times accurately without this. But nothing is more embarrassing -- for both you and your audience -- than getting only halfway through before hitting the time limit. One trick is to develop a standard format for your talk outlines, then learn how long it usually takes you to talk about each slide. My own rule of thumb is five minutes per outline slide.

  10. Summarize your talk at the beginning and again at the end. "Tell `em what you're gonna tell `em, tell `em, and tell `em what you told `em": this ancient principle still holds. If you follow this rule, your audience is much more likely to remember your main points. Even more important, it helps you stay focused on the key ideas you're trying to convey.

  11. Notice your audience and respond to their needs. If people seem to be falling asleep, or getting restless or distracted, the problem may not be you. Is the room too hot, or too cold? Too dark? Can people see you? Is the microphone on? Is something outside the room distracting people? Don't hesitate to stop briefly in order to solve these problems. Ask someone in the audience to open a window. Always use the maximum lighting your presentation format will allow. For example, you can usually leave all the lights on if you're using an overhead projector, but you'll need to turn some off to use slides.

    Alternatively, you may have gone on too long, or you may need to speak louder. Whatever the case, notice what's happening and use it as feedback. If you can't figure out why your audience is responding poorly, ask somebody later and fix the problem next time.

  12. Emulate excellent speakers. The best way to become an excellent presenter is to watch really good, experienced speakers and model your talks on theirs. Notice not just what they say, but what they do: how they move, how they sound, how they structure their talks. Add those devices to your own repertoire.

Of course, none of these principles can substitute for excellent content. Nor will following them guarantee that people will agree with you! What they will guarantee is that your audience will understand you, will stay with you, and will remember what you've said. That's effective communication, which is, after all, the whole point.

About the Author

Paul Edwards is an associate professor at the School of Information, University of Michigan. Visit Paul at his home page.

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