Sunday, June 13, 2010

Gaining an Edge

I'm preparing a talk on how to give outstanding presentations entitled, "Rise to the Occasion". So I thought I would mention some of the ideas I will be presenting.

First off, there are a lot of books and articles that focus on techniques, but my talk is less about techniques and more about ideas and approaches to giving presentations. Many people view preparation of presentations as a mundane chore, and, not surprisingly, it shows in the product. My view is that being an effective speaker is a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Science is very competitive, and being an effective speaker gives you an advantage.  There are so many things in science that we cannot control, but learning to be a better, more effective speaker is entirely within our control.  Of course, many science practitioners fail to see the importance of being giving excellent talks (some of the older crowd seem to deliberately give poor talks, as if it is expected of a top scientist).  They can get away with it, but if you are a student or post-doc, giving a poor presentation at an important conference or job interview is the kiss of death.

When you stand up in front of an audience, it is your chance to tell the story of why your content is important and why it matters.  Giving a memorable talk is a way to gain an edge over others who either don't bother to develop their speaking skills or who are too fearful to do so effectively.  In some cases, people don't want to stand out and be different and so remain mediocre so as to "blend in". 

For women, who are often at a disadvantage in science fields and find it difficult to "promote" themselves without being criticized, becoming a really good, even great speaker is a way to excel, to surpass expectations, and to surprise people.   

My talk is divided into three parts: preparation, design, and delivery.

There are two important questions to keep in mind when preparing any talk, and you should ponder them from the start.  The first is: what is your central point?  This may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many presentations you will hear that do not answer this basic question. The second is: why does your message matter to the audience? This may also seem obvious, but some speakers find it difficult to answer.  Pondering these two questions is the beginning of putting yourself in your audience's shoes.  They are thinking "so what?", and if you don't answer that unspoken question, they will likely conclude that your information is irrelevant to them.

Another "big picture" point to keep in mind is to strive for simplicity, brevity, and clarity in preparing your presentation. Resist the temptation to cram lots of information into your presentation, clutter up your slides with decorations, excess text, glaring colors. The more clutter, bulk, and erudition confuses the audience's perceptions and stifles their comprehension. Simplicity allows clear and direct attention to the point being made--and that point is more likely to be remembered later.

To check the clarity and brevity of your message, imagine yourself in an elevator with a stranger explaining what your talk is about. Can you get your core idea and why it's important across in 30 to 45 seconds? If you do this before starting to design your slides, it forces you to make your presentation content tighter and clearer; it also gives you a quick spiel to use at the conference mixer.

Next post, I'll give a few more broad guidelines to keep in mind when preparing your presentations and then move on to design.

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