Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Don’t Make This Mistake When Giving a Talk

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in giving a presentation is to treat it the same way as you would a paper. Some speakers think that the way to give a talk is to simply read the paper they've written on the topic. Variations on this include reading detailed notes or putting the text on the slides (and then reading it). Reading your paper can make for a very boring talk that is often difficult for the audience to follow.

It's not only the droning voice that's a problem, but the underlying belief that talks are not different from papers. Failure to recognize the difference starts you off on the wrong foot. By all means, use your paper or thesis as a guide, but create a presentation, not another document.

It’s important to plan your talk for your anticipated audience and always keep your audience in mind when designing your presentation. You need to: 1) select a limited number of the most important points from your work that you wish to make (preferably one memorable “take-home message”), 2) prepare a brief, but good introduction that places your research in context (the more interesting, the better), 3) design very simple, easy to read slides, 4) provide only enough methods detail for your audience to understand what you did, 5) redraw graphs, diagrams, and other illustrations (don’t just cut and paste the figures from your thesis or paper) that help your audience understand your results in a few seconds, 6) come to a simple, memorable conclusion (or at most 2 or 3 important points).

The listening/viewing audience is very different from the reading audience (who can take their time to ponder your statements and illustrations or reread sections they do not at first understand). People now are accustomed to getting information accompanied by lots of visuals, so the lack of it seems boring (even if it's not). Note that it's possible to give a compelling speech without visual aids (see previous post: “Ain’t I a Woman?”). But in most scientific presentations, it’s expected that you will be showing data and diagrams. So, how that information is presented can make a huge difference in audience understanding and retention of the information.

Most importantly, if you fail to design and deliver a talk that helps your audience understand your work, they will get the message (either consciously or subconsciously) that you do not care about them or their needs. There is no incentive then for them to make an extra effort on your behalf and may turn off completely. Why should they pay attention to you if you so clearly do not care about them?

So why do some people insist on reading their papers? See the next post to find out.

No comments: