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Stand out as a speaker

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Science  23 Aug 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6455, pp. 834
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6455.834

I had been rehearsing my speech for days, but I was still stressed out. I was in the first year of my Ph.D., and my previous public speaking experiences had not exactly been successful. The first one, a presentation to a jury of experts for doctoral funding, had ended in a rush because it was too long; I didn't get the funding. During the second one—the defense of my master's project in front of familiar, benevolent professors—I had been unable to control my shaking voice, which gave the impression that I was about to burst into tears. Now, I was a few hours away from giving my first oral presentation at a conference, practicing the relaxation exercises I had learned for the occasion and hoping I could get through this one without incident.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I never would have thought I would someday be so eager to give presentations.”

When my turn to speak finally came, I focused on time. I would have to speak fast to present all the information I had planned. Fifteen minutes later, I finally relaxed, proud of finishing on time and speaking with a steady voice. I had no idea whether the audience had learned anything, and I did not really care, because it was over.

I continued to view my talks this way until about a year later, when I made a presentation to a nonscientific audience. Their questions made it clear that they had not gotten the message I wanted to convey. Suddenly, I realized these people probably felt the same way I did after watching a disappointing presentation: The speaker was not engaged with the audience at all. And I realized that I didn't want to be that speaker. I wanted to do better.

Instead of trying to bombard the audience with as much information as possible, I began to care about what people would take away from my presentations. I sought advice, added pictures and animations to my slides, removed text, wrote a script to use as a roadmap, and rehearsed—a lot.

My efforts rapidly paid off. My audiences started to appear energized and invested in what I was saying, and their questions showed that they had learned something. My confidence grew. Receiving positive feedback from audience members inspired me to continue building my presentation skills and trying new things. Giving talks became invigorating instead of a chore.

Now, 6 years after that first conference talk, I welcome opportunities to give oral presentations. Although I still feel some stress, I enjoy each minute of my talks. I never would have thought I would someday be so eager to give presentations, but some practical tips helped me get here.

CURATE. To keep your audience tuned in, keep your presentation focused on one main message. Each slide, each word, should be carefully chosen to convey that message. You can always prepare additional slides for questions and discussion.

SHOW, DON'T WRITE. Having all your text written on your slides may make you feel more comfortable, but it doesn't help the audience. Think about what holds your attention in a presentation. Most people like hearing stories, seeing interesting findings in the forms of graphs or meaningful pictures, and being guided through a slide with thoughtful animations. We don't get much from walls of text.

PREPARE. Telling the story of your research requires preparation. Design your visuals carefully and practice your speech and transitions. Find a friendly audience for rehearsals to discover what works and what doesn't. Being well prepared means you will have the time to tell your story, and that will help to reduce stress considerably.

LEARN FROM OTHERS, BUT FIND YOUR OWN STYLE. Take inspiration from the presentations you like to improve your style, experimenting with new approaches to the extent you feel comfortable. When you want to try something new, rehearse with supervisors or colleagues and ask for feedback.

Successful presentations aren't just a matter of talent. Most good speakers work hard to prepare talks that stand out. No matter how uncomfortable you may feel at a lectern, you can stand out by working on your presentation skills, too.

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