Presenting with Impact

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

A PhD student stands nervously on stage as 250 students noisily pack into the lecture theatre. It is his first ever lecture and he stayed up half the night preparing it. Through the fog of tiredness he can’t quite remember how he planned to start the lecture, but he makes a stumbling start nonetheless. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the things that made sense as he was putting the slides together during the night no longer make sense now. He grinds to a halt at a slide with a graph he can’t interpret. The pause turns into a silence, and the silence seems to go on for an eternity. He presses the arrow key. Next slide. He doesn’t even remember putting the next slide into his presentation. Panic begins to rise as he desperately searches his memory for what this part of the lecture was meant to be about. He presses the arrow key again, 250 pairs of eyes silently searing into him. By now his heart is pounding wildly and he is sweating profusely. Next slide. Next slide. The words on the slides have turned into meaningless symbols. And then finally, the silence is broken — but not by him. One of the students is heckling him. He makes the mistake of trying to explain himself, and a student in the front row gets up and walks out of the lecture theatre. He follows shortly after. Lecture over.

Fast-forward five years. The same PhD student, now a lecturer, is in South America and is running late for a presentation he is giving. This is a very different presentation. Instead of students, he is talking to representatives of every country in the world at the Conference of the Parties to a UN Convention. He can see the hotel on the other side of the train tracks, but every street he runs down is a dead end with no way across the tracks. Panic starts to rise again — a train track is between him and the opportunity of his career. Eventually, he finds a way across and gets to the conference venue with less than five minutes to spare before he is meant to be speaking. But there’s a problem. To get into the inner chamber where he is speaking, he needs special security clearance, and the badge he has been given won’t give him access to that part of the conference. He is so out of breath that he can barely speak and the security guard doesn’t speak good English. Eventually, he manages to speak to the head of security, and points to the name on his badge and his name on the programme. Then he points to the time printed next to his presentation, and to the clock on the wall, which is now showing the time his presentation was meant to start. As he enters the room, the Chair is already introducing him, and by the time he reaches the podium, it looks as though it has been perfectly choreographed. He has even got his breath back. He looks into the cavernous hall at the rows of desks with people sitting behind country nameplates, takes a deep breath, and gives the presentation of his life.

Power to impact or alienate

I’ve told you these two stories about me, because I believe that no matter how terrified and unconfident you may feel, it is possible with a few tips and some practice, to present your research with real impact. Personally, I think that there is only one thing that separates the ‘superstars’ of our disciplines from the rest of us. It is not that they are any more intelligent than us, or doing better work. It is simply that these researchers are better communicators. They have worked out how to take the same data we produce and turn it into a highly cited paper and a plenary talk that inspires audiences around the world. The same applies when it comes to non-academic impacts. Some researchers make talking to businesses and policy-makers look easy. The rest of us look on in awe, desperately wondering how we could create such succinct and relevant messages based on our research. Many of us conclude that it is “easy for people who do that sort of research”. However, most of these people started in a similar position to us; they just focused for a while on an aspect of their research that had the potential to be useful to that audience, and spent some time thinking about how they could communicate it powerfully.

I regularly hear people from business, the third sector and government complaining about researchers’ love of complex graphs, which they suspect are designed to make the researcher look clever and make them feel stupid, because they weren’t ever put on the screen for long enough or made large enough for anyone in the audience to actually read. Presentations like that don’t just squander opportunities to build relationships and generate impact; they alienate the very people who might be able to benefit most from your work.

Researchers have to do public speaking on a regular basis, whether it is to other researchers, publics or stakeholders. The crazy thing, however, is that most of us are never given any proper training. I have been lucky enough to receive training from a professional voice coach who works with politicians and other public figures, and I have picked up lessons from colleagues along the way. Out of everything I’ve learned, I believe that there are five key things you can do that will transform the impact of your public speaking. Given how much I’ve needed this help, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned with you, so that you don't just get your message across, you transform and mobilise your audience.

1. What to do in the first 30 seconds of any talk

The first minute of your talk is make or break time. Based on what you say in your first minute, your audience could either be glued to your every word, or pretty much dismiss everything you say in your whole talk. To engage your audience, there are just three things you need to do in your first minute:

  1. Establish your purpose and the benefits your audience will get from listening to you: most of us know that we need to start a talk with our aims. I’m suggesting you should just have one single purpose that people can instantly understand and remember, and very quickly explain the tangible benefits that your audience will get as a result of achieving this purpose (even if those benefits are just learning something new). Finally, put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask yourself why your purpose, and the benefits you’ve identified, are likely to be important to them. Then actually explain the benefits of listening to your talk to your audience.

  2. Explain who you are and why your audience should listen to you: you don't have to be the world expert on your topic, but there must be some reason why you are talking and not some random stranger picked off the street. What sets you apart from that random stranger? What credentials do you have? Why are you passionate about this topic? There is a fine line between establishing credibility and boasting, and you need to be careful not to alienate your audience by giving them your CV. However, there is good evidence to show that audiences are more likely to listen to and learn from speakers that they deem credible, so it is important to establish this in the first minute of your talk.

  3. Signpost what is coming next: people like to know where they stand. You shouldn’t spend much more than a sentence doing this (don’t spend half of your talk going through your plan and explaining what you’re going to do). Just explain the key sections or steps you will go through to reach your purpose, so your audience feels able to relax into what is about to happen.

2. Connect with your audience to drive deeper engagement

The best speakers empathise with their audiences, and their audiences identify with them. Opening a channel of empathy with a stranger can be a huge challenge; doing this with a room full of people you don't know is much harder. However, there are four quite straightforward things you can do to establish empathy with any audience:

  1. Know your audience: do your research so you know who is going to be in the audience and why they have come. Be aware that there may be quite different segments to your audience, who are looking for different things from you. If you are not able to research your audience, then take some time before you speak to sit next to someone in the audience and find out why they are here and what they are hoping to get out of the event. You will have to assume that their answers are broadly representative of the rest of your audience, but at least you are not going in blind. Once you know something about your audience, you can adapt what you say in your opening minute to make sure you are connecting with benefits that this particular audience is likely to value, or you’ve explained the benefits in a way that makes it clear why these should be important for this particular audience.

  2. Use powerful stories: we all know the power of stories to convey complex concepts in memorable ways, but not all stories have equal power. First, think of a few stories that are relevant to the one single purpose you identified in your first minute. They may be directly relevant or they may be a metaphor that you feel sums up your purpose powerfully. Then identify the story that addresses as many of the four points in this list as possible: Personalstories help open a channel of empathy, showing that despite being up on stage you are only a person, with weaknesses and passions, just like them. Stories that demonstrate some degree of vulnerability show that you trust the listener, and they are then more likely to warm to you and trust you themselves. If you can, try and include something unexpectedin your story, to catch your audience’s attention, help them remember your story and make it more likely that they subsequently share the story with others. If you can paint a visualpicture with your story, whether in the mind’s eye or through images, your audience is more likely to be able to recall your story, and if the image effectively illustrates your story, it will add real impact to what you are saying. Finally, engage to some extent with your audience’s feelings. This doesn’t need to be anything particularly dramatic, but stories that rouse some sort of emotion are more likely to stick than stories that leave your audience cold. If your story is strongly linked to the core purpose of your talk, then by remembering your story, your audience will remember your purpose, and from there, much of the content of your talk. As an example of a story that I think ticks these four boxes and is linked to the core purpose of this article, look at the two linked stories I told at the start about presentations I gave to students and to the UN.

  3. Ask ‘you-focused’ questions: asking your audience directly to put themselves in your shoes can be a powerful way of establishing a channel of empathy with them. This may be difficult for many research-based talks, but with a bit of imagination, it may be possible. For example, “What would you do if…” or “What would you think if I told you…”.

  4. Use empathetic body language: it is possible to become a more empathetic speaker simply by making your body language more open and approachable. Consider choosing clothes that do not emphasise any differences between you and your audience (for example, I often remove my suit jacket when training PhD students), avoid closing your body language, and adopt a positive and energised posture that shows your audience that you are putting in effort and really value them. You will often discover that your audience starts to mirror the emotions you are projecting through your body language, and will start to feel more open, trusting, interested, and energised by your talk.

3. Convey passion and authority