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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…”.
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
A lot of people avoid looking authoritative for fear of looking intimidating, but these are two very different things. Someone who is genuinely authoritative will typically embody a quiet confidence that does not need to boast or intimidate. Similarly, many people avoid being too passionate for fear of sounding like a salesperson or politician. Someone who is genuinely passionate about their subject, however, will typically exude their passion without even trying and their audience will find their enthusiasm infectious.
There are three very simple things any speaker can do to demonstrate authority and passion:
Be aware of your feet: look at yourself consciously next time you give a talk, and see what your feet are doing. Some people pace; others step backwards and forward as they speak. Some people sway; others do a bit of a dance as they speak. All of them do it subconsciously and, without realising it, have a subconscious impact on their audience. As we move around, we are likely to distract our audience from what we’re saying, look less confident and create a sense that our words are insubstantial. On the other hand, speakers who have their feet firmly on the ground in one place are perceived to be focused, confident and substantial. This doesn’t mean you have to stand like a statue, but you need to use movement strategically. Choose a ‘home’ position from where you can introduce your talk and your core purpose (usually this is somewhere fairly central). Then have a number of ‘stations’ around the stage (for example, to the left and right of your screen) where you can move between points, to keep your audience’s interest and make clearer distinctions between points. Then, at the end, return to your ‘home’ position to make your conclusions and fulfil the purpose you set out to achieve.
Be aware of your hands: what you do with your hands can be similarly distracting and undermining if you are not aware of them. Putting your hands in your pockets may suggest a level of informality that makes it look like you’re not serious. Clasping them behind your back may make you look suspicious, like you’re hiding something. So what do you do with your hands? Simply clasping them in front of you is a safe bet if you’re nervous, but you will probably look nervous as a result. Using lots of flamboyant hand gestures may be very distracting for your audience. My voice coach therefore told me to draw a TV shaped rectangle in front of me, and to keep all my hand gestures within that rectangle. She also advised against any kind of aggressive gesture, such as pointing, preferring a small number of open and inviting hand gestures. Now, my hands aren’t ever going down to my sides and drawing people’s attention away from my face; all of my gestures bring people’s eyes back to my face and my message. By using confident but muted gestures, I look credible, in control and confident, and can use my hands to add emphasis to my points and convey my passion.
Use emphasis to make every word and sentence count: if you’re going to say something, make it count. Make every single word count. If you trail off at the end of a sentence because those words aren’t actually important, don’t say those words. Cut out the unnecessary words and then speak every single word in that sentence with equal conviction. If you find yourself skipping over a sentence fast or mumbling some context or explanation, ask yourself why you are saying those sentences. If they are in fact important, then don’t skip over them in the way you speak them, or your audience will skip over them in their attention, and ignore your point because you effectively told them it wasn’t important. Again, if it isn’t important, just cut it. Now, once you’ve learned to make every single word of every single sentence in your talk really count, consider how to put emphasis on the key point of each and every sentence, to demonstrate to your audience why it matters. You may want to use pace, slowing down and spelling out key points, or pausing before or after a key point, allowing it to sink in. You could use volume (sparingly) or vary your tone of voice more than you naturally would in conversation. Many researchers object at this point because it all starts to feel a bit fake. The last thing we want is for our audience to think we are insincere. However, most audiences expect people to speak slightly differently when they are on stage than they do in conversation, just as your family expects you to speak differently to them than you do to your colleagues at work. Your audience is far more likely to appreciate your more interesting and engaging style than it is to complain that you didn’t sound exactly like that when they spoke to you in the break.
4. Simplify your message to make it memorable and powerful
The most common mistake that researchers make when presenting is to make their talk too complicated. Most of us can be forgiven for falling into this trap because our research is usually by definition fairly complex. However, the most successful communicators have spent time thinking about how they can communicate their complex research in a way that is deceptively simple, and they will do so around a single key message, which they make as memorable as possible:
Find a single memorable message linked to the core purpose you identified in the first minute (in some cases it will be the same thing).
Present your key message early and revisit it from many different angles: if it is not presented during the first minute, then it should be presented in the first section of your talk. Then revisit it from different angles throughout your presentation, using metaphors, stories and images where you can, to make your point stick in people’s memories.
Link all your subsequent points back to your key message: having a single key message doesn’t mean you can only speak about one thing in your talk. However, it is important to remember that most people will only remember a fraction of your talk, and you have put in effort already to make sure that they remember the most important point. If you then clearly link each of your subsequent points back to your key message, then your audience is much more likely to remember these other points when they recall the key point. Rather than having to remember many different stories and plot lines, they only have to remember a single story and plot line that logically flows from the memorable story or image you used to introduce your talk.
5. Practice makes perfect - work to look effortless
Finally, make sure you don’t undermine the credibility of your talk by stumbling over your words or doing your design en route to the venue. Make your talk look and sound polished and your audience is much more likely to think you are credible and trustworthy, and listen to what you have to say:
Practise and practise again: the most polished presenters make public speaking look easy. I think some people think that one day they will automatically be so filled with confidence and expertise that they will just be able to stand in front of an audience and speak like a pro. The reality is that those who make speaking look effortless are usually those who have put the most effort into it. Practise in front of the mirror. Record yourself on your smart phone. Practise in front of low-stakes audiences and seek their honest feedback.
Watch out for verbal fillers: many of us are plagued by unconscious verbal fillers that we are totally unaware of, for example, ums and errs, “you know”, “like” and “sort of”. These verbal fillers can have a couple of unfortunate consequences. First, once your audience notices them, your verbal fillers will start to really annoy and increasingly grate on people, distracting them from your message. Second, speakers who use more verbal fillers are more likely to be perceived as nervous by their audience. It therefore follows that even if you are in fact very nervous, you can instantly create an impression of calm confidence by replacing your verbal fillers with silence when you need thinking time. The use of “you know” is a common and unfortunate verbal filler among researchers who are often talking about things that most people don’t actually know about. They therefore implicitly make their audience feel inadequate, as though they really should know about the things they are being told about.
Use your visual aids to add impact, not as your notes: how often have you been to a high-impact plenary talk that is full of dense text on the screen? If you’ve not ever been to a particularly high-impact talk, take a look at researchers doing TED Talks at www.ted.com. If you can't think of a single image to support your talk, then don’t use PowerPoint at all. The problem with the way that most researchers use PowerPoint is that the audience is too busy reading the text on the slides to properly hear what the presenter is saying, and they can’t properly take in what they are reading, because the presenter is saying something slightly different and out of synch with what they are reading.
The art of presenting is under-taught and under-valued in academia. However, by learning and practising a few simple techniques, you will be surprised how much more effective you can be. Creating a talk that truly inspires change will take time, but many of your greatest opportunities to achieve impact from research may arise from the power of your talks, and the distance they start to travel.