Communicating science face to face – public speaking

Sunday 26 April 2009

Disclaimer: all posts are my own opinions and not necessarily those of my employer’s

This post relates to giving talks on charity-funded medical research and in other circumstances may not be relevant.

As part of my job I’m occasionally asked to give presentations on the diabetes research that we fund – this is an opportunity to do a spot of face to face science communication which I rather enjoy. I thought I’d share my way of putting a presentation together, in case it’s useful. Although I enjoy giving talks I do get (though I don’t suffer from) the typical nerves beforehand and a lot of my preparation is intended to minimise anxiety by being as well prepared as is humanly possible 🙂

Have you got enough time to prepare the presentation?A couple of weeks’ notice sounds like plenty of time but may not be sufficient to manage your time for other work – I’d rather say no to giving a talk than turn up with a half-baked presentation.

Who is your audience?I want to talk about things that are definitely of interest and hopefully of relevance to as many as people in the audience – something for everyone really. We have a number of voluntary groups (support groups which also raise money for research) around the country and if there is a project happening at a local university I will try and include some information about that.

Also if the audience is likely to be a predominantly older crowd then information relevant to children may be less appropriate (though of course some of the audience may have children or grandchildren with the condition so nothing wrong with mentioning it). Similarly a talk to teenagers might focus more on research into future technological developments.

Watch out for acronyms and jargonMany of the people in my audience are familiar with diabetes jargon however they may be accompanied by friends or partners who aren’t so it’s worth including an explanation for someone who knows less about diabetes.

Is a PowerPoint (or equivalent) presentation appropriate?
For the sort of talks I give, yes but sometimes telling a story is all that’s needed. I want my slides to do two jobs – underpin my talk’s structure and also to act as an adjunct to what I’m saying.

I try not to put too much information on the slide – but I need enough to remind me what it is I’m talking about (I don’t like speakers’ notes or reading from a script!) and for the audience to have something to look at which gives my talk a bit of structure.

My general rule of thumb is to divide the number of minutes I’m to speak (generally 40) by two to get a ballpark for the number of slides. I’ve most recently given a fifteen-twenty minute talk with seven slides (the first was just a title slide). I might spend longer on one or two slides than others but generally avoid speaking about one slide for less than a minute or more than five minutes. It varies.

Telling a story, with or without PowerPoint
It’s a lot easier if the talk has a logical structure and narrative as it’s easier to link between slides and makes the presentation less disjointed. I do spend a bit of time in the ‘editing phase’ trying to make things flow and I will make significant changes to a pre-planned running order if necessary.

Sometimes I’m going to talk about entirely separate topics in which case I’ll just make clear by actually saying to the audience that I’m now going to talk about something quite different.

This can ‘refresh the palate’ of everyone (including you the speaker and gives an opportunity to have a sip of water if you need one) by changing the pace a bit, but also acknowledges that what they’re seeing and hearing is different. When people hear talks, however fantastic they might be :), their concentration can waver, particularly if the talk is happening at the end of the day, in a warm room with the lights lowered. If they’re ‘rejoining’ you after a moment’s zoning out it can be disconcerting to find the speaker talking about something else if they’re not sure how it linked to the previous information.

Analogies, metaphors and explanationsI’m talking about complex science / medical things to people who understand all sorts of other complex things but which might happen not to include science or medicine. In other words don’t ‘dumb down’ – ignorance of a topic just means that you don’t know about something, not that you’re stupid. There are plenty of aspects of the topics in my own talk about which I’m ignorant too.

I think it helps to orient people during the talk (it helps me too!), for example something along the lines of “so we’ve heard about W and X and how that leads to Y, let’s now consider Y’s role in leading to Z” – basically a “you are here” guide.

Storing the talk for transfer

This will be on a USB stick, or possibly a CD-ROM. Sometimes I’ll use a work laptop and so will just load the presentation straight onto the desktop. I’ve highlighted this bit in orange as it’s easy to forget but really important!

Rehearsing the talkI really only feel confident about doing a talk if I’ve rehearsed it a minimum of three times before delivering it – I have no idea if this is normal! I want to become very comfortable with how it flows and not be surprised by anything on the day. Clearly I’m not going to be surprised by the slides themselves, as I’ve written them, but in the process of rehearsal something might occur to me that makes me want to edit the running order or the content. Rehearsal, for me, isn’t just about getting the ‘performance’ right, but about making sure the content makes sense.

This is also the time for me to make notes of what I think people might ask questions about and make sure I can either answer them or am able to signpost them to where they can find out more.

I always practise the talk from a computer, ideally one set up to a projector (we have this facility at work) as this is likely to be how the talk situation will be when I give it ‘for real’. It’s important to me to have the slides appearing behind me so I can get the ‘stage directions’ right for the talk as well – I may need to move to the slides to illustrate something by pointing at it (I prefer to go and point with a finger where possible but this depends on the angle of the projector and whether or not by doing this you’d block the picture out! Laser pointers are good though) and then come back to the laptop / computer to advance the presentation to the next slide.

I will happily do paper based practices, and on a computer without a projector attached of course but really prefer to do at least one ‘final’ version on a projector. Of course if I’m doing a presentation in a venue that has an OHP facility for acetates only then I’ll focus on the paper practice as more similar to the real-life scenario.

Polishing the presentation
Once I’ve run through the entire presentation a couple of times and have created the ‘patter’ that goes with it, I record myself giving the talk so that I can listen to it later. I have a low-budget mp3 player that has voice recording facilities – if mine has it I imagine most of them do. I’ve since bought a cheap microphone and downloaded Audacity (free, fantastic) onto my laptop – I can record myself on computer and export it as a better quality mp3 to my player.

Some versions of PowerPoint also let you record an audio track as an accompaniment to the presentation, but I don’t think you can uncouple the two and listen to the audio track as an mp3 while on the move (anyone?)

Possibly this is ‘overkill’ but I like to hear where the talk is flowing well and less well and make mental edits to the talk for later.

By the end of this process I know the substance of my talk off by heart but I don’t have a formal script – I’m not a fan of scripted talks. I have all the phrases I’m likely to use at the front of my mind but the exact words will vary of course.

The final thing I like to do is to print out my slides (and to save paper, I print them as handouts so I can get 2 or more on a page) and go through them to make sure that I know, for each slide, the slide that comes next. This helps with the linking and makes me feel that the talk has been polished a bit more. It’s easy enough to put up a slide and start talking about it, but I think it’s nice to be able to introduce the next slide from within the previous one*.

Depending on the time when I’m giving the talk I might do this just on the train beforehand. A lot of my talks take place in the evening, and involves some cross-country travel, which brings me nicely* to my next point.

Getting to the venue

Obviously this bit isn’t specific to giving talks, and works for any kind of meeting where you have to go somewhere else to have it!

A minimum of a week before the talk I’ll have confirmed the details with the person organising the meeting, googled anything I need to know and found answers to these questions.

  • who is the audience? [I’ve usually asked this earlier as it will determine the talk content]
  • what day and time is the talk?
  • what train station do I need tickets for – any info on which exit to choose? (Yes, I have been standing at exit A with the person fetching me at exit B in a mobile-signal desert)
  • where is the actual venue (postal address and any bus info or taxi instructions?
  • what hotels are available nearby?
  • what are the train times like?

Of course seeing these written down it seems like a bit of a palaver! I’ll also have with me, on one or two pieces of paper, any maps (of the venue, the directions to the hotel) and details of train times and contact details of anyone I’m meeting.

After all that I’ll have a nice sleep in the hotel!

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