Those of us getting ready to give a professional talk are starting to think about what we are going to say and how we should prepare. We are checking our submission abstracts to remind ourselves of what we said we would talk about, and we are hoping to deliver on our promises to be worthy of the privilege of addressing an audience, whether a conference crowd, a seminar group, a job committee, and so on.
Some of us are thinking that we are a bit nervous about the whole idea of standing in front of an audience of and sharing our ideas. What a huge responsibility, we think to ourselves. And at the same time, we think — What a huge opportunity; and how much fun can this whole thing be for me?
For sure, there are a lot of details to consider when putting together a talk. And while a laundry list of reminder points is definitely not the way I think about presentation skills (I think about presenting a story as being much like a beautiful tapestry where many individual threads are woven together to produce a unique and creative work of art), perhaps it is helpful to mention some of these threads.
So here are three things to think about as you begin your presentation preparations:
• Perhaps the most critical consideration will be the idea of what you will actually be able to talk about within the specific amount of time you have been given for your presentation. Choices must be made about what you must say to advance your story; which details are absolutely essential; which details are nice but not necessary to say because there is not enough time. Once you have made your choices, your story must be crafted so that it can unfold within your given time frame in a manner that is not rushed. So don’t try to tell a 90-minute story in 60 minutes by speaking faster and whizzing through your visuals. Work it out beforehand and stick to your game plan.
• Think deeply about your audience. Ask — Who are they and how much do they probably know about my topic? Should I organize my story for a very narrow and specialist group or for a broadly defined group? The answers to these questions will guide you to prepare a story that has enough background and context so that your meaning will be clear. You may have to take time to explain some technical concepts that seem obvious to you but which may be new to many of your listeners. Remember that the people in your audience have traveled from all over the world and have made a choice to attend your talk. Return the respect by communicating a clear, logical, and interesting story that your audience members will understand, enjoy, and remember.
• We must partner our story with excellent delivery. Giving a talk is not simply a chance to unload a bunch of information. Giving an excellent talk is about connecting with your audience and sharing new knowledge that is meaningful to you and hopefully interesting and even inspiring to them. We can be excellent speakers by being as rehearsed and prepared as we can be, and by being our best, most excellent, enthusiastic, and authentic selves. Specifically, we must take care of things like volume; the clarity of everything we say, even the ends of utterances; eye contact; movement and gestures; how we face our audience, our laptop, our visuals, how we use notes to maintain at all times the connection with the audience; um-um-ums and uh-uh-uhs; how quickly or slowly we speak; and whether or not we smile even if we are nervous.
All of the ideas mentioned here are equally important and challenging for both native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English.
Being a native speaker does not confer upon a presenter the privileged and automatic abilities of excellent story and excellent delivery. While our non-native speaker friends have the obvious huge hurdles of tackling the creation and delivery of a story in their second language, the underlying principles are the same as for native speaker friends. When we stand before an audience to tell our stories, all of us have the same commitment to excellence and all of us strive to make memorable contributions.