Nina's Tips for Lectures and Presentations

The ITA Annual Conference (2011)  is approaching. Many have sent the Committee proposals for lectures and presentations, and it seems like the program is going to be pretty full. Goody-goody – I look forward to breaking my head over which lecture to go to!

A few of years ago, I came back from the conference with the distinct feeling that people needed help in preparing their lectures. While this impression was still fresh in my mind, I dashed off a 10-page paper in longhand. And so it sat there for three or four years. I suppose now is as good a time as any (in fact, better than, say, after the upcoming conference) to share my thoughts with you, even though several conferences have taken place since, and I do believe participants have meanwhile honed their skills.

Warning: May contain a few points already mentioned on my blog or in some previous ramblings.

Tips for Lectures & Presentations

Most of us are neither born orators nor natural entertainers/performers. But even those who look and sound adept and facile often seem that way thanks to many hours of rehearsing and practicing their craft. So don't feel bad if you dread getting up there on the podium and talking to a roomful of staring, expectant faces, making them nod, tut-tut or chuckle.

I wouldn't recommend, for example, trying to emulate Irit Linur (at the 2006 conference) with her easy, nonchalant attitude, speaking in a natural, relaxed manner without any notes or PowerPoint.

So what can you do to make your next lecture/presentation a success?

Choosing a subject
  • This may sound obvious, but it bears repeating: Choose a subject close to your heart, something you feel passionately about, really care about, and that you know well. This way, even if you lose your train of thought, you'll be able to ad-lib; and when Q&A time comes, you will feel you're on solid ground.
  • If you've chosen a subject on which you've spoken once (or twice, or thrice) before, try to give it a new spin, look at it from a different angle. Bring it up-to-date with new examples that weren't in existence last time you spoke on the same subject; or adapt it to your new target audience. (Not exactly an option if the same people come to hear you speak. You don't want to bore them to tears.)
  • Is your proposed subject really well-suited to an oral presentation? Be excruciatingly truthful. Some papers are better left as written papers and may be of great merit as research in the relevant field, but are boring as all hell to listen to, and may leave the listener with a feeling of "so what?" Don't inflict such a lecture on an unsuspecting audience. They won't forgive you and will not want to listen to what you have to say at the next conference.

Correct structure of the talk/presentation
  • Do not spend too much of your limited time on an introduction or "historical approach", only to realize belatedly that you have only five minutes left for the rest of your talk. As you write your lecture, consciously limit yourself. For example: 300 words introduction, 300 words summing up, 1400 words for the main body of the lecture. 
  • Write it all out, then time yourself. Read it aloud, not too fast, to anyone willing to listen. The cat, dog of goldfish will do in a pinch, though human beings are usually – not always – more helpful.
  • If you've been allocated 50 minutes, allow a few min for shuffling through your papers, making sure you have the right pair of glasses and that the bottle of mineral water is within easy reach yet securely placed, and will not get knocked over when you reach for the mouse or to adjust the mike. Allow at least 5, preferably 10 min for Q&A. That leaves you around 35 min to talk.
  • So you've timed yourself. The dog seemed impressed whereas the cat either curled up and went to sleep, or walked away disdainfully. Don't get discouraged. Concentrate on the timing: if you're short, go back and elaborate on one or two points; add an example, an appropriate anecdote, or a joke if you think you can pull it off.  If you've overpitched – go back and cut back.
    If you're giving a PowerPoint presentation
    • If you're creating a PPT, take into account that presenting it may take a bit longer than an unillustrated talk, what with pointing to various bits on the screen and fumbling with an unfamiliar keyboard. Ergo, the actual talk should take at the very most 30 min.
    • PPT has a very handy built-in timer; use it when practicing; get used to the sound of your own voice.
    • Change the number of slides and amount of text on each to fit into the allocated time. As with the text of a lecture, so with the presentation: If your slide show comprises 30 slides, use 2-3 for the intro, no more than the same for summing up, and keep the lion's share for the heart of the matter. It's okay if the cat yawns; if your audience yawns, it had better be because your lecture is right after lunch, or because they stayed up dancing half the night.
    • If you're comfortable with PPT and can easily use all its bells and whistles – great, bully for you, but don't overdo it. You don't want to overshadow or drown your message.
    •  If you feel comfortable with the basics only – that's fine, too. Though a little bit of color goes a long way. Try at least to use a different color font to emphasize key words, for instance. Or use a different background color to differentiate between the sections of your talk. E.g.,
               Color 1 – the intro
               Colors 2, 3, 4 – the main sections of the talk
               Color 1 again, or 5 – conclusions and summing up.
    • Don't put too much text on one slide, and keep the font large enough so it can be seen from the back of the hall. Otherwise people will be too busy trying to catch up on the reading and will miss what you're saying.
    • Use short but complete sentences in the PPT, and elaborate on them orally, preferably without referring to notes. If you know your material inside out, this shouldn't be a problem. Or, you can memorize the text that elaborates on each short, spiffy sentence.
    • Find out beforehand whether the PC at the conference will have a regular mouse, or if you'll be expected to use the touchpad. Most of the time, you'll probably be using the arrow keys. But if you'll want to use the pointer, say, and don't get along well with a touch pad, consider bringing your own mouse and asking the technician to attach it. A laser pointer is a very handy thing to have when referring to items up on the screen.

    Whether it's a talk or a talk-plus-presentation
    Make the most of the short time at your disposal by being clear and specific. Don't ramble on, no promotional talk, sales pitch, or highfalutin bla-bla yadda-yadda. Stick to the point, make sure everything you say contributes to your message.

    If you're handing out handouts
    Make sure the text is easy on the eyes. Use a large (at least 12 pt), user-friendly font, with line spacing of 1.5 or 2, wide margins to scribble in, double spaces between paragraphs; in short, what tech writers call "plenty of white space". Use bullets or numbers if appropriate.

    Other stuff

    1. Dress neatly and comfortably. You don’t want a belt or tie that restrict your breathing nor shoes that pinch, nor a strap that keeps slipping off your shoulder.
    2. No, it's not okay to come dressed for a picnic in old jeans and shloompy T-shirt. Unless you're a famous performer and it's part of your image…
    3. Get a haircut, or use hairspray, hair gel, Dapper Dan's hair pomade, bobby pins, a hat, hairband or any other contraption – just don't mess with your hair and don't keep pushing it out of your eyes during the presentation.
    4. Focus on a few friendly faces in the audience. Try to find one in each corner of the hall, plus a couple in the center and in the front row, and talk to them. Your best friend / colleague / mother / son is in the audience? Great! Speak to them, too.
    5. Ever taken part in a school play? An amateur production? Pretend this isn't you on the podium; not the same "you" who came here on a bus or sat at the lunch table next to the guy in the 3rd row. You're an actor, and a damn good one, and you're putting on a show.
    6. Don't begin your talk by apologizing. We don't need to know what you can't or won't do or forgot to do. We know you're only human. But we came to hear what you do have to say. So tell us.
    I promise we'll applaud at the end.

    In a timely, though not surprising, coincidence, my colleague Inga Michaeli, recent former Chair of the ITA, also wrote a post on the same subject, in Hebrew: טיפים להרצאה מוצלחת (Tips for a successful lecture). Read it on Inga's blog.

    With thanks to all the good writers, speakers and presenters I've learnt from, and to my friend Marion Claire, the Confident Speaker's Coach.


    Danny Verbov said...

    Wise and sensible advice, as usual.

    I would just add that
    1. Understanding
    who your audience is a very important
    part of preparation.

    2. Using quality
    imagery (and minimizing text)
    can add a lot to the presentation.

    3. We're there to entertain, not just inform.
    (eg Steve Jobs). People see
    and hear enough boring and mediocre
    presentations to last a lifetime. Let them enjoy themselves!

    Nina Rimon Davis said...

    Thanks, Danny.
    Couldn't agree with you more.
    As for entertaining -- see my post of February 2010, "Make 'em laugh".

    Rachel Bar Yosef said...

    Enjoyed your blog!
    Can't resist this "raisin":
    An American friend was lecturing at some kibbutz, in a hall that was long and narrow. The person who introduced her opened by asking the audience, "Can you hear me in the behind?"

    Perry Zamek said...

    PowerPoint presentations can easily draw attention away from the speaker and the content of the lecture to the presentation itself.

    Think of PowerPoint as a tool for summarizing your main points - if someone were to come to your lecture and not take notes, would your presentation (which may be made available online after the conference) be sufficient for them to recall the content of the lecture, without all the detail?

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