Whenever I go to academic conferences, I have to sit through some terrible talks. It continues to amaze me that so many people make mistakes that are so easy to avoid. Here are a few I noticed just in the last two days.
Spend first two minutes apologizing
I understand the impulse to apologize. I really do. But the audience does not want to hear it. Don’t apologize for your slides, your talk, your name, your title, you not being the first author, etc. It’s just a waste of time and makes me pay less attention.
This is also true if you’re giving a demo and something goes wrong. Even just mumbling under your breath can be distracting, and you’d be surprised how many people never even notice that you clicked the wrong button, etc. It’s much smoother and looks much better if you just calmly keep going rather than apologizing for some tiny mistake.
“Welcome to my talk!”
A surprisingly common thing people say at the beginning of their talks. It sounds terrible. It’s even worse when you’re the third speaker in the session and you were just introduced by the chair.
You’ve probably prepared your talk, so why haven’t you thought of an opening? I’ve gotten some speaker training, and what the trainers want you to do is write out your opening. You’re not supposed to write the entire talk, just the first few sentences. That helps quite a bit, because you see in writing just how terrible your opening is. But it’s easy to change, and because you’ve written it, you’ll remember. You can also put it on the notes in your presentation (assuming you’re using the presenter view, which you really should).
What else to say then instead of “welcome”? How about “Hello!”, “My name is…”, “Four score and seven years ago…”, etc. Introduce your co-authors, especially if the chair didn’t do it or just mumbled through their names. Start with the problem statement. Stop wasting time and get to your content! A strong opening means people will pay attention to you from the start rather than staring into their laptops in the hope that your talk will be over soon.
“I think we can get started”
This is the session chair/workshop organizer version of “welcome to my talk.” It means that you haven’t spent a second to think about how you’re going to open the session. You’re just mumbling to yourself. Your first words through the speaker are meaningless drivel.
Why not start with something reasonable, like “Welcome!” (in this case it makes sense!)? It’s not exactly hard to think of an opening. Start by saying something meaningful about the motivation for the workshop, the problem you’re hoping to solve or at least discuss, a pithy anecdote, anything that’s not just your inner monologue accidentally redirected to the outside.
Speak too softly
Many people seem to think that just because there’s a microphone somewhere in the vicinity, they can just whisper or mumble and it’ll all magically turn into great sound. It doesn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact: your low voice sounds shaky and terrible over the loudspeakers.
You have to speak into the microphone and project your voice. Any speaker trainer will tell you to speak up, speak up, louder! Louder! LOUDER!
It makes a huge difference, too. Not only will the microphone pick you up much better, you sound much better. And when you speak louder, your voice is much more stable and sounds more confident. People will pay attention to a loud, clear voice. No amount of amplification can make up for your unmodulated murmur.
Speak without a microphone
There’s a microphone. The person before you used it. Now you’re just mumbling there with the microphone off to the side. Why?
I don’t get why people do that. How do you expect the audience to pay attention when they’re straining to hear you or can’t hear you at all? The least you can do is make sure people get enough sound energy into their ears to be able to understand you. Without that, nothing you say matters.
Not only do you have to be able to speak into the microphone, you have to learn to listen to the loudspeakers. If you’re not hearing yourself from the speakers, the audience probably can’t, either. It takes a bit of experience, but it’s not difficult to develop a sense for this. Try it by going to an empty room (with the A/V turned on) and just talk for a minute. Listen to the sound of your own voice over the speakers. Get a feel for the delay between you speaking and the sound coming to you. It’ll give you confidence and you’ll be able to tell if things are working without having to ask the audience and hoping somebody will respond.
No modulation, no pausing
In addition to not speaking loudly enough, many people don’t modulate their voices. That doesn’t matter for very short talks, but anything longer than a few minutes gets really boring and tiring this way.
This is usually a sign of a speaker who’s nervous or unprepared. But this doesn’t help the audience at all. It just means that the monotonous sound of your voice is lulling the audience to sleep – or, more likely, becomes background noise to whatever they’re doing on their laptops.
Instead, do stuff with your voice. Raise it to point things out. This is important! Look! Pay attention here! Am I asking a question now? Can you tell? See how modulation made all the difference, even with you just reading these words?
Another strategy speaker trainers will tell you about is punching words. You punch the important words. Even when they’re not important, you still punch them just because. The result is that there’s a lot more going on in your voice and people are basically forced to pay attention.
Similarly, many people seem to believe that they continuously have to produce noise to keep the audience engaged. The opposite is true. Pauses are powerful. Stop talking for a moment, and people will look up from their email, wondering what just happened. Silence. A gust of wind. A blink of an eye.
Pausing also helps to emphasize a point. You pause to give the point space. If you just keep droning on, it just gets lost in the other stuff.
Think about it. Every period in this paragraph is a short pause. Read it as that. Pause. Breathe. Modulate. It takes some practice, but it’s not hard to learn, and every little bit makes a huge difference.
You haven’t thought about how to start your talk, so of course you have no idea how to end it. You could just stop talking and stare at the audience in awkward silence. That would at least be entertaining. But instead, you say something idiotic like “That’s it!” or “I’m done!”.
There is an obvious alternative to that, and it’s a simple “Thank you!” Everybody will understand that that means your talk is over. It’s polite and makes sense. You can also say “Thank you for your attention!” or “Thank you, and I’m looking forward to your questions!” or similar.
Couple that with a final slide that has your name, talk title, and contact information, and perhaps even a meaningful image (it’s visualization, use some pictures!) and there won’t be an awkward silence or confusion, just roaring applause.
Learn by watching people
People are always on my case for being negative, but you can learn a lot by observing when you don’t like a talk. If you’re just sitting there, bored to tears, try to figure out what the speaker is doing wrong. Then watch yourself: are you doing the same things?
Of course you also need to watch the good people and pick up tricks from them. But I actually find it more helpful to watch what’s bad and honestly ask myself: how often do I do that? What can I do to avoid this? How can I do better?
That’s it. I’m done with my posting.