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Presentation skills – 2. Speech

Presentation skills – 2. Speech

Presenting: some people love it, some people hate it. I firmly place myself in the first category and apparently, this presentation joy translates itself into being a good – and confident – speaker. Over the years, quite a few people have asked me for my secrets to presenting (which – immediate full disclosure – I do not have) and this is the result: a running series on the EGU GD Blog that covers my own personal tips and experience in the hope that it will help someone (you?) become a better and – more importantly – more confident speaker. Last time, we discussed your presentation voice. In this second instalment, I discuss everything related to how you speak.

1. Get rid of ‘uh’

Counting the number of times a speaker says ‘uh’ during a presentation is a fun game, but ideally you would like your audience to focus on the non-uh segments of your talk. Therefore, getting rid of ‘uh’ (or any other filler word for that matter) is important. I have two main tips to get rid of ‘uh’:

Write down your speech and practice (but don’t hold on to it religiously)

Practice. Practice. And practice it again. Maybe a few more times. Almost… no: practice it again.
I am being serious here. If you know exactly what you want to say, you won’t hesitate and fill that moment of hesitation with a prolonged uuuuuhhh. The added benefit of writing down your presentation and practising it religiously is that it will help you with timing your presentation as well. I also find it helpful to read through it (instead of practising it out loud) when I am in a situation that doesn’t allow me to go into full presentation mode (on the plane to AGU for example). However, make sure to practise your presentation out loud even though you wrote it all down: thinking speed (or reading in your head) and talking speed are not the same!

If you write down your presentation, and you know exactly what you want to say, you have to take care to evade another (new) pitfall for saying ‘uh’: now that you know exactly what you want to say and how to say it most efficiently, you start saying ‘uh’ when you can’t remember the exact wording. Let it go. Writing down your speech helps you to clarify the vocabulary needed for your speech, but if you don’t say the exact sentences, just go with something else. You will have a well thought out speech anyway. Just go with the flow and try not to say ‘uh’.

The second main tip for getting rid of ‘uh’ is to

Realise that it is okay to stay silent for a while

If you forget the word you wanted to say and you need some time to think, you can take a break. You can stay silent. You don’t need to fill up the silence with ‘uh’. In fact, a break often seems more natural. Realise that you forgot something, don’t panic, take a breath, take a break (don’t eat a KitKat at this point in your presentation), and then continue when you know what to say again. Even if you don’t forget the exact words or phrasings, taking a breath and pausing in your narrative can be helpful for your audience to take a breath as well. It will seem as if your presentation is relaxed: you are not rushing through 50 slides in 12 minutes. You are prepared, you are in control, you can even take a break to take a breath.

2. Speed

A lot of (conference) presentations will have a fixed time. At the big conferences, like EGU and AGU, you get 12 minutes and not a second more or less. Well, of course you can talk longer than 12 minutes, but this will result in less (if any) time for questions.

I don’t think the conveners will kill you, but don’t pin me down on it

And on top of that, everyone (well, me at the very least) will be annoyed at you for not sticking to the time.

So: sticking to your time limit is important!

But how can you actually do this? Well, there are a few important factors:
1. Preparation: know exactly what you want to say (we will cover this more in a later instalment of this series)
2. The speed at which you speak.

We will be discussing the latter point in this blog entry. For me (and many other people), I know I can stick to the rule of “one slide per minute”, but I always have a little buffer in that I count the title slide as a slide as well. So, my 12-minute long presentation would have 12 slides in total (including the title slides). This actually spreads my 12 minutes over 11 scientific slides, so I can talk a little bit longer about each slide. It also gives me piece of mind to know that I have a bit of extra time. However, the speed at which you talk might be completely different. Therefore, the most important rule about timing your presentations is:

Knowing how fast you (will) speak

I always practice my short presentations a lot. If they are 30 minutes or longer, I like to freewheel with the one slide per minute rule. But for shorter presentations, I require a lot of practice. I always time every presentation attempt and make a point of finishing each attempt (even if the first part goes badly). Otherwise you run the risk of rehearsing the first part of your presentation very well, and kind of forgetting about the second part. When I time my presentation during practice, I always speak too long. For a 12 minute presentation, I usually end up at the 13.5 minute mark. However, I know that when I speak in front of an audience, I (subconsciously?) speed up my speech, so when I time 13.5 minutes, I know that my actual presentation will be a perfect 12 minutes.

The only way to figure out how you change or start to behave in front of an audience is by simply giving a lot of presentations. Try to do that and figure out whether you increase or decrease the speed of your speech during your talk. Take note and remember it for the next time you time your presentation. In the end, presenting with skill and confidence is all about knowing yourself.

3. Articulation and accent

There are as many accents to be heard at a conference as there are scientists talking. Everyone has there own accent, articulation, (presentation) voice, etc. This means that

You should not feel self-conscious about your accent

Some accents are stronger than others and may be more difficult for others to follow. Native speakers are by no means necessarily better speakers and depending on whom you ask, their accent might also not be better than anyone else’s.
Of course your accent might become an issue if people can’t understand you. You can try and consider the following things to make yourself understandable for a big audience:
1. Articulate well.
2. Adapt the speed at which you talk

Some languages are apparently faster than others. French is quite fast for example, whereas (British) English is a slower language. You have to take this into account when switching languages. If you match the pace of the language you are speaking, your accent will be less noticeable, because you avoid any ingrained rythm patterns that are language specific. Then you might still have your accent shine through in your pronunciation of the words, but it will not shine through in the rhythm of your speech.
In addition, you can consider asking a native speaker for help if you are unsure of how to pronounce certain words. Listening or watching many English/American/Australian tv series/films/youtube will also help with your pronunciation.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about everything I have to say on the matter of speech. You should now have full control over your presentation voice and all the actual words you are going to say. Next time, we go one step further and discuss your posture during the presentation and your movements.

Iris van Zelst
Iris van Zelst is a PhD student at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. She is working on the modelling of tsunamigenic earthquakes using a range of interdisciplinary modelling approaches, such as geodynamic, dynamic rupture, and tsunami modelling. Current research projects include splay fault propagation in subduction zones and the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. Iris is Editor-in-chief of the GD blog team. You can reach Iris via email. For more details, please visit Iris' personal webpage.

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