7 Habits of Effective Speakers (or How to Get More Invited Talks on Your CV)

I bet you have been there already! Sitting in a crowded, dim-lit room, listening to a somewhat obscure presentation and wondering whether the rest of the audience feels as bored as you! Giving talks at conferences is central to being an academic. Getting invitations to speak as such events is even more critical. Yet, you can’t get the latter if you are not any good at doing the former.

So what makes for a cracking presentation? There are several aspects to it, and intriguing content – though useful – is not enough by itself unless matched by an intriguing delivery. In fact, when it comes to presentations, the how is as important as the what. So, how do you become an effective speaker? Here are seven useful tips to improve your skills.

1. Whom are you talking to? Knowing the makeup of your audience is by far the most important thing to get right. It is your audience who dictates the type of talk you will be giving, the level to pitch it at, and the language you will be using. Mess up with this and (almost) nothing else will come to the rescue. If in doubt, aim low and ramp up the level of complexity only towards the end of your talk for the experts in the room.

2. Face your audience. Once you know who your audience is, speak to them! This means first and foremost: face your audience, not the screen! Make eye contact with individual persons almost as if you are talking to them alone; use body language as if to engage in a conversation. When needed, point to something specific on the screen to draw people’s attention to key points. Oh, and by the way, if you are using a laser pointer, hold it with both hands to avoid a shaking spot all over the screen.

3. Use effective body language. Project confidence by adopting a straight, yet relaxed posture. Lift your head a little and lower your shoulders. Breathe. If space allows, move around a bit. I said a bit, don’t walk up and down in a frenzy or you’ll project anxiety, not confidence. Move towards the audience to create a positive feeling and deliver the key points of your story from the centre and front of the stage.

4. Exploit your voice modulation. Apart from the obvious “speak loud and clear”, modulate your voice to carry emphasis to the key points you are making. Ask questions to engage your audience. Use… silence! Just like in music, it is the pause in between the notes that adds character and drama. So, do not be afraid to make a pause last a little longer. If nothing else, this will re-gain the attention of your audience.

5. If showing slides, use text sparingly. Have you ever noticed that you tend to read anything, whether you are interested or not, as soon as you see it written down? The same happens to your audience. Whatever you’ll show them in writing, they will read. Sadly, they will do so at the expenses of what you say. So, if your presentation contains too much text, your audience will disengage from what you are saying because it will get distracted by what they are reading. Use words in your slides mostly as a prompt to remind you of what you want to say next. Avoid full sentences, unless this is the whole point of a slide.

6. Make presentations that please the eye. Use fonts and sizes that are easy to read and understand. Do not use more that three different colours and make sure that each colour serves a purpose. Also, be aware that sometimes colours render differently when projected on a screen. Make sure sure you use appropriate contrast (no yellow on white background, nor red or blue on dark background). And remember, your colours should emphasise, not distract.

7. Do not overrun. If nothing else, this is a matter of courtesy to your audience, the organisers, and the speakers after you. Stick with the time you have been allocated and do not overrun.  If you realise during your presentation that you are likely to overrun, skip parts of your talk, e.g. extra details that you can defer to the questions session if there is enough interest.

So, how many of the above do you do when presenting a talk? Your favourite tip is not on the list? Then, share it with us in the comments! 

High vs. Low Impact-Factor Journals: What Difference Does It Make to Your Writing Style?

The impact factor, often abbreviated IF, is a measure reflecting the average number of citations to recent articles published in science and social science journals. It is was first devised by Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), and is now frequently used as a proxy for the relative importance of a journal within its field, with journals with higher impact factors deemed to be more important than those with lower ones (Source: Wikipedia).

Publication in journals with a high impact factor is regarded as an indication of the quality of the research published and, by implication, the quality of its authors. Not  surprisingly, publishing in highly ranked journals is an aspiration for most scientists and often plays an important role in one’s own career prospects and progression. Yet, as more and more researchers aspire to publish in top rated journals, the competition gets tougher and the success rate far lower than publishing on low-impact journal. So, how to achieve a much sought after high-impact publication?

Outstanding research 

Of course, to deserve publication in highly ranked journals your research has to be outstanding. However, this is not enough! Another critical ingredient is your ability to communicate the importance of your results in an effective and engaging way. So, an interesting question is: Should your writing style be any different from that used for standard publications? The answer is generally yes. Here are three good reasons why.

Audience

By definition, high-impact factor journals are widely read. This means that your readership will in general be less specialised and generally less informed on the key open problems in your field. Most likely, they will also be less interested about the exact details of your study, but they will certainly be interested in the implications of your findings both in your own field and in other, related ones. Opening and closing paragraphs are thus of utmost importance. Here, you should tell your reader what is hot in your field, why it matters, and where the current problems are. You then need to state very clearly the major advances that your research has led to. It is important, however, to avoid the use of jargon and to make sure that the language you use is appropriate to practitioners in your field (e.g. physicists) but not necessarily experts in your specific area (e.g. nuclear physicists). In fact, it may help to keep in mind that even your reviewers may not be experts in your field and it is up to you to persuade them of the excellence of your research. Also, if you are submitting to journals such as Physical Review LettersPhysics Letters B, or a Rapid Communication to Physical Review C, you will be required to include justification as to why publication in any of these journals should be warranted.

Length

Space is strictly limited in high-impact journals. For example, the total length of a Letter to the Physical Review journal should not exceed 4 journal pages. You do not have the luxury of explaining at length what has been done and why, but rather need to use words sparingly and make sure they are up to the point. Once you are happy with the content of your manuscript, spend an appropriate amount of time editing it carefully. First of all focus on clarity. Make sure every sentence conveys exactly the meaning you intend. Then, once clarity has been achieved, revise your draft once again to polish the style. Remove any unnecessary word and look for ways to further simplify your sentences. Remember that every word counts and you do not want to risk a rejection just because you could not be bothered to keep your manuscript within the prescribed length.

Details

One of the main differences between high- and low-impact journals is the level of detail found in their articles. Clearly, there should be enough to persuade readers that the methods and procedures used were fit for purpose. Likewise, data analysis and results should be presented in a way that shows carefulness, rigour, and accuracy. However, it is unlikely that you will have to enter in any great detail as to each step of your data analysis and often presenting its starting point and end result will be enough. In some cases, it may be appropriate to submit supplemental material. For example, there may be some text, tables or figures which are of value, but of too limited reader interest to warrant the number of pages required to publish in full in the journal. If the article is published, such material can be made available online through links from the published article.

In summary, writing for a high-impact journal can, and will, require additional effort on your part – as if carrying out outstanding research was not enough! :). However, the dividends it pays are normally worth the hassle. If you are a novice to such publications, some simple advice can make a huge difference. Here is what you can do to help you in the writing process:

  • make sure your proposed article matches the journal’s scope
  • read carefully the Guidelines for Authors provided by the Journal
  • familiarise yourself with the specific requirements as to length, formatting, referencing, etc., and follow them scrupolously
  • try to find a colleague who has published in, or has been a reviewer for, your targeted journal. Their experience may prove invaluable in assisting you shape your article
  • ask colleagues to comment on drafts of your work.
  • read plenty of articles from the journal you intend to publish in and learn from other people’s style (see my previous blog post on how to become a better writer)
Good luck!

PS. Do you know the impact factors of your favourite journal(s)? Here are the IFs for some of the main journals in Physics, according to the Journal Citation Reports 2011 ISI Web of Knowledge (Thomson Reuters)

Reviews on Modern Physics       43.933

Physics Reports                        20.394

Nature Physics                         18.967

Reports on Progress in Physics   14.720

Physical Review Letters              7.370

Physics Today                            5.648

Journal Physics G                       4.178

Physics Letters B                        3.955

Physical Review C                       3.308

European Physical Journal A          2.190

By comparison, two of the most popular scientific journals, Nature and Science, score at 36.280 and 31.201, respectively.

Things I’d Like to Read More About in This Blog: Your Chance to Let Me Know

Dear Follower,

Today’s post is all about what interests you as a reader of my blog. To find out, I have created a quick poll below. If you are a PhD student, a post-doctoral Fellow, or an early-career academic, I’d like to hear from you! Just pick up as many items as apply to you or add your own topic of interest/issue at the bottom if not already on the list. It’ll take less than a minute and it will be extremely helpful.

Thank you! :)