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! 

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