Even a Geek Can SpeakPresentations are as much about style as substance.  Key data and scientific breakthroughs don’t talk, but with practice and skill you can make them sing.  Confidence and a measured voice—poise–will drive home the importance of your research, fascinating the audience and filling their heads with potential applications for your work.  With the adulation of the crowd everyone will have questions after the talk, collaborations will form faster than the ink on the data-sharing agreements can dry, and awards and funding will follow.

Or so I’m told.

“Even a Geek Can Speak,” by Joey Asher at its core is a guide to connecting with your audience, raising their interest providing them with the information they need.  The product of his day job at Speechworks, the book focuses largely on the business world, with advice tailored to salesmen, middle managers and executives.  But, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for an academic to learn, and the while the first half of the book is devoted to the sales talk, the second is an excellent guide to the soft skills of presentations: body language, speaking skills and the ever important smile [1].

Body Language

Ms. Manners isn’t the only one who follows more or less rigid, unwritten rules during a conversation.  Politicians are the worst offenders, changing mannerisms and accents to fit the perceived views of their audiences (cf. “Code Switching”), but to a greater or lesser extent we all shift who we are when we speak to our friends, our bosses and our spouses.  The key to giving a great presentation is determining when you are at your most aminated, your most enthusiastic, and changing your speaking style to match.  Asher characterizes this as a person’s “Maximum Gary” [2], describing a soft-spoken software executive who was absolutely passionate when talking about fly fishing, but dull as anything otherwise.

Being your maximum isn’t about finely honed speaking skills or robotic precision, but rather showing passion for your subject.  An energetic person lets their good cheer show in a hundred little ways, from expansive movements to eye contact, and their enthusiasm is generally contagious.

Speaking Skills

Looking excited will only get you so far though, without a voice to match.  More than removing unintended pauses and filler words from your speech, a good presenter is depicted as having a wide dynamic range.  Volume ranges from shouting to a hushed, private tone, while the pace stretches from auctioneer to Crash Test Dummy.  Watching a great presenter is like sitting down with an expert storyteller [3].

The best way to improve the quality of your speech is to record it, studying your intonation and pacing.  This is somewhat akin to an athlete obsessing over videos of their own play, and is probably the largest single step towards improvement one can take.  An hour of deliberate practice can make a huge difference, and given the prevalence of webcams and microphones there’s no reason not to make the effort (especially if you’re practicing your talks 3x prior to the main event, as nearly every guide on speaking recommends).

The Smile

Somewhat related to body language, a good smile is important enough that it deserves a section all of its own.  Every few sentences make eye contact with someone in the room.  Focus on them, smile, and relay one piece of information.  When your thought is done break eye contact/stop smiling, and find someone new in a different part of the room.  Repeat until you’ve made eye contact with everyone who will look at you, then start again at the top.  They key isn’t to have a grin painted onto your face; it’s to convince as many people as possible ownership over a small segment of your talk.

This technique is very different from “grazing” your eyes across the room, which more often than not is going to make you feel like no one is paying attention.  If the room is so large that it’s impossible to make eye contact with everyone individually, criss-cross the room and make eye contact with one person in each section of the room (bonus points for actually moving around the stage).  Draw patterns to make sure you aren’t just focusing on the same few people (ex. an X or Z shape), and to make sure that both sides of the room receive equal attention.  If you can engage with the entire crowd their applause can be deafening.

[1] Guides to basic presentation design are much easier to come by.  I’ve written a short piece on pacing that I quite like, and a good guide can be found here (pdf).

[2] Provided the person’s name is Gary.  I assume “Maximum Insert-Name-Here” didn’t have quite the same ring.

[3] Since I picked on him farther up, here’s a link to the speech that first introduced Barack Obama to the broader United States (it was a pretty good speech).  Like a lot of his speeches, it is built around a story, and his voice matches.  Notice especially the way his voice dips and rises, and the short pauses interspaced throughout.

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