Science Careers Blog

July 7, 2010

Curtains Up: Learn new Presentation Skills from a Thespian

Last week I attended a talk about presentation skills at the Microsoft Research Summer School in Cambridge, U.K., an annual event for computer science Ph.D. students. I've attended many presentations in the course of my work, but none have left me feeling as energized at 9:30 in the morning as this one did. What made this talk so different? The speaker, Ken Shaw from Benchmark Communication Techniques, comes from a theatrical background, where he learned how to engage effectively with an audience -- and he has transferred those skills to giving presentations brilliantly.

Following a successful career in theatre, Shaw moved into training corporate clients in presentation skills 19 years ago. Since then, he's also worked closely with the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, training future CEOs how to communicate effectively. Then, about 2 years ago, someone from the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge approached him about teaching these skills to academics too, and since then he has been helping Ph.D. students and postdocs bring a bit of corporate showmanship into academic presentations. "Half of Ph.D. students will enter the corporate world and another quarter will regularly interact with corporate companies in their research," Shaw says. "Changes are happening in academia and I'm attending to that need."

Here is a summary of his advice:

Look and sound confident

• Do vocal exercises before your presentation. This will help you articulate your words and sound more confident. Some exercises: Move your tongue to the back of your throat and say the months of the year. Then bring your tongue to the front of your mouth pointing downwards, between your lower teeth and your gum, and again go through the months of the year.

• People often get nervous in front of audiences because they feel like they are being looked at. Instead, reverse this feeling and look at your audience: Who got here early? Is anyone in the front row? Are people clumping together into groups?

Why should the audience listen to your talk?

• Don't just impart information during your talk -- you could do that via email. Instead your talk must be a proposal, with a recommendation backed up by justification. That's when a presentation shifts from being boring to dynamic.

• People shouldn't know that the presentation is over just because you've stopped talking. You should have a clear point to make and when you've arrived at that point, that is the end.

General presentation advice

• Try giving a presentation without using slides and turn the talk into a discussion. By doing this, the audience will feel more comfortable to ask questions. (Showing by example, Shaw used no slides or backdrops during his talk. It was just him on stage, engaging with the audience--and it worked!)

• Think about reversing the norm of having a large segment dedicated to the presentation with a few minutes at the end for questions, because a talk only gets interesting when someone questions or challenges what you've said. For a 30-minute presentation, Shaw recommends 10 minutes for the presentation and 20 minutes for Q&A. Also, instead of just asking at the end if there are any questions, try to steer the discussion into the direction that you would like to take it. This removes some of the fear about the final Q&A segment.

• Allow humor into your talk, but don't fall into the trap of telling jokes. There's a danger your jokes could fall flat -- or worse, offend your audience. You're not there to entertain; your main aim should be content and clarity.
• Presenting to a large audience is different than giving the same talk to a small group of people. Large audiences are far more passive and require more encouragement to keep them engaged.

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