Public Speaking Advice From My Students

In the Frontiers of Psychology class I teach at Tsinghua (Monday 3:20-4:55, Teaching Building 6, Room A113, visitors welcome) , the students will give several presentations each class period. So I decided to assemble a list of advice. I came up with Items 1-3, the students came up with the rest.

  1. Give a presentation that you would like to hear. Don’t worry about following a formula.
  2. Make your points by telling stories. Don’t just say “X is true”. Tell a story that will make your listeners think that X is true.
  3. Stay within the allotted time (e.g., 5 minutes). In real life — presentations at scientific conferences, for example — most presentations are too long. Listeners rarely like this. They think the speaker is selfish. If one person speaks too long, this usually means that other speakers will have less time to speak.
  4. Don’t read your talk.
  5. Use simple, spoken English. Don’t speak fast
  6. Smile and use body language to connect with the audience.
  7. Pause before the most important points.
  8. Ask questions to attract attention.
  9. Show the big structure of your talk.
  10. When telling a story, don’t go far from the point of the story (e.g., with unnecessary details)

To me, the most interesting item is #8 (ask questions). For example, instead of saying “Let us begin” I can say “Shall we begin?” Which is certainly an improvement over coughing, which is what one student said was the usual way officials began talks.

For example, which phrasing works better?

Why does question-asking work? I asked my students.

I asked my students why question-asking works.

The first way (“Why does”) grabs my attention more than the second (“I asked”). I did ask my students why it works. One said that when you hear a question you automatically try to answer it.  I cannot do better than that. I suppose we notice questions much like we notice loud noises.

8 Replies to “Public Speaking Advice From My Students”

  1. I have forgotten how many times I’ve seen a presenter struggle (and waste everyone’s time) because they figure they would be able improvise. Even those few people that are good at it amount to little more than entertainers.

    Write a good paper and learn to read aloud well.

  2. If you are using a microphone, a computer & projector, or other audiovisual equipment, spend some time in advance to make sure that everything works properly. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen speakers struggling with their PowerPoint presentation. The most amusing instance was a lecture given by the Chief Technology Officer of a Fortune 500 company. Members of the audience actually ran up on stage to help troubleshoot the equipment, but it was all to no avail. The PowerPoint presentation still wouldn’t work.

    Also, make sure that you are prepared to give a version of your talk without any additional equipment at all, in case of power failure or some such thing.

  3. #4 is wrong. It should read:

    1. Don’t you bloody dare to read your talk.

    to which I would add

    And don’t you bloody dare to read out your powerpoint slides either.

  4. Even if you are an excellent improvisor, the kind that wins competitions, you do better if you don’t.

    No matter how good you are, you can improve what you do by not taking more time than you are scheduled for, and a little less (and taking questions or sharing it with other presenters) goes a long way.

  5. I can kind of see #4. (And, I sure as hell don’t read lectures, and try to eliminate most writing from my power points these days), but, when I started out, stage fright petrified me. Rather chockingly so the first time. And, when I had to do my first longer presentation when I started grad school, my adviser suggested that I would write it out, write it in a spoken voice, and if I freaked, I could just read it. Which is what I did. And what I did for my first lecture. And, then, rather quickly actually, my stage fright disappeared, my written lecture was more a security blanket, and eventually that stopped too (because who has time to write out an entire talk or lecture, when you don’t need it).

    So, I do suggest writing it out to read for people who are like me and petrified with stage fright. Because actually saying something up there and making it to the end is better than not being able to do anything.

  6. That’s the point, really.

    The people that do well without reading are those that know the material so throughly that, essentially, are reading it directly out of their minds. Anyone that lectures regularly gets to that point eventually.

    Nonetheless, the only way to be densely informative (and not to waste other people’s time) is to sacrifice resources invested in the creation of an illusion of mastery (look Ma’, no hands!) and, rather, invest everything into getting the information through with eloquence and clarity. WRITE IT. Memorize if you feel you’ve gotta dazzle too, but WRITE IT.

  7. One other thing: PRACTICE! When you start out, get as much practice as you can giving talks in non-threatening environments. And then, always practice the talk you’re going to give to an empty room, and maybe once, to friends or colleagues. For conference talks, I usually figure an hour of practice time: 4 times through for a 15-minute talk, 5 times for a 12-minute talk, and so on. Short talks are hard to get right. You need that practice. And so many people give bad bad bad talks that you can really stand out if you’re a little more on the ball.

  8. I think they missed the most important point: never address a “group.” Address individuals within that group, one at a time. At each instant, look at the person you are addressing in that instant.

    This both:
    – Helps conquer anxiety – we all know how to talk to one person.
    – Gives your presentation the conversational flow that the audience wants.

    Also will pass on this insight I read just a few minutes ago:
    “In my freshmen psych class, they said that, as a general rule, well-prepared people will perform better when they have an audience, and those who are not well-prepared will do worse.”

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