Thursday, 6 February 2014

And our next speaker is….
Fergus McAuliffe in action at a packed TEDxDublin
- read on to find out how he prepares for presentations...
The hot seat. You’re in it. About to stand up and present your work in front of 100 members of the public. People who you don’t know you at all. People who know even less about what you research. Your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. Rapping in Detroit it seems, is just like presenting to the public. You shift in your seat.

We’ve all been in a similar presenting scenario to this at some point. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
To help, below are five tips. Not quite learned on the streets of Detroit, but useful nonetheless.

1.       Know the first sentence.

Sounds obvious. Is obvious. But it’s remarkable what sort of claptrap we can throw out as our first line when we are not sure what we want to say. The good news is, when you have decided on your first sentence in advance then you know exactly how you will start. That’s one thing less to worry about. I like to repeat my first sentence in my head just before I’m called to the stage or on my walk up the steps. Repeat. Repeat. Then say aloud, and you’re away.

2.       The first few words.

Are crucial. These should hook the audience in. A hook is something catchy, something unexpected, something for the audience to bite on to. Your audience should be hanging on your every word at this stage. Want an example of how to hook right from the off? This is par for the course for TED talks. Watch them.

One point to avoid: the re-introduction. If you’ve have already been introduced by the host or chair, then don’t waste time reintroducing yourself. All you have to do beforehand is have a quick word in the host’s ear about how you would like to be introduced. This then allows you to launch in to the meat of your talk straight away, rather than spending the first 20 seconds fumbling with the packaging.

3.       Be clear.

Like pristine-lake-in-the-Rocky-mountains-used-for-marketing-purposes-clear about what you are trying to convey. A PhD is a big task. To help with this, it can be useful to only talk about part of your research. Pick a manageable portion of your work. Bring the audience through it with you step by step in a logical manner. Remember that the point of communicating your research to the public is not to show how much you’ve done during your PhD. Rather it is to help the public to understand what you do.

Examples and analogies are your best friends in clarity. “Like what?” “It works the same as…” “In a similar way to…” “Think of it like this…” A good example will be reused in the pub after. A good analogy will get retold to kids, friends and parents over dinner. They stick.

4.       Practice.

No matter how trivial the talk is. The notion that people can over-practice, and that when they give the talk for real that they sound too rehearsed is true. However, it is easily avoided. If you practice properly, with the emphasis on sounding natural each time you practice, then you will come across in a natural, unscripted way.

But who to practice for? Well it’s quite simple really. If you were to write an article for a scientific journal, you would show it to your supervisor i.e. a representative of the audience likely to read your work. If you were a sports writer, who reads over your article before going to press? The sports editor i.e. someone representative of the audience likely to read your article. So, if you are to give a talk for a public audience, who should you practice for? Exactly. A member of the public. Someone representative of the audience. Your brother, your sister, your friend. Anyone who has a limited knowledge of your area can provide you with some of the best feedback you can get. If they didn’t understand, they’ll tell you. If they liked it, they’ll tell you.

5.       Sign off emphatically.

It is better to sign off with a simple “thank you” than to:

(a)    Allow your voice to trail off in to a whispering sunset

(b)   Both thank the audience for listening and ask them if they have questions. The audience then does not know whether to clap, or raise their hands. Remember the chair or host is there to direct the questions. You are there to answer.

Like any good book, you should have a clear and great ending to you talk. Practice the ending.

Lastly, tips 1-5 are only tips. Reading tips is easy.  The best thing that you can do is to, well, just do it. Give a talk to the public. Give a talk in your university. Get involved in your local science/arts/business week.

Get stuck in.

Fergus McAuliffe

This guest post was written by Fergus McAuliffe, who is a great science storyteller. Fergus has won multiple awards for science presentations, and presents popular science on Irish TV. He recently gave an excellent talk on TEDxDublin.
Fergus tweets at @FergusMcAuliffe.

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