Look who’s talking: An amateur’s guide to giving presentations


The year is 2003(ish) and it’s speech day in my high school English class. I stand alone and exposed at the front of the room. Behind the safety of their desks, my classmates track my every move. Looking up from her paperwork, my teacher gives me the nod. Show time. I draw in a deep breath and yell “DANGER!”. My voice booms out across the room, bouncing off the walls and the faces of my stunned audience. A classroom of eyebrows rise in unison. My teacher frantically scribbles in her notes.

This how I learnt public speaking. Disclaimers up front: I can’t produce certificates which show why you should listen to anything I have to say about public speaking. Jes, one of the talented people running this blog, has heard me speak and asked me to write a piece about it. I guess we’ll find out if she thinks I’m any good at writing when she reads this. What follows is a collection of what I’ve learnt whilst communicating with groups of other humans. I hope you find at least some of it useful.

So, you’re going to give a talk. What is it going to be about? Consider your key message or a few key points you want your audience to take away. It can be easy to get bogged down in details but all you really need to convey is enough so that your audience can understand your key messages. Think about who your audience are? What do they know already? Understanding your audience is probably the most important part of writing your talk. There is no point in having a key message if you haven’t explained it in a way your audience will understand.

Regardless of their backgrounds there is one thing that unites all audiences: they love a good story. Humans have been telling stories since before “once upon a time”. While listing the facts is a more direct way to get them across, they will be understood better as a story. When I was first told this I thought great, but how do I turn my science into a story? My tutor then proceeded to ruin the plot of every Pixar movie ever made. SPOILERS AHEAD. Beginning: The world is a certain way. Middle: Something changes. End: The world is no-longer the same. This is also the basic outline of a scientific paper. Beginning: Our knowledge is a certain way. Middle: This is what we did to change that. End: This is why that matters. So, think about the structure of your talk and see if you can use a story to better convey your message.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably riddled with nerves. I’m a pro at panicking. Piglet is my spirit animal. Here are three things I fear before giving a talk:

  • I’ll say something that’s incorrect and look stupid.
  • I’ll forget what to say entirely and look stupid.
  • I’ll get asked a question I don’t know the answer to and look stupid.

Luckily, looking stupid is very rarely fatal and good talk preparation can help combat these. Fear one, saying something incorrect. No magic answer for this one. Read around your topic. Check your facts. This will help you feel more confident that you know your stuff. Once you know your stuff it’s time to practice conveying it to others. Practice in front of other people. I can give a confident speech to an audience of my most esteemed soft-toys only to have my mind abandon me when I try to recreate the experience with another human being. Practice in a setting similar to where your talk will take place. Have someone sit at the back of the room to check that you are projecting your voice far enough.

Next up, fear two. If I’m honest, my fear usually compels me to practice my speeches until they flow from my mouth word for word with very little thought on my part. I’ve told to be careful doing this because you don’t want to come across as emotionless or bored with your own talk. I’ve also witnessed people who try to learn something off by heart and then panic if they say something in a slightly different way. What you really need to be able to remember is what your next point is. No one has a copy of your script, they’re not going to call cut if you alter the wording slightly.

I have recently given a few talks for work where I’ve been too busy to practice them as much as I would like. I’ve therefore resorted to something I never really got into using before. Cue cards. In these cases, I still only use the cards as a prompt for what point I’m talking about next. Now, if you’re terrified of attempting a talk without a detailed script in hand, I know it is tempting to think that you’ve found a creative loophole by simply writing the entire talk on your power-point slides. Please don’t do this. No-one wants to sit there and listen to you read from a slide. Give your audience some credit, it is highly likely they could do that for themselves. Having said that, my brain isn’t very good at reading one thing and listening to another so I try to the words on my slide to a minimum. These words can give your audience the main points and act as a prompt for you.

Okay fear three, question time! Remember that learning your stuff you did earlier? That will come in handy here too. However, whether my audience is more or less experienced than me, they still seem to come up with questions I had never considered. That’s okay. If humans were able to learn everything, we wouldn’t have invented Google. If you want to stall for time, I find a good tactic is repeating their question or telling them what an excellent question it is. If you don’t know the answer, I think it is okay to admit that but you should still try to answer their question the best you can. Depending on the situation you might offer to go and find out the answer after the talk. If you think they have what might be some useful information on your topic, you might ask to talk to them further about it later.

So, you thought about your audience and your key message. You did your research and practiced your talk. The day has finally arrived. You’re in front of your audience. What do you do? Take a deep breath and try to relax your muscles. I’ve been told, that if you breathe slowly and relax your muscles, you can trick your brain into thinking you’re not terrified. It’s worth a shot. Remember, you’ve prepared for this. None of the times where I’ve really wedged my foot in my mouth have been during a practiced and thought out talk. Bonus, in most cases once your talk is over there will be no permanent record of what happened, unlike a piece of writing on an internet blog, so go out there and show them what you’re made of.

Author: Jes

I am a trainee clinical bioinformatician working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. I am passionate about increasing awareness and discussion about healthcare science and particularly the routes into the field.

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