A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the best academic talk I have ever heard anywhere. The fact that it was given by a second year PhD student was impressive. The fact that the student speaking was not presenting in her native language was simply mind-blowing.
As someone who likes to learn from the best, I have often been a bit guilty of attending talks like that and then thinking that, if I am to be as good as that person, I have to do exactly what they did. So, on previous occasions, after superb talks, I have gone home and done my best to make my next talk as much like someone else’s talk as possible. This even went to the point of trying to construct an elaborate narrative sermon on what was a really simple text. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.
The problem was that I always saw great talks as examples to be slavishly copied rather than as toolboxes that I could dip into when I needed some help. No halfway decent craftsman would look at Michelangelo’s “David”, realise it was carved with chisels and then proceed to try to knock in a nail with a chisel. It’s the same with talks. Just because we saw some great talk using Prezi or narrative structures or incredible animations, that doesn’t mean that our next talk will automatically benefit from using those exact tools.
What is much better is to really think about what we can learn from that talk and what will work in a given context. Some techniques work great in small seminars but flop gloriously in a sermon to 1,000 people. Some tools work wonderfully in set lectures but will absolutely fail if you use them with a small group of people you know well.
So, if we are going to use new tools, we need to know what they are for. Even something as well-known as PowerPoint has places where it absolutely will not work. If you are telling a story, you are probably better switching off the screen and, scary as it might seem, inviting people to concentrate on you. Similarly, you might find that sometimes, a whiteboard and a pen might communicate an idea a lot more effectively than a slide full of size 10 bullet-pointed text.
And then there is the “you” part of presenting. At some stage in your talk, no matter how hard you try, some “you” will leak out. It might be in the form of a nervous twitch or an impromptu joke or even just a wry smile that you didn’t realise you were wearing. It could even be as obvious as one lecture I sat through where the lecturer began with the words “I know this topic is dry but we’ll get through it.”
If some of “you” is going to leak anyway then it makes sense to choose techniques and tools that suit your personality. I am outgoing and I like to be slightly off the wall so things like funny games, odd metaphors and silly jokes work well in my talks. I have some colleagues who are much more reserved and quiet so those same tools would just make them look, well, silly. They might be far better off pulling people in with a touching story or creating gorgeous visuals or even using no visuals at all and just talking straight, person to person.
The same tools, no matter how effective they might be in one place, might not work for you or your talk. You really don’t have to try to be anyone else. In fact, if you try to adopt something that doesn’t suit you, people will know.
The aim then is to find the toolset that fits your kind of talks and your kind of personality and work hard on using them effectively. When you, your talk, and your audience are all on the same page, incredible things can happen.