The Stories We Could Tell

One of the top qualities of all public speakers is their capacity to surprise and entertain while they teach you. In this post, my speaking coach, Iain Davidson does just that.

On the stories we tell our colleagues, our students and ourselves!

I have just been asked to lead a conference session on ‘leadership’ and also interview a high profile international academic and chair the subsequent debate with an invited audience of fellow high-powered academics. No pressure then!

I checked out the web profiles of my fellow participants. The top guys were suitably awe inspiring and kind of scary: eminent journals, editorials, papers, books; forwards to other people’s books, government committees etc. The impressive and remorseless rise to the top of the (usually male) professorial tree, mapped out in the distant and relentless language of academic success.

These were the stories of the .25% PhDs who make it to Professor and the further % who then break through to government policy and to wielding political power.

Now don’t get me wrong, I admire the work and the intelligence and the ability in all these profiles. But I started to think that I still had no idea what these people were really like? Their strengths were obvious. Their luck was obvious! But their social media profiles were sparse at best and the web stuff very, very stilted and guarded.

I thought back to my own eccentric career profile (I am pretty much the same age as some of these senior academics) and it wouldn’t look so pretty:

1978: Admitted to Art College.

1979: Thrown out of Art College (this took a lot of work in the 1970s, believe me!).

Works as Hospital Porter with ex-miners from Fife: learns colourful pit language.

1984: BA (Hons) English and History interrupted when thrown into jail during Anti-Thatcher Riot (innocent) bailed out by Red Star Editor and personal Tutor (real star).

1985: Wins obscure scholarship and studies Masters in Anglo Saxon.

Presents rubbish paper at rubbish conference-learns nothing. Fails Latin exam.

1986: Released from ancient Medieval Library and unemployed-runs away to London squat with girlfriend. Girlfriend leaves smelly squat. Police enter smelly squat!

1988: Fired by HM Civil Service for being useless (phew!) Finds a tie, cheats at tests and joins big, bad Pharmaceutical company…enjoys big, bad pharmaceutical company because they give him lots of training and send him overseas to Florida.

1990s: Leaves company and becomes an English teacher…ends up in Central and Eastern Europe…later Spain etc. Works in Advertising…

You get the picture. I’m not sure I want the academics at the conference to get hold of this dodgy history. It’s certainly not on Linked in (you can check).

But I started to feel sorry for the Profs…these were good people who had been mega exceptional at school and university. Where can you go but up? All of them had been labelled by their university websites as “top performers” and “leading academics” with “exceptional influence”. I studied the forced but ‘effortless’ smiles, the deep leather chairs and the institutional ties. I felt sorry for them…I knew they still wanted to be roadies on a Stones tour.

I can’t wait to meet them for coffee now…I’m sure we have lots in common J

Good luck at all your conferences this year-the good-the bad-the indifferent-be a star*

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Building Modular Talks

Last week, I told the story of how I discovered the power of building modular talks when I had two talks to do in one crazy week. This week, I want to go a bit deeper into how to recognise a good module.

First off, I don’t think that a PowerPoint slide in itself counts as a module. There are all sorts of technical reasons for this but at heart, it is very simple. If a slide only works for a very specific audience, it won’t work as a module.

Imagine this, you have just done a talk to a bunch of engineers on a product. Now you are doing a talk to salespeople. You decide, to save time, that you will reuse some of your slides without editing them. So, you walk in front of a room full of salespeople  and show them a slide with nothing on it but a diagram with labels of parts.

No matter how well you talk, you are instantly going to struggle. The information that engineers need is very different to the info needed by salespeople. The way that they take it all in will differ too.

The parts of talks that work as modules will therefore be the ones that “speak” to more than one group.  In my own experience, I have found that the modules in my talks tend to be found in the parts when I am justifying my work, giving examples or summing up. At the points when I am showing why people should be listening and what they have heard, I tend to be speaking in a way that is usable for another audience.

Other people might find that their modules appear when they are giving explanations, or showing the logic of their argument or using images. Whenever these modules appear, they are recognisable by one trait: you can take them out of the presentation and they make perfect sense on their own.

A neat experiment is to rip some parts out of recent talks and see how much background is needed. The more background required, the less modular the section. The less background required, the more you can reuse what you have done.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the needs of your specific audience can be ignored. Every talk should be done with some kind of audience in mind. On the other hand, in even the most specialist talks, there will be parts that can be reused, sometimes after a little tweaking.

Recognising reusable material is a rarely discussed part of being a speaker. When several talks are queued up in quick succession, however, it is a vital one!

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Surviving Crazy Weeks

For the past couple of months, it has been very tricky to get Rock Your Talk posts written. This is mostly because I have been experiencing some of the busiest periods of my professional and academic life. Oddly enough, in all this, I have learned a whole lot about creating good talks in very efficient ways. Today’s post is the first in a new mini-series on the subject.

First up, some basic survival tips. Last November, I had a week where I had two talks, a conference and a board meeting. One of the talks took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the other in Edinburgh, Scotland. One was addressed to current taught postgraduate and undergraduate students; the other was at a research student conference. One was an hour long; the other a mere twenty minutes.

With only a few days between them, writing two full talks was out of the question. I simply didn’t have the prep time to run enough rehearsals and create that amount of material. So, how did I manage?

Simple. I cheated.

Instead of writing two talks, I reused material.

Sure, that isn’t exactly a world-shifting revelation. Duh! Why write two talks when you can write one?

Where this is tricky is when you have situations like mine where your audiences, talk purposes and even talk lengths are different. In this case, what is needed is a modular talk.

Have you ever played with Lego™  or Duplo™? The same bricks you use to build a castle can instantly be reused to build a boat. You can take apart a model of a spaceman and turn it into a model of a rhino. The same bricks that you use for one purpose can be reused for another.

How about doing that with talks? My long talk was about why language professionals should be getting into research. Oddly enough, one of my examples was a piece of research I did. With a bit of work, I made that section last twenty minutes – exactly the length of the conference talk I was going to do. You can guess the rest.

Interestingly enough, this meant adding a few more rehearsals. I saved time on writing but I needed another full rehearsal and another part rehearsal to get my timings absolutely perfect. I also needed them to make sure that my transitions into and out of my own work were seamless. Noone could know that I had built one talk out of two.

The next time you are working on talks with tight deadlines, give the modular talk trick a try. Next week, I will look at how to know when you have a good module.

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What interpreters know about public speaking

They are a bit weird, really. Interpreters sit at the back of the room, in comfy-looking boxes and just talk. Whatever you say, they talk. However funny (or otherwise) your jokes, they come up with something. In fact, the bulk of conference interpreters have sat through – and had to cope with – just about every kind of speech you can imagine. They know a lot about speaking and speakers. So here is what interpreters could tell you about public speaking:

1)    No, you don’t need to slow down that much.

The speed freak phenomenon is well-known but there is another side to the story. Every so often, you find a speaker who, in an effort to be more intelligible decides to … speak … incredibly … slowly … Ahnd … overrr … eenunciatuh … eh-veh-ry … word. After more than a few minutes, the audience starts to get annoyed or fights an attack of the giggles and, if there are any interpreters there, they are reaching for their coffees.

The truth is that, funnily enough, speaking at a natural, conversational speed makes you easier to understand. Technically, the sweet spot is between 110 and 130 words per minute. If you want an idea of how fast that is, listen to a UK or US television newsreader and you will get an idea. Once you get used to speaking at that kind of speed and can do it even when nervous, you will not need to think about speed again.

2)    Jokes are powerful; use them wisely.

At this point, I want to diverge from the usual advice given to speakers. I would never advise anyone to get rid of jokes entirely. Nor would I advise anyone to pepper their talk with more anecdotes than content. However, somewhere in the middle, there is that place where, once you have a rough idea of your audience, you can connect with them by dropping in a few witty (i.e. clever and not rude or racist) remarks about the setting or the people.

I need to add one caveat. If you are speaking to a multicultural audience, be careful with puns. I remember using a lovely pun at a conference, only for it to be met with confused silence. Don’t make my mistake.

3)    We are smart but we aren’t computers.

I saw an article recently that told writers to drop numbers from their writing whenever possible. I would advise something similar for speakers. Even in the most intricate of economic speeches, the limitations of the human brain will mean that, after the third GDP figure, we will lose the plot. Much better, if you want people to actually be able to follow you, is the practice of telling people the overall story and, where necessary inserting an image or metaphor to demonstrate. This leads me on to the whole question of PowerPoint

4)    PowerPoint is a visual medium so drop the text and numbers

I imagine the king of the bullet point kingdom rejoicing merrily at the invention of PowerPoint because he knew that suddenly he would rule over a mighty kingdom of billions of little dots. It is very rare to see a presenter who does not think that PowerPoint is an excuse for hundreds of bullets standing before row upon row of tiny text – a recipe for squinty-eyed disaster.

The best presenters are those who realise that visual aids are extremely powerful when used to backup a point and firmly entrench it in people’s minds. This means reducing text to an absolute minimum and using appropriate pictures, diagrams and even videos wherever possible.

Returning to the theme of figures from point 3, it is almost always a better idea to turn  figures into come kind of chart or graph to show trends than to present them in one big ugly table. It will also help you present more naturally and keep to the overarching story (or t-shirt message) you are trying to get across.

5)    Don’t tap the mic!

There are few more headache-inducing noises than a speaker who feels they have to test the mic by tapping it. Not only is it likely to have your audience (and any interpreters nearby) reaching for their aspirins, it makes it look like you are unsettled and unprofessional. Much better to start with something that wouldn’t be much of a loss if the equipment is not working but would still makes sense if it is. I personally recommend “thank you very much” or “good morning/afternoon/evening ladies and gentlemen”.

Very soon, there will be a specific post on working with interpreters. See you then.

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Guest Post: What Makes a Good Presenter

This post is by Ellen Spaeth (@ellenspaeth), a PhD student researching music listening in the treatment of anxiety, and a technology trainer. You can hear more from Ellen on her blog. In this post Ellen wonders whether ‘professional’ has to mean being serious.

What do you think makes a good presenter?

Do you prefer:
–    Someone who is incredibly energetic and passionate, or someone who has gravitas and authority? (Not that those are necessarily mutually exclusive…)
–    Lots of slides with interesting information and audiovisual materials, or a bare-bones “just a chat” approach?
–    Someone who stays still, or someone who uses body language to emphasize their points?

You might have personal preferences, but I’m guessing your answer is: “Well, I don’t know! This is a ridiculous question; it depends entirely on the context.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this answer. There’s a big difference between introducing a topic to 8 year-olds and explaining it to academics in your field. To me, the idea that one approach is inherently “better” is flawed.

Before you interrupt, YES, there are some extremes that tend to detract from a good presentation. If you speak so quickly that nobody can understand you, that’s a fairly obvious problem. If you have slides full of text, which you proceed to read out with no regard for the audience, that’s not going to be great. A good presenter should speak clearly, know their subject, and communicate this knowledge well. A good presenter should engage the audience and be able to take their audience into consideration when planning and delivering material. Yes.

But between the extremes, there’s quite a lot of leeway to modify your presentation based on context.

Aside from context, there’s something else, perhaps the most important thing.


Watching someone try to be someone they are not is a painful experience.

Before you interrupt again, YES, life is a constant learning experience. Very, very few people are “born presenters” (I’m not even sure such a thing exists). It’s incredibly important to develop your skills, and in doing so you can create a versatile presentation portfolio.

But there will be some things you’re better at, some things that lend themselves better to your personality. Recently, I published a blog post on the Thesis Whisperer blog about humour and enthusiasm in academia. I’m an enthusiastic person. And while I am perfectly capable of being serious when the situation requires it, I am best at being enthusiastic, passionate, and jokey.

The resounding message from the comments was that you should be yourself, and play to your strengths.

So when making a decision about how to present, there are really two things you need to consider:
– Is this something that comes naturally to you? Something you do well?
– Is this something that is context-appropriate?

What makes a good presenter? Someone who can adapt their presentations so they can say “yes” to these questions.

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Tools, Rules, and Learning Without Losing Yourself

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.

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Why rehearse?

Why rehearse?

This post is question time with a difference. Rather than respond to a question someone emailed me, I want to write a public response to a question I got in person. You see, while I was preparing for a talk I am going to deliver today, I met one of my friends. I mentioned, in passing, that I had just finished one of the last rehearsals for today’s talk. Her response: “you are a native English speaker so why do you rehearse?”

This post is my proper answer.

To be fair, my original answer wasn’t too bad. It went a bit like this.

I rehearse for two main reasons. The first is that I see it as a way of respecting the people who will be listening. Since they have taken time out of their lives to come and hear me, the least I can do is put in the effort to make sure that they get something great.

The second reason is related to that. Whenever I do a talk, whether it will be heard by hundreds or a few people, I want to make sure it is the best that I can do. I want to know, when all is said and done, that I really did give my best. I rehearse precisely because I know I could get away without rehearsing. I rehearse (several times, usually) to make sure that I keep on improving.

Today, I want to add a third reason. I rehearse because I have a very mean and very sneaky enemy: cruising. Cruising doesn’t seem too bad, really and that’s the problem. We all have areas of life where we can switch to autopilot and do a good enough job – a job that others might even reckon is really good. Yet, it we are brutally honest, we know we can do more.

It’s like being such an accomplished translator that you can finish off two contracts with hardly a glance at the dictionary and a very minimum of furrowed brows. It’s like being such a good guitarist that you don’t need to look at chords and can strum away while planning your Christmas dinner in your head. It’s like being such a good writer that you can have template articles and even books on standby and don’t need to struggle any more.

On the face of it, cruising looks great. It is a mark that you have arrived. It means that, at worse, you will be performing your chosen task better than 90% of the population. You will look good and put minimum effort in. Congratulations, you have arrived.

If you compare yourself with others cruising is fine. However, if you do the only worthwhile comparison, cruising is awful. The only worthwhile comparison is the one between where you are now and where you could be. Run those numbers and cruising looks more like a stinking rut than the good life.

My point? I rehearse and work hard on every talk: even the short ones, so that I never cruise. The moment I cruise, I lose. Sure, the talk would be pretty good. Sure, the number of stumbled would be minimal but that’s not the point.

I still remember the last time I cruised. It was a fairly run of the mill sermon in my local church. Honestly, I thought it wasn’t bad. No one exactly broke down in tears or got miraculously healed but it was alright. Okay, I had a nagging feeling that I could have done better but I put that down to perfectionism. Until I got home.

“That wasn’t your best sermon,” said my wife, with her usual honesty. She was right. The person who knew me best saw right through me. She knew fine well what I was capable of and that was not it.

Those words still ring through my ears. And I am glad they do. I never ever want to be in a position where anyone who really knows me has to point out that I am cruising. I care too much about them. I care too much about my audience. I care too much about myself.

The only comparison I ever want to make is between how good a talk was and how good it could have been. In that exam, only 100% counts. And that’s why I rehearse. Perhaps it’s why you should be rehearsing too.

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