Today, I’m going to give some monktress advice on wth to do when it’s time to give your first n00b talk*. Giving talks may sometimes feel like part of the 13 steps of being dragged to hell, but is necessary for your advancement in the Elder Monk world. You may believe the only people good at giving talks are ones that are natural extroverts- that is a lie. Giving a presentation is an act, and as the fantastical Cary Grant faked being a charming gentlemen until he grew into that person, you too shall fake being a good presenter until you become one.
I am going to presume you know how to properly construct your slides; there are a plethora of websites devoted to such things. If the minions demand it, I might do a mini baby-getting-your-feet-wet version of how to make not sucktastical slides (Ed: dude just read Dr Becca's awesome shizzle here, and Scicurious' epic stuff here). But for now, here are Hermitage the D-List Monktress’ basic tips to be an awesome presenter:
Heart in your throat
This is normal, and may never go away. That might not be what you want to hear, but you should embrace the adrenalin as fuel to do your best, and push the nagging thoughts to the background as you take the stage. My heart still goes Ba Thumpa Thump Thump for the first two slides of every talk, but at this point it’s like an obnoxious neighbor playing loud music, not that srs. You can also trying various breathing techniques (such as inhale five counts, hold five counts, and release five counts, repeat) to regulate your heart rate.
If you have seen the recent, and fabulous, film The King’s Speech you should remember the part where Geoffrey Rush’s character is shaking his jaw and warbling with a reluctant Colin Firth. While it looks ridiculous, it is a method of loosening your throat and jaw, which is important to reducing that tinny ‘nervous’ voice. Since you’re probably unwilling to do this while you sit in the front row waiting to be called, we’ll settle for your yawning. You can’t have a tight throat/jaw while you yawn, and you can look like you’ve been so busy discussing uber science that you got no sleep last night.
The last thing you want to do is be hunched over while you give a talk. It reduces your ability to project and conveys an idea to the audience that you’re nervous. You want your body to be straight and tall- but not stiff as a board, that looks just as bad! Take some time to look at yourself in a mirror and practice a confident stance that doesn’t look too rigid, or too sloppy. It will feel unnatural, like you’re acting. But that’s exactly what giving a presentation is, an act, which you will practice over and over until it becomes a series of checkboxes you subconsciously run through.
Watch your hands
It is not unusual for a speaker to A) Be in a large auditorium with a bajillion people and/or B) Be off to the far side of their projector. Which means, while you may indeed be able to demonstrate the intricacies of fuel combustion with finger puppets, most people won’t be able to see it. At best they’ll see nothing, at worse they’ll see you wildly gesticulating for no apparent reason, distracting them from your slides, transparencies, etc. 90% of your talk your hands should be loosely at your sides, or holding the laser pointer to demonstrate something. This again, is something that feels entirely unnatural but looks calm and copacetic once at the podium. Practice this in the mirror as well.
The audience members are not kittens
So making constant figure eights with your laser pointer is not going to increase their attention span. I have attended too many talks where the speaker’s laser pointer bounces all around the ceiling, all over the slides, and into the seating, FSM knows why. There are also people who never turn the laser pointer off, in which case I am in constant fear I’m going to have my retina burned out and am paying no attention to what the speaker is saying. The laser pointer is for EMPHASIS, which means it should be used SPARINGLY. You should NEVER BE HIGHLIGHTING EVERY WORD ON THE SLIDE. Also, if you’re extremely nervous, you’re probably going to have a shaky hand with the laser pointer, so use both hands to add some control. You may feel silly, but the audience will appreciate your being able to actually circle the formulae or axis you are trying to underline.
Figure 1: There will come the day when the Belly Butterflies will not be man-eating, just evil. Because they're still flies (it says so in the name!), and therefore are not of the Lord
Seriously peeps, I need some linebreak advice because this is getting fucking ridiculous.
Face the audience
It is very tempting to look at your slides for the duration of your talk, you know your slides, they’re full of your beautiful data that is safe and alluring, instead of the audience which may be full of scowling faces or people snoring. Ignore the impulse; face your peers because your shit is awesome! A person who has confident body language and is comfortable scanning the audience, making occasional eye contact, is subliminally communicating that they are in charge and that they know their shit. You wouldn’t pay to go to a Broadway show where the thespian delivers his lines to the drapes, would you?
Take a breath
It doesn’t matter if your jaw starts out loose, if you run through your slides at breakneck pace, never pausing to take a breath, your voice will naturally get more and more nasally because your lungs are running out of air. Always pause and breathe, preferably at the end of each bullet on your slide. When you’re about to change slides, take several breaths, even. If this is unmanageable for you, take a drink of water, because it’s also important to…
According to your heart rate, you’re running a Boston Marathon while giving this talk, so you should hydrate accordingly. At first, it feels like the rudest and strangest thing in the world to stop what you’re saying to uncap a water bottle and drink from it. In reality, no one cares. It gives people a break to stop and think about what you said, and if your voice is getting raspy, they’re thankful for your stopping to fix the situation. You can also use it as a tool to pace yourself, as I mentioned above. When you need a break between slides, or on a slide, but you don’t trust yourself to do it naturally, it’s a great time to stop and take a sip of water.
And finally, but most importantly,
Never criticize yourself
Pointing out caveats and draw-backs to the techniques you’ve chosen is being honest. Talking about why your results ‘suck’ or this graph is ‘not that great’ or how this schematic ‘doesn’t really illustrate’ makes you dead in the water. If it’s something you can fix, FIX IT. If your schematic is too small, or the graph type isn’t the best, or the threshing on the photo isn’t correct, take the pride in your talk to correct it before showing it to the audience. When it’s go time, own your talk. If you spend your entire presentation talking about how much you suck, I’m sitting there wondering why I wasted my time on you. Don’t kill enthusiasm for your data with your low self-esteem.
Fixing these things is NOT EASY, it will take time and PRACTICE to accomplish. I’m self-deprecating and will drive Professor Positive verrückt with all the reasons my data is unworthy to be seen anywhere but dark lighting under the influence of roofies. But when I get in front of a podium, or a poster, I am confident, my data is awesome (not perfect, but awesome), and I am commanding. For some people it’s a natural state of being, for others it’s like flipping a switch, but either way, the end result is impressive.
Go forth, ye childrens, and blow some minds with your awesome shizzle! N00b and elder monks/monktresses are welcome to add points I forgot. Because y’all know I write this shit on my slurpee break.* While my advice is mostly oriented towards oral presentations, these rules are just as effective in front of a poster. Since becoming part of n00b academia, every time there’s been a poster award to win, I’ve won it, so I would say these general guidelines are pretty effective.