Thursday, November 26, 2015

Soft Skills Drill: Presentation and Public Speaking

Public speaking is an art and science at the same time. Knowing the right piece of information or most or best of a subject cannot necessarily make a person a good orator. Though it is widely accepted that content is more pertinent than any paraphernalia for presenting it, conveying and convincing listeners with required information is tactful. It requires hard work, practice and of course presence of mind to tackle any hurdle that arises on the way. 

Audience 

Audience is the king of any presentation. All the activities including content, flow of information, presentation tools and choice of vocabulary should be focused on audience. The aim of any talk is to convince listeners an idea which the speaker believes in. A good talk is one, at the end of which, listeners become as excited about the subject of discussion as the speaker himself. Unlike usual public speeches, scientific presentations are mostly open discussion forums with bilateral flow of information. A successful speaker is one who not only makes listeners informed but also generates interest in them to initiate constructive interactions and productive discussions. It is always a better approach to pass a gaze to the entire gathering while delivering a talk to stay connected and take them along the subject with the speaker as talk progresses.

The speaker

The speaker is the middleman between information in hand and listeners. He has to be extremely careful to be as presentable as possible. The appearance of a speaker is very crucial. A speaker should be dressed with class and elegance. It shows the commitment he puts towards this presentation. At the same time, his clothes should not be flashy or trashy to attract unwanted attention to unwanted details. It is good to bear in mind not to wear shoes that may creak or thud while walking. A well pressed formal ware of neutral colors and a pair of well polished shoes. Neat grooming and pleasant face. (I always remember one of my teachers’ words at this context. “For a speech, your shoes should be polished enough to reflect the entire gathering in front of you at the tip of your shoes when you stand on a dais.” Now, that’s one gentleman’s advice indeed.). One should be always enthusiastic about his talk.  It's a bit stressful and even seasoned speakers get nervous before talks. But the key is to be calm bearing in mind the fact that nobody can intimidate us without our permission. Frantically pacing up and down, fiddling with paraphernalia or a shivering voice can give cues to listeners about relative lack of speaker’s confidence.

Content

Content determines the quality of any talk. Only a few are blessed enough to be eloquent spontaneously. For rest of us, planning ahead is inevitable. The content should be crisp, clear, straightforward and precise. Any presentation is essentially a glorified story-telling process. There are two effective ways of doing it. Personally, I call them the Jigsaw Puzzle approach and the Rubik’s Cube approach. In the former, just like a jigsaw puzzle, without revealing the end result, speaker can put together various pieces of information to build a wholesome picture. Here listeners are expected to be attentive all throughout the talk for complete comprehension. However, in public platforms where limited attention is expected, the latter approach becomes useful. Here, just like a Rubik’s Cube, the listeners are informed of the wholesome picture at first and the speaker gradually discusses various ways of reaching that conclusion. So even if he loses listeners’ attention in between, an essential take-home message still lingers in their minds.

Striking opening and closing lines carrying gist of our talk will make the ideas conveyed linger in the minds of listeners longer. History agrees with it by evergreen rhetoric of leaders like “Quit India” by M K Gandhi at Bombay in 1942, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” by Patrick Henry in 1775 urging Virginians to ban Stamp Act of 1764 and undoubtedly “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 at Washington DC during American Civil Rights Movement.

Flow of information

It is tricky to equally convey scientific information to a mixed audience. Not everyone could be an expert in the particular subject of discussion. Visual aids help in bridging the gap between speaker and listener to a great extent. There are many fancy presentation tools available online. Irrespective of the tool used, there are some standard practices to be followed in any academic presentation. The slides should have a neutral plain background with bold dark font not less than thirty point size. Ideas are better conveyed if enlisted as bullet points than long complex sentences. This also can avoid the awkward situation of monotone reading from slides. Visual aids are considered far superior to verbal. Hence pictorial representation of data using relevant, completely labeled graphs, charts and schematic diagrams would add more validity and authenticity. When representing experimental results in graph, proper legends, axis labels, error bars, p-value, proportionate scale and unit of values cannot be compromised. It is better not to include more than two graphs in one slide to avoid illegibility. All kinds of qualitative data should be well supported with a quantitative representation emphasize significance of data. There is no rule that says scientific presentations should be long, serious and boring. It is wise to break down the gravity of data through simple, straightforward summaries at required intervals, thus making a wholesome story out of the subject discussed.

Presentation interphase

Academic presentations are exclusively supported by visual aids these days. Though most of us rely on Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote for presentation, it is worthwhile to look into other options available, relevant to subjects discussed and kind of audience addressed. For instance, younger audience would mostly enjoy a lighter way of conveying scientific ideas through visual effects and animations. Online tools like PowToon Studio or Sparkol can be utilized to customize and create our own cartoons and animated videos. Nevertheless, mature audience might appreciate a more conventional approach. Prezi and SlideRocket may help to make a sober presentation more interesting through improved dynamicity. When the prepared slides are to be shared with different people, SlideShare or Google Slides will come handy. Standard scientific talks of thirty minutes demand not more than twenty slides thus giving the speaker at least ninety seconds to discuss each slide. When using a laser pointing device, it is a healthy practice to point to the picture or word that needs attention rather than repeatedly circling it while talking, as a rapidly moving bright light immediately takes the attention of listeners away from speaker’s words.

Language

One doesn’t have to sound like a literary wizard to communicate properly. But the right choice of words, right tone of voice and fluency in medium of speech are inevitable components of a good presentation. The best tool to impress listeners is grammatically clean and well constructed sentences delivered in a moderate tempo with confidence. Since academic presentations are almost exclusively delivered in English, a good command in the language becomes essential. But, unfortunately, we have a tendency to overlook that and stutter and stumble during our presentation. Ill-structured expressions not only diminish our personal credibility questioning our authority over the subject we talk about but also make it difficult for listeners to fully comprehend what we wish to communicate. If we are not confident about our presenting skills, there are only three ways of overcoming it; Practice, practice and practice. 

Footnote: A great speech is one which is concise yet impactful.

It is said that when asked to address the nation, dedicating Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg during American Civil War in 1863, the then United States President Abraham Lincoln, sick in the prodrome of an impending smallpox, jotted down just a few lines on the back of an envelope during his train journey to Pennsylvania. During the official ceremony, American politician and renowned orator Edward Everett delivered a two hour long pre-written oration. Lincoln followed this with his three and a half minute and 271 word long speech that later became a milestone in history as the famous Gettysburg Address. Everett’s Oration, with no disrespect, hasn’t found much light or citations after that day.

How many times in our childhood have we pretended ourselves to be influential leaders and reenacted in front of our personal mirrors his famous opening lines, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?  And quoted his universal definition of democracy, “…..government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


It is a matter of my secret pride that I hold one of the few original hard copies of Lincoln’s manuscript of Gettysburg Address in its bona fide stationery. It is undoubtedly one of my most prized possessions.

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