Presenting at conferences is a necessary and important part of academic life. A few times a year, every researcher, young and old, must stand in front of their peers and bare their trembling soul for all to dissect and critique.
Some talks you give will feel good—lots of questions, an engaged audience—and some will feel bad. That’s the nature of the beast. But with a little care in your preparation and delivery, you can ease your nerves by taming this variability. Here are my tips to guarantee that every single talk you give will be one hundred percent garbage.
Phase 1: Preparing your slidesCompose your slides as if they were your transcript. You are freed from having to remember all those intricate side-points, and your audience will have everything they could ever want to know up on the screen. They will lap it up.
Leave no white space unfilled. Slides with space are slides that you did not care enough to fill. Cram every available inch with important data and formulae, so as not to seem flaky, non-committal and inefficient.
Don’t waste valuable time in catering for the colour-blind. They’re used to dealing with it—in fact, you risk offending them by ‘nannying’ to their minor condition—so have no qualms in using those red–green fluorescence combinations.
Use many different fonts to demonstrate your technical prowess. Think of fonts like a peacock’s plumage: they are there to enthral and enchant. As an added bonus, they will definitely make your slides easier to read. I promise.
Choose an obvious pre-packaged template. Busy academics don’t have time to be making Powerpoint themes. Ensure your audience knows just how important you are by making it clear that your slides were assembled on the plane.
Phase 2: Delivering your talkState your name and the talk title, even if the chair has said it and it’s on your first slide. Your audience won’t have listened to the chair, and it’s not like there’s anywhere else they can look it up. After all, your name is the most important part of the talk.
Do not move no matter how strong the urge. Movement lowers the tone. This is a serious affair. You don’t want people watching you instead of reading your detailed slides, now do you?
Avoid all eye contact. It terrifies scientists and send them running for the door. Let them listen in peace without the threat of personal engagement. This isn’t cabaret.
Only say something once. Repetition is the enemy of efficiency. You will also offend the intelligence of those who heard your point the first time. If they didn’t catch it already, then they are too stupid to be worth your time.Never use humour of any sort. Sarcasm, wit, satire, irony, spoof, bathos, pathos: these are all entirely inappropriate and will render your message null and void. Instead of taking detailed notes, your audience will merely write “attempted humour, disregard” and return to answering their important e-mails.
But if you must be witty, then be unrelentingly witty. If you open with a joke, then you have a narrow window in which to insert your next one before you are written off as “attempting humour”. Cram them in for maximum likelihood of success.
Treat the schedule as a rough guideline only. Your work is important enough that it deserves however long it takes to present, so ignore any remonstrations from the session chair if you run over time. Everyone will be impressed by your bravado.
Phase 3: After the talkNever admit misunderstanding. If you didn’t comprehend a question, be it through volume, accent, or terminology, just silently make up a question for yourself and answer that instead. To request clarification is to request condemnation.
Never follow up on people’s questions afterwards. They are mostly asked out of a sense of duty so as not to offend the eager session chair. Don’t impose a conversation on the foolhardy questioner that they didn’t really want in the first place.
And, most importantly: Don’t dissect a perceived failure. It’s not your fault if nobody seemed interested. It just means that the audience weren’t on your intellectual plane. Ignore the lot of them; deliver the same talk next conference and hope the attendees are less plebeian.
[Header image: Flickr/Brian Herzog]