Four Ways to Rock Your Next Talk

All around Australia PhD students are preparing for the 3 minute thesis competition, so it seems like a good time to be talking about presenting skills!

This post was written by Jonathan Downie, a PhD student, conference interpreter, public speaker and translator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits LifeinLINCS ( the unofficial blog of the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University. He is married with one child and another on the way. His newest blog Rock Your Talk ( aims to help people keep on improving in their public speaking.

 microphoneYou have a great research question, cool data and a spot at the next conference. That means you have somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes to impress a bunch of people who know your field just as well, if not better than you do. If you’re a PhD student, some part of you hopes that this talk could be the gateway to a job. The aim of this article is to help you do the kind of talk that makes people think that working with you would be a good idea.  So here are my top four tips for great academic talks:

Forget normal (everyone else already has)

Can you remember a conference talk that went horribly wrong? Can you name one that was spectacularly good? Now, name me one that was just “alright” or “not bad.”

 Not easy, is it? While everyone remembers the great talks and the awful talks, few people remember the “normal” ones. Perversely, it is precisely those “normal” talks that we often use as the guide for our own work. Everyone else uses blue PowerPoint backgrounds. So do we. Everyone else crams each slide full of enough text to fill a telephone directory. So do we.

 The talks that really stood out for being great are a much better model. How did those speakers make their work seem interesting and engaging? What did they do that set them apart? This doesn’t mean slavishly copying other people. It means taking note of the little things that make talks look and sound great. Some of these form the next three tips.

 Know your audience

Let me tell you about one time I messed up. I was attending a conference outside my home discipline. I was doing a talk which was basically an outline of how their field and mine can work together. At some conferences, that is a perfectly valid talk. Not at this one. I presented work that was practice-based; the conference was theory-based. My aim was to encourage new research; most of the other speakers were using their talks to get feedback on papers before they sent them to journals.

 Hence, my talk crashed and burned. I had never in my life seen an audience go from engaged to disengaged so quickly. And it was all my fault. Unless you have been to a conference before and/or know the field especially well, do a little recon on the kinds of people who will be there and the kinds of research they are doing. Find out who the “big names” are and how they present their work. In short, do your homework.

 Once you have done your homework and you know what is expected, then you can add what my colleague, Nick Rosenthal, calls a “plus one.” If they expect really tight data analysis, do that and present it with flair. If they expect you to deeply engage with theory, do that and engage with the audience too. In short, do what they expect and even more! Remember no one remembers normal.

Throw out some stuff

I admit it: this sounds a heinous academic crime. Imagine deliberately not telling people about part of your research. Believe it or not, what seems almost criminal is a key to presenting well.

 So how do you know what to present and what to leave out? I use two rules that are closely related. The first is simple: keep it simple. A good rule of thumb is to attempt to summarise your presentation in one sentence that is short enough to fit on a t-shirt and only include material that says something about that sentence. That way, you keep to the most important ideas and facts and let the audience ask you if they want more info.

 My second rule is this: either it flows or out it goes.  There is nothing worse than a talk that consists of several bits of information with no links between them. It confuses your audience and you at the same time. On the other hand, if each section of your talk is neatly connected, you keep your brain and your audience on the right track. Your aim should be that your talk is so focussed and flows so well that you could continue your talk even if your notes disappeared in a puff of smoke.

 The only way to understand the flow of your talk is to rehearse it a few times. Doing that will soon tell you what works and what doesn’t.

Be helpful

Why do people listen to academic talks? Because they want to learn something. What’s so good about learning stuff? It helps you solve problems. Every audience member is silently asking “why should I listen to you?” The only answer that ever works is “because I can help you.”

 Sadly, a large majority of academic talks are really an attempt to make an impression on people. It might work once but eventually you will come over as selfish. It is much better to angle your talk as an attempt to solve a problem, or even better, as a source of information to help other people solve their problems.

 Kristin Luker, author of the superb book “Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences” calls this “bumping up a level”. If your study is as good as you think it is, it should say something about a larger process, a wider problem or a bigger issue. Make the most of that link: it is not just a vital part of doing a good talk but it is an important building block for your future career.

Thanks Jonathan! What do you think of this advice? Do you have any tips you would like to share about how to rock the next talk?

Related posts

How to win the three minute thesis

5 classic presentation mistakes


14 thoughts on “Four Ways to Rock Your Next Talk

  1. Great advice! I especially I love your last point Jonathan! I would have never thought of incorporating it,but it makes so much sense! I mean, it is how most people choose which talks to attend during a conference.

    I would add: don’t read from notes (don’t have notes at all if possible). Even if it makes you feel less nervous, it makes you look unprepared and it’s just an item (if you use paper) to fidget with while you talk.

  2. Very helpful, Jonathan. I know I tend to cram too much stuff into my talks. I really like the less is more idea. This also leaves plenty up the sleeve for question time (my most nerve-wracking moment). Definitely going to work on these ideas. Thanks.

  3. This was very timely–I’m just editing my first ever conference paper. Now I’m going to go back over it with these four points in mind!

    I’m with myscientificlife re: reading from your paper. I find it frustrating. Although I wouldn’t advocate having no notes, I think the key is ‘notes’ to rely on rather than the full paper itself.

  4. I have found that my talks are infinitely better if I i try to use only pictures and graphs. I’ve been studying my topic for months, I shouldn’t need much text to talk about it.

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