Tuesday, 6 November 2012


Posted by Jean Adams

During most of my childhood, my dad worked for the Scottish Tourist Board. The main perk of doling out grants to tourist attractions was to be a guest of honour at said attractions. When I was about 14, he was asked to open a gliding centre on Deeside. It was during the school holidays, so I was allowed to tag along for the ride, so to speak. My one and only experience of gliding was absolutely, literally, and totally awesome. But before I got to go gliding, I had to listen politely, along with everyone else, to my dad speaking. He did so, in the middle of an air field, without notes, eloquently and succinctly.

My dad remains my public speaking role model.

Is it just me, or was he better at it last time around? (from: cbsnews.com)
Prior to beginning their dissertation project, all our MSc students have to give a presentation on their research plans to an audience of fellow students and course staff. This gives them a chance to get some feedback on their methods, to perhaps link up with the right supervisor, and to get some experience of presenting research is a reasonably unthreatening environment.

The first batch of this year’s presentations was last week. As usual, they were in a room that was just a little bit too small for the number of people in it. Everything felt a bit cramped. As usual, the confirmed staff attendance a few days before was abysmal, but we all stepped up at the last minute and there ended up being more staff than students in the room.

I didn’t do our MSc. Back in the day, perhaps before someone had worked out that it was fairly dumb to deliver the same course twice, intercalating medical students did a separate, but similar, course. But we still had to do the presentations, in the nerve-wracking environment of a lecture theatre. It was pretty scary. Despite what we’d been taught in our digital communications lessons, I’d never seen anyone successfully get a computer to speak to a digital projector. So I used overhead projector slides – perfect for a bit of added nerve-related fumbling.

I am now rarely nervous about presenting. Occasionally when the stakes are high – like the presentation you have to give at the start of a fellowship interview – I am still pretty petrified. But I think I would be in that sort of situation whether or not it involved a presentation. Sometimes I find the wait to ask a question in a seminar oddly nervy. I’m still waiting for the flood of invitations to be a conference keynote speaker. But I suspect that would also make me a bit uncomfortable.

Most people find that presenting gets less nerve wracking as they gain experience. The more you do it, the easier it gets. But standing up and speaking in front of a bunch of people who are there to judge your ideas is inherently scary. So it doesn’t quite make sense that it gets easier with practice. Perhaps all that diminishes is the nerves about forgetting what you’re going to say, or that there will be a computer meltdown. The more you do it, the more you convince yourself that you’ll be able to blag it, and that any audience would be sympathetic to things outside of your control.

Despite my apparent ease, I have still not developed my father’s skill for speaking without props. I have never not used Powerpoint, Prezi or some other visual aid. I always have notes. In most situations, I no longer practice ad nauseam, but I still do a quick run through. One day I hope to be brave enough to take the plunge and ditch the projector. One day I will stop presenting and just learn to speak.


  1. Thanks for this nice post. I have for a long time felt that in academia we need to liberate ourselves from the props we rely on in public speaking. Obviously, a research presentation can be enhanced with diagrams etc., but a lot of what we say is about communicating ideas and the props are uncessary. Even when we do use slides, those ideas are communicated better when we avoid using notes. Maybe we should be bold and introduce conference sessions in which no slides are allowed - maybe just a 5 minute pitch. I hear in SCHARR (Sheffield) they have an regular internal meeting to update everyone on everyone's current research using the format '60 seconds and gone' - i.e. a 60 second pitch. You could cover a lot in an hour! Sounds fun...

  2. Dot Newbury-Birch6 November 2012 at 15:44

    Great post. I feel that I am very lucky - I never get nervous about public speaking and do not need props and know how lucky I am. I agree with Martin about short sessions and this is something that I am doing now - In an Institute group I chair we do 2 minute updates (timed)from members with no slides and in our team meeting we are having 5 minutes (with slides) for each project update with the idea that if people have questions they arrange to have a coffee with the person at some point afterwards. This keeps people interested and moves us on quickly (and makes sure that we get to the end of the agenda!)