Preparing to present

Materials World magazine
,
3 Sep 2015

When it comes to speaking in public, presenting at or chairing an event, it can be hard to remember exactly what to do and how to prepare effectively. Natalie Daniels offers some tips to help you on your way. 

As Benjamin Franklin once said, By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. 

For some, presenting and public speaking may come easy and for others, every time can seem just as daunting as the first. Not only will good preparation ensure that you have thought carefully about the subject area and the message you want to send, it will also help you communicate more effectively with your audience. For STEM-based industries, this is an essential part of your career, whether you are preparing for a research presentation, applying for grants, sharing your research with other professionals or chairing an event. 

Getting involved is just the first step. Most events in the industry have a call for papers. Announcements of these are usually made through websites, flyers, email alerts or LinkedIn. Abstracts can then be submitted and progressed. As Melanie Boyce, Head of Events at IOM3, suggests, ‘I would advise anyone interested in presenting a paper to check the IOM3 website for relevant events. If they can’t see a specific one listed, why not email in to institutes or event organisers to suggest a new event topic?’ 

Events and meetings advertised within your field offer an opportunity to share your knowledge and experience. It is important to make people aware of your availability, expertise and how you can offer help for a professional purpose such as a committee, conference or lecture. Getting your name recognised will increase your chance of being invited to participate in future events.

Delivering for a presentation

DO

Maintain eye contact with your audience – use the three-second rule. Look straight into the eyes of an audience member for three seconds at a time and have direct eye contact with a number of people. Every now and then glance at the whole audience. 

Audiences retain more if they see as well as hear, so use visuals such as pictures and graphs to enhance your presentation. 

It may seem obvious, but make sure you have a backup. There is nothing worse than turning up to find your document won’t open. Make sure you have more than one copy, on two different devices. 

Assert yourself with posture and presence. Remember to match your physical behavior to your presentation objectives. Decide whether you want to be formal or informal, make deliberate choices about your physical style and stick to these. Have the confidence to fill the space in front of an audience and remember that the audience wants to listen. 

Add humour, but only if you know it will work. 

Finally, be prepared for questions. 

DON’T

Assume that your audience has the same level of expertise as you do. When discussing any field in STEM, you should start by briefly explaining exactly what you do. 

Overwhelm the audience with lots of PowerPoint slides, using too much text.

Put audience members on the spot or single them out. 

Dr Thomas Weller, Physics Teacher at St Paul’s School, London and Speaker on Science Education and Research. 

'If you can tell a story that gets your point across in a variety of ways, from different perspectives, then you are much more likely to hold the audience’s attention, and give them a container in which to take away the important message. Remember, repetition allows you to reinforce a point. Repetition makes people take notice. And, finally, for the chair, it is all about facilitation. You may need to handle speakers, or develop a conversation, or something in between. You will want to get to know your participants, particularly their timekeeping, and their listening abilities - as you may need to listen for them and guide their input when they are not listening to the other participants. To do this, you will need to interrupt effectively – you may want to practice this in advance with your friends, as it is a difficult skill to master, and a necessary one for a chair to maintain discipline.'

Dr Mark Barnett, Head of Scientific Services at Warwick University. 

'Speaking in front of crowds is up there in many people’s worst nightmares. Remember to think a lot about who the audience is, what they may be thinking and what would be a good use of their time. Enjoy the moment – you are reaching out to a lot of people, who genuinely are there to hear your opinions and knowledge. It is your chance to relax in your message and feel confident in your intellect. My worst experience has to be standing up to give a best man’s speech and pronouncing the bride’s surname wrong – lesson one of preparation!'

Dr Suze Kundu, Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London and Science Presenter.

'When communicating science more generally for public engagement, it isn’t just the ins and outs of the science that people want to know about. They want to know how it will affect them, how we feel about it, what the potential and limitation is of what we are talking about. It is also useful to practice your talk to anyone or anything - your boyfriend, a colleague, even your teddy bear, as this helps to gauge how long the talk will be. No one likes a speaker that goes over their allotted time. Even now, I still get really nervous – I have, however, learned to embrace the nerves. There is something wonderful when you chat to audience members after events, and they can see why you are so passionate about the subject that you are sharing with them.'

What have been your best and worst experiences when presenting or public speaking? Tweet us @materialsworld