Every semester that I teach public speaking, I ask my students one question: how many of you are nervous about taking this class?

I’ve done this long enough now to know what to expect – and I am rarely surprised. Most indicate that they are extremely nervous about giving speeches in front of groups. Why shouldn’t they be?

If I’m going to talk about making a memorable conference presentation, I think it makes sense to first address the fears that often go along with speaking in front of an audience.

Fear of Public Speaking

Depending on which poll you read, public speaking is often listed as one of the top fears that humans face. Each semester, however, I will have one or two students that claim to be extremely confident but, by their own admission, they typically turn out to be the most nervous out of the whole class.

I say “by their own admission” for a very specific reason, and I think this is one of the most important lessons that you can learn when it comes to giving a speech in front of an audience: The audience does not know how nervous you are.

After they finished their speeches, the students told me how nervous they were. But for each of the students, the audience could not tell any of them were nervous while they were speaking.

This is where the lesson above applies: If you feel like you’re sweaty and shaking, the audience probably has no clue. If we do notice a shaky hand or an increase in your speed, what you’re actually feeling inside is probably amplified exponentially.

In my opinion, one of the reasons people get nervous in front of an audience is that they are worried about appearing nervous in front of an audience. Speakers are worried that the audience is judging them for being nervous, which, in turn, makes them even more nervous.

Speakers get stuck in that vicious cycle.

However, take comfort in the fact that most of the time, the audience is not judging you at all. In fact, you are most likely getting a great deal of empathy from the audience, because they know how you feel and are glad it’s not them up there. They are pulling for you.

I tell my students that giving the speech is the easy part. Getting up in front of the audience is the real challenge. Once you have done that, the battle is mostly won. Of course, this is easier said than done but like everything else, it just takes practice.

Making Conference Presentations More Engaging

With that out of the way, giving presentations is a big part of academic conferences. By their very nature, research study presentations tend to be very data driven. Methodologies must be justified, double tailed t-tests must be explained, and standard deviations must be detailed – and that’s all before we get to the results and interpretation of the data.

But these presentations do not have to be dry.

Ultimately, your goal is for you and the audience to have a conversation, not just a one-sided talk where you regurgitate facts. How do you achieve this?

Get Their Attention in the Introduction

First, you want a presentation to be memorable while still getting your point across. You can accomplish this by getting your audience to immediately buy into your presentation.

Get their attention at the very beginning. For example, you can use a quote that somehow relates to the subject matter, but let’s go further. Tell your audience a story and make it compelling so that they want to listen to what you have to say.

Is your research study about a new therapy used to help abused children? Open your presentation with an anecdote about a child and how the research you are about to talk about will help this child and other children out of certain situations. Your audience is invested now.

I suggest not opening your presentation by asking a question that requires a show of hands. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it at all, but I just find it a bit lazy.

Put some work into this introduction. Compel your audience to listen to you. They are now active participants in this conversation.

Adapt to Your Audience

Ideally, you want to adapt your presentation to your audience.

In the case of academic conferences, this might be a bit easier. The same groups of people tend to show up to these conferences, so oftentimes you know who you are speaking to.

However, keep in mind that some of the attendees might be from a different field or subfield. Therefore you need to watch out for those ideas and concepts that most people in the psychology field are familiar with but others might not be.

In other words, be mindful of using too much jargon in your presentation. By no means does this mean dumbing things down, but do not assume that everyone present is familiar with the terms that you are using. Don’t be afraid to define terms and concepts. Besides, everyone can use a refresher on even basic things.

Play to Your Strengths

I always suggest that you play to your strengths. This might sound like common sense advice but it is easily forgotten.

As speakers, we all have our strengths and we should use them. Are you typically seen as a funny person? Try to incorporate that quality into your presentation.

When I first start to speak, I try to feel the room out with a little self-deprecation. If I hear the audience laughing, it tells me two things:

  • First, since they are laughing, I know they are listening and that is an important fact not to overlook.
  • Second, I can continue with the self-deprecation and see where it takes me.

However, if your presentation ventures into the realm of the humorous, do not overdo it. Remember, the entire focus of the presentation is to deliver your information.

Also, if you are not a funny person, I cannot stress enough how important it is that you not try too hard to be funny. Unfunny people who try too hard to be funny sometimes create incredibly awkward situations.

Whatever your strength is, find it and practice it. The more natural you sound, the more people will want to listen to you. Again, make this a conversation between you and your audience.

Use Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is a powerful aspect of communication that is often overlooked when giving a presentation. By powerful, I mean that 93% of the meaning we derive from a speaker comes from nonverbals with only 7% coming from the actual words spoken.

Your nonverbal cues are going to keep the audience engaged. I could write an entire blog post on nonverbal communication because it is so vast, but keep these things in mind:

  • Pay attention to your body language.
  • Animate your facial expressions and maintain eye contact. You can have an entire conversation with your audience just with your eyes.
  • Vary the tone and inflections of your voice.
  • Use silence as a powerful way to drive home a point. Sometimes it is the spaces between the words that provide the deepest meaning.

I am not a fan of cliché’s but “it’s not what you say but how you say it” holds more meaning than people sometimes think.

Try this exercise: Find a clip of a television show that you have not seen before. Watch it with the sound off and see if you can understand what is happening. Watch it again, but with the sound on. Were you right? I bet you were.

Using Visual Aids

I want to address visual aids as well. Academic presentations call for many statistics. If you are going to shower your audience with stats, it is imperative that you have a visual to go along with them.

As academics, we sometimes take for granted that because we are used to dealing with statistics, this means visuals are not necessary.

Not true.

I realize that sometimes our eyes tend to glaze over when someone pulls up the ubiquitous PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, but without a visual reference, statistics lose their meaning. They become a list of numbers with no frame of reference.

Let’s try something, though – a little reverse engineering, if you will:

  • Skip the PowerPoint.
  • Bring a bona fide flip chart up to the front, or, if the conference center is equipped, a chalkboard or whiteboard.
  • Ask for a volunteer from the audience to help you flip through the charts.

Participation keeps your audience engaged, which is what you want. That might seem silly, but when was the last time you saw something like that? Create the unexpected.

When referencing your visual aids though, remember to maintain eye contact with your audience. You’re talking to them, not your statistics.

Leave Your Audience With Something

When coming to the end of your presentation, you want to leave the audience with something. In addition to summarizing your research, you are providing a bookend to your introduction.

Grab their attention again. I’ve seen presentations where a speaker started a story in the introduction and concluded the story at the end. Some people end with another quote or give an entirely separate anecdote.

Regardless, you want to call the audience to action. How can they make a difference now that you have given them the research?

See if you can do this without saying the words “in conclusion.” That’s my own personal challenge to you. Again, there is nothing wrong with saying those words, but try to signal that you’re at the end of your presentation without using them.

A Conversation

These are a few ideas that you can implement into your academic presentations to help both yourself and your audience. The key word I would like you to focus on is “conversation.”

Have a conversation with your audience and they will be both attentive and engaging. Getting them invested in your message and your work will put your mind at ease and make for a more effective and memorable presentation.

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