Public speaking for academics

This is an article by me, David Gauntlett, which first appeared in Funding Insight, an online magazine for research professionals, on 25 February 2016. It is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional.

This article is about public speaking – which means, really, any kind of lecture or talk you might have to do as an academic. I don’t write this article thinking that I am the most amazing person at public speaking. But I used to be less good at it, and now I’m better, so we might be able to identify some lessons learned.

The type or quantity of people you’re talking to doesn’t make much difference. You might be addressing students, colleagues, or the interested general public who have somehow found their way to a hall which has you at the front of it. The principles remain the same, I think. Some lecturers think that students are a captive audience, there for the necessary reason of allowing some information to wash into their ears, so you don’t really need to make an effort to engage them. That view is, of course, both silly and dangerously negligent, because that’s not how learning works, and it’s no way to treat any bunch of people sitting in a room.

When I had my first lecturing job at a university, in the first term I had lots of seminars but no lectures, and in the second term I had to do 24 lectures. So, naturally, I spent the first term feeling terrified about the second term.

During that first term they sent me on a one-day training thing where they thought it would be a good idea to throw inexperienced lecturers ‘in at the deep end’ by suddenly making us do mini-lectures on non-topics to a handful of colleagues, staring at us in bewilderment from the front row. That was the opposite of helpful – high stakes in terms of humiliation, but low stakes for anything else, being not a proper lecture to not a proper room of students. I cringed and sweated and failed.

When I came to do the real thing, it was much better. Nerve-racking, of course, but the adrenalin of performing in front of 100 expectant 19-year olds made a lot of difference.

But – like many academics, perhaps – I’m basically shy and an introvert, and ‘performance’ doesn’t come naturally to me. At the same time I realise it’s absolutely central to the job I do, so I’ve got a responsibility to be good at it which cannot really be avoided.

Some lecturers hope to get round that by muttering ‘hum, sorry, I’m not very good at this lecturing’, but there’s no reason to think that this is acceptable. If your GP explained that she’s not really that good at doctoring, you’d run a mile. It’s not that different.

So here’s my list of key tips.

No reading out

This can be brief because it’s so obvious. A person reading out a lecture is always a horrible experience. That’s a fact. No ifs, buts, or rationalisations. It’s no good. Don’t do it. If you are Sir Ian McKellen you can probably do a book reading for several minutes and keep people engaged. But you aren’t. Keep away from any idea that reading out is OK. It is not.

Have some slides and things to talk about. Talk about them. That’s how it works.

If you’re doing something very concentrated, like a TED talk, which is exactly 18 minutes and is meant to be ‘the talk of your life’, you do have to prepare and rehearse and prepare and rehearse, and work out almost all the words pretty precisely in advance. But even then you can’t read them out. No.

An acceptable level of anxiety

This heading was going to be ‘relax’, but that’s easier said than done. And I don’t think I’ve ever actually been relaxed, as such, while doing a talk. A certain level of anxiety and therefore adrenalin is probably a good thing. You just don’t want it to spoil anything. So it’s a matter of getting to the point where you can seem relaxed whilst also being very much alive.

One point to remember is, you don’t need to be perfect, and no speaker ever is. People make mistakes, they stumble, they pause to work out the best way to express something. That’s all fine, and actually makes it more interesting to listen to.

Another thing is that nobody really cares about the details as much as you do. I always remember a striking point from the writer and experienced keynote speaker Scott Berkun, who notes pragmatically:

“Most people listening to presentations around the world right now are hoping their speakers will end soon. That’s all they want. They’re not judging as much as you think, because they don’t care as much as you think. Knowing this helps enormously.”

I remember when I did an inaugural lecture, and there was a bit in the middle where I couldn’t quite think what to say next, and I thought it had ruined the whole thing. But the lecture had been videoed, so, some time later, I plucked up the courage to find and watch that dreadful humiliating moment. What I found was: it looked like a thoughtful pause. Nobody minds a thoughtful pause! It even looked quite elegant. That was the exact opposite of my experience at the time.

Less is more

It’s a cliché to say ‘less is more’, but it’s worth saying here because it’s counter-intuitive. If you’ve not done it much, the invitation to talk on a subject for an hour (or 20 minutes, or any length of time) is taken to be an invitation to ram as much stuff as you can possibly say about that topic into that slot. But that’s not what anybody wants. To the audience, it’s a frustrating load of things they can’t really take in. They might get the point that you know piles of stuff, but that won’t impress them if you don’t provide some hooks and illustrations and time to make sense of it.

If you’ve got 60 amazing points to make in 60 minutes, you probably don’t want to throw most of them away – they’re amazing points, after all. But they won’t seem amazing to the audience, who will be baffled by this flood of information. They would be much happier if you were, overall, making one point, or three, fleshed out with a range of insights and illustrations.

Say how you feel about the things

You can do a lecture about things, but if you say how you feel about the things then it’s much more interesting. Maybe you have found certain things frustrating, or hard to understand. Or maybe you absolutely love the things. In either case, do say so. People are drawn to honest opinions, frankly expressed. Even if they disagree, you’ve given their brains something substantial to munch on, because it’s about emotions as well as facts or arguments, and so becomes more engaging.

Use silence

I tend to talk fast and keep the energy up, and don’t like the idea that anybody might be bored, so it took me a while to discover the easy trick of: silence. For a really important bit, spell it out word by word, then have a complete stop for a few seconds while they soak it in. Unexpectedly, perhaps, a bit of silence can really perk things up.

It gets better

Like all things, experience of giving lectures and public speaking means you get better at it, and start to feel more comfortable. It’s a mistake to do it one or two times and to decide ‘I’m no good at this’. Nobody’s any good at any craft the first time they do it. You need to put in some hours, that’s all. More comfortingly, being a bit scared is extremely common, almost universal, and it helps you to do the task better. So stick with it, find your own best way of doing things, and if people can see that you’re enjoying it then they will enjoy it too.

Photo by Flickr user Paul Hudson (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.

2 Responses to “Public speaking for academics”

  1. Scott Berkun

    The low quality of public speaking among academics fascinates me – it reflects how strong a role culture plays in defining “what is good”. The business world has a higher expectations for the quality of the performance of speaking, but far lower expectations for intellectual rigor and for documenting sources. The academic world often has the exact opposite expectations, and it shows in what goes on in academic conferences.

    A great resource for academics, in that it is one of the best documented books about how to lecture well, is What’s the Use of Lectures? by Bligh. He was a professor and the book examines a wide range of known research into…. lectures! This book is one of my most treasured finds from the research I did for Confessions of a Public Speaker.

  2. David Gauntlett

    Hi Scott! Wow I am delighted to get a comment from Scott Berkun! I’ll check out that Bligh book. But for other viewers, I will say that I found Confessions of a Public Speaker (book by Scott Berkun) to be refreshingly frank and therefore inspiring. The points I made in this piece about telling the truth of things, and saying how you feel about them, were definitely inspired by that book, as well as the quoted point about not worrying so much about what people think because in reality they don’t care that much – very reassuring! Thank you, Scott.


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