I’m off to ASM in Houston in a few weeks and conference season is well and truly upon is. I’ve been fortunate enough to get asked to speak at a number of events over the years, but I still clearly remember how terrified I was when as a trainee I spoke to my first big room. Last year, I gave my first key note lectures. I’d been asked to do a couple in 2020, and then the pandemic hit, so all of those events were cancelled. I felt as nervous as that trainee again. I prevaricated, I self flagellated and then finally managed to force myself to sit down in front of a blank screen and just get started. If you are in any of those stages, this post is for you, I hope it helps.
No one can tell you the best way – only what is the best way for them
First things first. When as a trainee I was preparing my first talk I got A LOT of advice. My first problem was trying to use all of it, even when it was conflicting. I was advised to rehearse over and over until I had it memorised, I was advised to have a script and notes. I was advised to do none of those things as it would be too staged. So, my first tip is this. Seek advice, gain knowledge from those more experienced, but then use what helps you and discard the rest. Your personal process will be different to everyone else’s, and it’s worth acknowledging this early and accepting that you will find a way that works best for you and refine it with experience.
For instance, I hate rehearsals, and I never have a script. It makes me stressed and forces me to feel like I have to deliver the same way every time. I know my content, I know my story and the audience and I are a team who deliver the final product together. I bounce off them and try to read the room, and fingers crossed, it seems to work OK.
The one time I don’t work this way is for extremely time restricted presentations, such as 5 minute fellowship interviews. For those I practice so much I can recite the words in my sleep. These are different because:
- you HAVE to get all your content in, your career kind of depends on it
- the time lines are short and hard, they will just cut you off and so you need to know you will finish in the window given
- there will be no audience bounce, there will be no reading the room, they are going to remain neutral to what you are presenting, and so focussing on them can make the scenario even more stressful.
What I hope you take away from this is that there are no hard and fast rules, there will always be exceptions, but if you can, do what works for you and don’t try to be anyone else.
Ask for learning objectives and check what other talks/speakers are in your session
There is little worse than sitting, waiting to go on for your talk, and hearing the person before you give the talk that you have basically written to give next. I have learnt the hard way to make an effort to ask what an organiser would like me to cover, and to always check what the agenda is before I turn up for the day to see the lay of the land from other speakers titles. A little repetition is not a bad thing, ground hog day is unlikely to land well. This one is more of an issue for invited speaker sessions, although even if you are presenting novel research data it’s worth seeing who else is in your session, as you may be able to reallocate slide time if the 3 people in front of you are talking about the same virus. They are likely to have covered a lot of the generics and you can then invest time elsewhere.
I don’t always get very far, but these days I also ask for learning objectives when I’m invited to speak – what would you like me to cover? any particular highlights that you are interested in? what is the audience size and mix likely to be? All of these things can dictate not just your content but how you think about delivery, such as how much interaction you can include.
Think about your audience
This one seems like a no brainer, but I often think that it’s forgotten. It is really easy as the person delivering to get caught up with your nerves and write a presentation that you feel comfortable with, without thinking about those that will be listening. Now, I’m not suggesting that you deliberately produce content that makes you uncomfortable, but sometimes it is easy to teach in a way that suits us rather than the learners. It can be really worrying to include interactive content, what if no one responds, but if you are on at the end of the day after 7 hours of didactic teaching, your learners may be ready for something that re-engages them.
The thing that scientists and clinicians also often do when they are nervous is to resort to technicality and jargon. It can act as a shield. If you are presenting to a mixed cohort, of either different levels of knowledge or professional backgrounds, this defence mechanism can end up making your content inaccessible to a number of people within the room. It’s OK to have a couple of slides that stretch people, it’s usually not OK to have a whole talk like that, unless you know your audience really well.
Think about the tone of the presentation
I struggled a lot when I was asked to do the talk below. I struggled thinking that maybe I should turn up as ‘Dr Cloutman-Green’ with formality and pretend gravitas. You would not believe how long I went around in my head about it. I then decided that they had asked me to speak about my blog, and my blog is anything but formal and hierarchical, and so I turned up as me, with all the sarcasm and self mocking that entails. In the setting, at the end of the last day of the conference, when everyone was tired, including a little humour felt like the right way to go.
I would however have made different choices if I was turning up to present my PhD thesis in a viva, or if I was presenting to the board, I would have still been me, but a slightly less overt version. Some settings require a formal tone, some lend themselves to informality and some you can decide the path you wish to walk. The key thing is to make an active decision based on the invite, topic and audience to ensure that you match what your tone is with what you wish to achieve.
Find out if you need to allow room for questions
One of the things that often catches people out at research meetings is there is not always a standard of whether there will be time for questions or not, you can sometimes guess by slot length but not necessarily with any certainty. It is always worth explicitly asking if you need to allow time for questions so you can plan your talk length accordingly. I’ve Chaired conference sessions where this wasn’t handled well and it meant that it was really challenging to keep everyone to time and some speakers had much better opportunities for audience interaction than others. If you aren’t told definitely ask, not least so you can prepare for what your answers might be.
Think about what you want for your slides
This again might be a really obvious one, but if you are teaching on an MSc you are likely to want a lot more information on your slides, as they are likely to be annotated and used for later learning. Your conference talk may be recorded, the slides may get circulated, but the reality is that they are much less likely to be used as a later teaching resource. Therefore you will want to pitch your slide content based on your participants/learners, which is another good reason to find out a bit about them.
It is also worth thinking about how important it is for the people in the room to be able to read and understand what you have included on a slide. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen speakers apologise for tables and overwhelming numbers of charts that are not visible to anyone sitting beyond the front row. Unless it’s high level conceptual stuff there is little point including slides that are not going to be accessible to your audience. It is also worth (and I am not good at this) ensuring that colours and fonts etc do not present unnecessary challenges to engagement.
Plan in your breaks/interactive moments
Even if you are the best speaker in the world, and I am definitely not, there are always slots in any agenda or meeting which will make it more challenging. The post lunch slot, where everyone is digesting and sleepy, and the end of day slot where everyone wants to make sure they catch their trains are just a couple of examples. If you are allocated one of these slots, or are given a 3 hour lesson slot, planning how to keep learners engaged is key. More than 20 minutes staring at your powerpoint is going to be enough for anyone. So can you include things like videos or other types of content to break it up? Can you include live quizzes that embed some of the discussion topics? Can you get people to talk to neighbours or even do some group work? It is sometimes easy to stand up and go through 60 slides, when the experience of everyone in the room might have been better with 6 and a modified activity based approach. Again, it depends on the setting and audience, but if you can be brave and consider stepping beyond the lectern during your session.
Make sure you have backups
No matter how prepared you believe you are for giving a session there are some days when it will not be enough, for this one you need to make sure you are the master of your own destiny. There have been numerous events where I have turned up to speak believing that my slides will be already loaded as I had sent them to the organiser well ahead of time, and had the tech guy look at me in bewilderment as they had nothing. I always carry my talks on a USB stick, having emailed them so I can also get access to an email version in case my USB files is corrupted, and I will have them stored on cloud storage as a back up in case I need to download directly onto a system. The fear of having to just get up and talk without slides haunts me too much to leave anything to chance.
Know how you might wing it if needed
The reason I know very clearly what it feels like to have a slide deck that doesn’t work is because it happened to me at a conference in 2021. I rocked up having sent my slides ahead of time, having been told that the organiser had checked them when they were loaded onto the laptop. I started my talk and then realised that every single slide that had a table or anything other than a textbox was entirely blank. I then proceeded to give my 30 minute with a variety of blank slides. When you’re up there there is nothing that you can do but wing it. I pivoted to a session where instead of trying to focus on my slides I talked about clinical experiences linked to the visible titles. I survived, it was even well reviewed, but I never want to do it again. That said, those 30 seconds staring at the first blank slides and working out what to do taught me a valuable lesson, and now I do my ‘what if’ worst case scenario planning ahead of staring at the audience whilst on my sofa with tea, so that I know what I will do if something goes wrong. I also now try to make sure I personally check my slides prior to any session.
Have a watch or phone that you take up with you
You would be amazed at the number of teaching and conference rooms that don’t have a clock on the wall or visible from the stage. I’ve been caught out by this a few times, and when you full screen your slides you can’t always seen the clock. That means you are subject to the session Chair giving you a 5 minute wrap up when you are only half way through your slides, as time feels different when you’re staring into 1000 faces and hoping not to screw up. I always take my phone (on silent) these days and set a stopwatch so that I can gauge where I am in relation to time without having to rely on someone else. I find the slide rush just waaaaay too stressful otherwise.
Be prepared to handle the question that is a actually a comment
This may be a shock to you, but I’m a woman. This means at any given presentation with questions I have a ~30% chance of a male colleague standing up and giving me the question that isn’t a question, but a comment on how they would have a) done my work better b) point out some key point I have missed c) tell me about their work and their experience. This may not be my most attractive feature but I have made a life choice to shut all of these options down hard. I am open to questions and shared learning, I am not open to someone taking question time from someone else in order to rail road a session into something different. If someone starts with “this isn’t really a question but more of a comment” I will generally reply before they get any further with “that’s really great and I’d love to hear it over coffee but I think we need to address the questions in the room first” and then actively call on someone else. You may wish to have a different technique, you may wish to pivot the comment back into something relevant to your talk so you effectively answer it as if it was the question you wanted to hear. You may have a completely different approach (I’d love to hear them all). If there is plenty of time I also sometimes let it slide, but it is a particular bug bear of mine.
Bring yourself into the room
I’ve touched on this one a little throughout, but I think you will have a much better experience, as will your audience if you can bring yourself into the room. That can be anything from including your favourite colour as part of your slide colour scheme to sharing parts of yourself, in terms of stories or experiences, as part of your session. The more you are prepared to share of yourself, the more your audience will connect with you and the better the chance of your content landing. If you are giving your research presentation, maybe take 10 seconds to share why you chose you that given topic, especially if you have a passion for it – like mine for Klebsiella and Adeno. Don’t be afraid to include humour and light and shade within what you are presenting. Audiences often want to know why they should care about what you are talking to them about, so feel free to convince them, and not just by sharing raw data.
Put your nerves into context
It is almost always nerve racking speaking in front of people, even after you’ve done it for years. One of the things I always say to both myself and my students is “what is the worst that can happen”. I’ve seen some truly terrible talks in my time, but I don’t remember who gave any of them, I remember the topic and why it was bad. Even if I did give a bad session and someone remembered it was me, would they remember in 3 years? If they did, the worst outcome is that they may not invite me back to speak, there will be plenty of other people who will, plenty of people who weren’t in that room that day or who won’t remember. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has bad days at the office. Everyone has sessions that don’t go well or land in the way they hoped. The important thing is to learn from them. Sometimes there isn’t even that, I have given the same activity sessions dozens of times, and every now and again it just won’t work. The participants may be in a bad mood, or there’s tech failure. It happens. Bring your best to every moment and that is all you can do, the rest doesn’t matter, the rest isn’t permanent. So good luck and be bold and I can’t wait to hear you speak!
All opinions in this blog are my own