An Introvert's Guide to Better Presentations
December 11, 2013 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Improve your public speaking with the help of MeFi's own Mathowie.
posted by Artw (62 comments total) 179 users marked this as a favorite
You are the prettiest monkey.
posted by Ouisch at 10:36 AM on December 11, 2013 [17 favorites]

Best bananas.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

“You’re a pretty monkey, and you know where all the bananas are.”

We're all pretty little monkeys!

Lots of good advice, especially for us introverts and about telling stories. One thing I've learned watching master storytellers on stage is that they do not use (power point) slides unless absolutely necessary (they don't use slides for decorative purposes, or for providing basic information like their background or a table of contents). In fact, the best presentations often don't have slides at all, making it easier to focus on the story told.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:43 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been taking a class in business-y skills, which has been heavily pushing this kind of model of presentation - start off with some kind of spark to get people's attention and then tell a story. I managed to pull off (with 3 other collaborators) a 20 minute presentation for a class project that was apparently good enough that now my actual bosses want us to do an encore. (No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.)

I didn't know I was the prettiest monkey when I gave my presentation last week, but I had adopted this motivational shark as my spirit animal guide for a few days before hand. Being the prettiest monkey is even better, though, although it involves less face-biting.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:49 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

IKEA Monkey, nevah forget
posted by Artw at 10:57 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a great find! BotW!

I'm not an introvert, but I love the concepts presented here. I am wondering how to translate this to a more technical presentation, which is what I do practically all the time. When I'm presenting to executives, it's easier to limit the material on the slides, but when I'm with my peers, they really want to see data. I need to find a way to combine these modes.
posted by blurker at 10:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mathowie forgot to mention that the Mefi magic comes in handy. If there are hecklers in the crowd, muttering "a few comments removed" under his breath makes those fuckers vanish.
posted by dr_dank at 11:00 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]

One thing I've learned watching master storytellers on stage is that they do not use (power point) slides unless absolutely necessary (they don't use slides for decorative purposes, or for providing basic information like their background or a table of contents).

It is worth saying that anybody who reads the contents of a PowerPoint slide should be taken out back and beaten with a hose.

Slides are for guideposts and visual exhibits.
posted by entropone at 11:02 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nice but I think that I'm beyond help in giving presentations. I can have the greatest slides and prepare to death but as soon as I get up behind the lectern my brain goes completely blank. Not only don't I remember any details about a single presentation that I gave in Grad School but I couldn't remember them even minutes later when I sat down. Some sort of fugue-state thing was going on. The best complement I got from a professor was, "at least you didn't look like you were about to sprint out of the room this time." As long as I managed not to puke on my shoes or pass out cold, I called it a success.

So for in the eight years since I graduated, I've given exactly zero presentations and everyone is the better off for that fact.
posted by octothorpe at 11:02 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I absolutly get that weird out-of-body thing, every time.
posted by Artw at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2013

As one of my co-workers once said, "If anyone asks for a copy of my slides afterward, I know that I failed."

There is no truth to the allegation that I prompted people to do that for the rest of the time we worked together.
posted by Etrigan at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

For topics like these, I think it's always useful to point out the Dunning-Kruger Effect (the better you are at something, the more capable you are of noticing your mistakes) and the Imposter Syndrome (where you think the people who invited/hired you thought they were hiring/inviting someone more qualified, and will catch on any day now)
posted by rebent at 11:10 AM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Since, many years ago, I did a teaching course and had to perform in front of about he most hostile audiences you can imagine I've had zero fear of public speaking... because I doubt anybody now will be throwing chairs across as soon as my back is turned.

One useful bit of theory I did pick up at the time is the spotlight / manilow effect - all you perceived screw ups will be seen as way less of an issue by your audience
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:16 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I approach public speaking the same way I approach public singing. I don't so it. Ever.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I liked this. I talk and teach (in person and online) for a living, but I still found several excellent ideas to steal for my next presentation.

I'm not sure about the "introvert" label, though (not that I'm doubting anyone's self-identification). This is advice for everyone, confident speaker or not, and the first two parts describing how to deal with the jitters when speaking in public can apply to extroverts and introverts.

For example, one of my friends is a smart, talented, talkative and very friendly extrovert. But she would rather to be put to death than to speak in public to a group. All her verve and confidence are GONE if you put her on the spot like that.

In contrast, I'm one of those performing, show-offy introverts who definitely needs alone time, but when I'm around people, I'm AROUND people. I've jumped at the chance to speak off the cuff in front of an audience of a few hundred semi-engaged teenagers and had a great time. In fact, I have a tough time keeping my talks to a manageable length and my slides unclotted with extra text, so those parts of Matt's article will be very helpful for me.

Loud introverts: we're here, we talk without fear, just try to shut us up when we're on a roll.
posted by maudlin at 11:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]

I am both an extrovert and enjoy public speaking and still found some very good advice on first skim. Evernoted for a full read later...
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:22 AM on December 11, 2013

I am an introvert, and I love public speaking/performing. I think they are orthogonal. But they are good tips nonetheless.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:36 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

$5 for unquestionable expertise and authority? I'll take that offer yes sir!
posted by Prettiest Monkey at 11:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

I don't merely loathe public speaking, I actively think that it is outdated and ill-suited to the purpose. You really need to see my face making mouth noises together in a room with other people who may or may not want to be there with their heads pointed roughly in my direction, with some level of cellphone fondling going on at the same time? It just seems like a very inefficient way to convey information from one person to several. In the same way that talking head YouTube videos are a huge waste of time as compared to, I don't know, some well-tuned paragraphs, why jam a bunch of apes in a rented room? Didn't we invent the printing press some time back?

Public speaking looks largely a weird tradition that serves little purpose. Worse yet, it is somehow a "valuable skill" in the workplace that seems mostly akin to desiring that candidates know how to make buggywhips.

My big public speaking tips are: print, avoid, defer, delegate, and bail.
posted by adipocere at 11:49 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

the best presentations often don't have slides at all

Most of my public speaking is technical in nature, and the need for charts and graphs is difficult to escape. I do make a concentrated effort to use as few words on slides as possible, though. In fact, I recently had to present to a client as part of a group and I had the fewest slides by far. Everyone thought is was great.

What I hate with a fiery burning passion are the "presentations" that I must occasionally endure at work that are part of our design review process. Our government agency has instituted a strict template for these slide decks that are about 50-long and outline exactly what information has to go on which slides. And people just stand up, read the contents of the slide, and move to the next one. It's infuriating (plus all the slides are handed out ahead of time, so why can't I just read them alone at my desk). The absolute worst part of this, though, is that if this method is deviated from in the slightest it gets criticized and everything takes far longer than it needs to. You get more shit if you don't read off the slides than if you do.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:51 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Someone sent me this this AM -- I can't begin to express how much I appreciate Matt's putting this down and into words and sharing it. It's charming and it's helped me TODAY.

I am a pretty monkey. I know where the bananas are, you guys.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't merely loathe public speaking, I actively think that it is outdated and ill-suited to the purpose.

There really are people who learn most efficiently and effectively by hearing things, or by seeing them demonstrated and explained.
posted by Etrigan at 11:59 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

A speaking coach had some memorable advice that helped me: "With practice, you can channel nervousness into energy for your talk. You may never lose the butterflies, but you can learn to make them fly in formation."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 12:01 PM on December 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

Also, count me in as another introvert who actually enjoys public speaking. I really like sharing knowledge and it's exciting to be able to show people what I've learned - and now they know it, too!
posted by backseatpilot at 12:03 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

some of you know what I'm talking about
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:06 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

A speaking coach had some memorable advice that helped me: "With practice, you can channel nervousness into energy for your talk. You may never lose the butterflies, but you can learn to make them fly in formation."

Tony Bennett said (loose paraphrase) "You should be nervous before you go on stage, it shows that you care about it!"
posted by ovvl at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

adipocere: As for speech, there is little else better for taking a room full of people who believe A and getting a few of them to believe B afterwards, and it's very bad at much else. This includes actually getting people to listen to the information that you gave them, but people can make their positivity and intimacy judgments about you in their own seat: that seems much more important than the information, although it doesn't hurt if the information's good.

The Sophists, who after all taught oratory first, were quite honest about this. "When Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke,', but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, 'Let us march.'" (the quote's due to Adlai Stevenson talking about JFK, who certainly knew that bit. We should go to the moon because we can do it? Some shit logic there alright, but it was convincing).

Structured preparation for speechmaking makes good speeches, but it also makes fragile ones. In fact, the best book I've read for learning the art of speechmaking was the inimitable Impro, by Keith Johnstone. Not because it talks a whit about speeches, because it doesn't, but because it talks a lot about how to say what you need to say, even after hopelessly making a fool of yourself on stage, which is the actual thing that most people who think they're afraid of speeches are afraid of.

My old speech teacher used to do an exercise, which was excruciating, thus: we would be an audience of eighty or so, and he would make each of us go out in turn and wait in front of the eighty for three or four minutes. In silence. If you don't believe that's a long time, get a timer and count out three or four minutes. Three or four people were almost crying, and certainly had red faces. Did we gain the essential realization, that there is no reason to fear? I certainly did.
posted by curuinor at 12:14 PM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

The first time I ever attempted speaking in front of a crowd was in a workshop a buddy of mine was running. I had never done anything like it before and I was nervous as hell. The night I spoke happened to be my birthday and just as I was introduced and began to say my first words the lights suddenly dimmed and out came my buddy and a couple other friends with a birthday cake. They encouraged the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to me and I just sort of stood there, embarrassed, not quite sure what to do.

When the song was over I blew out the candles and managed to mutter something like "um... thanks. Ok, then." I then gave my talk, which I guess went ok, though I think I mostly just read what was on the overheads.

Guy was an asshole. Don't ever do that.
posted by bondcliff at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

curuinor, excruciating is right. Wow.

The author of Beyond Bullet Points did a seminar at my former job once. Of course, senior management continued to pack their slides full of information and read them. Ah well.
posted by mogget at 12:27 PM on December 11, 2013

And thank you for putting this together, Matt. I'll be sharing it with a bunch of people.
posted by mogget at 12:29 PM on December 11, 2013

Curuinor, man that's an excellent exercise for this purpose.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:29 PM on December 11, 2013

That Flickr/stock photo suggestion may be the most helpful thing I've heard in a long time. Thanks Matt!
posted by slogger at 12:31 PM on December 11, 2013

This is really valuable information and I'm glad I read it. Unfortunately it almost seems too "hip" and "new" for the sorts of business presentations I've given. It's always to executives who are super-entrenched in the old way of doing things. I wonder if I've worked at the same company as backseatpilot, because yes, if you don't fill each slide with graphs, metrics, 8 bullet points with words, then you're in danger of being seen as someone who's really light on content and big on style. They don't want narrative (or they do, but they don't know they want it) - they want solid information, and they don't like the surprise of content being delivered orally rather than visually. I don't know how to get around it. It sucks because mathowie's way is so much more elegant, engaging, and downright FUN, but you really fear push-back from your superiors who aren't prepared for it.

Maybe different presentation styles need to be adapted to different situations and audiences. I'd give a drastically different presentation at a Pecha Kucha style gathering with beer than a stodgy, scrutiny-intensive "justify the past 6 months of expenditures" presentation.
posted by naju at 12:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

These are nicer monkeys than that monkey.
posted by Wordshore at 1:02 PM on December 11, 2013

For my last presentation, which was technical in nature, I liked using the Takahashi method. As a result, I did miss some details, but I was much more challenged and engaged while speaking than if I had written out whole sentences for the slides or notes. You can't control whether or not the audience is bored and tuning out, but you can control your own present-ness.

And I think the forgotten details issue can be worked out by practicing more, like mathowie mentions.
posted by ignignokt at 1:19 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done a bit of public speaking at British sf cons, appearing on panels, which has the advantage of very likely alcohol before hand and almost certainly alcohol during which def seems to lubricate things for me for the better (Caution! Results May Vary!)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:23 PM on December 11, 2013

All of this advice is spot-on, especially the parts about keeping slides simple and using pretty pictures.

I give technical talks at coding conferences and at this point I've sat through hundreds of talks on various aspects of computing and data. Here is my advice for giving a good talk about coding that will make people pay attention:

- Never show more than two lines of code on a slide. Code is difficult to read from far away and even more difficult to understand. If you feel the compulsion to share large blocks of code host a workshop instead or post it somewhere where the audience can access it during the talk. People will be able to look at your code on their own machines and play with it. Learning about code is an active act, not a passive one.

- If you can, put the results up front so that people will understand what you are building to. It's easier to put a unfamiliar software package into mental context if the point is understood up front.

- I always have at least one audience participation bit. I usually ask for something silly that won't affect the outcome of what I am talking about (for example, what we are selling in an example sales territory; at the python conference it was pythons). It provides a break from passive listening and will wake up the audience.

- People love jokes even if you're talking about dry, technical topics. When in doubt, nerds will always laugh at a Star Wars joke. Personally, I try to work in at least one cat picture into each presentation.

- Be excited about the thing you are talking about. Even a jaded audience will pick up the energy.
posted by Alison at 1:24 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have to give presentations with slides that have to be available for non-attendees to review afterwards, so I find it helpful to use a very light touch with the slides, but then have a few summary slides (with all the details) at the end (or at the end of each topic), which I throw on the screen as I tell the audience "for those interested in a recap of this material, you'll find it at the end of this section|presentation deck." Plus, I can glance up as I do this, and if I see a point I didn't make, I can pull an "oh, one thing I forgot to mention."
posted by davejay at 1:25 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

The three-act structure thing is an enormous help. A few years ago, I was the best man at my friend and former roommate's wedding. His wedding was slightly unusual, in that there was one ceremony which officially married them, kept to just close friends and family, and then a year later they were going to do the big wedding with dresses and banquet halls and all that. The small ceremony took place on the patio outside their condo, with a reception in the building's common area. It was very nice and very casual.

It was, in fact, so nice and casual, that somehow I'd gotten it into my head that there weren't going to be the usual speeches, other than maybe the bride and groom thanking everyone for coming. So when the bride's brother caught up with me and said, hey, she'd like the speeches to start in about ten minutes, I was, uh, very surprised. And I had absolutely nothing. I hadn't even thought about it.

But fear is a powerful motivator. So I said, sure, walked away, and while smoking about ten cigarettes rapidly, I came up with three things: meeting my friend for the first time, living with my friend and realizing it was time for us to move on, meeting his wife for the first time and knowing that she was who he'd move on with. The first story is an introduction, the second one has a little humorous conflict, the third one is a happy resolution leading to the current moment. I didn't realize it in my panic, but I was writing a three-act story, each act ending with the same line: "I asked him to come inside, and then he did." "I told him he needed to get a girlfriend, and then he did." "He told me he had to take her home. And then he did."

It went over amazingly well, but more importantly than that, just coming up with those three things and putting them in order calmed me down completely. As soon as I had that structure in my head, I knew I was going to be able to at least not humiliate myself. I'm definitely going to keep it in mind more consciously for future situations where I suddenly have to give a speech in front of people I don't know while more than slightly tipsy. It happens more often than I'd expect.
posted by Errant at 1:48 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh yes hostile audiences did wonders for me.

My first proper job involved going round the country telling volunteers that the organisation they were passionate about was dropping something that used to be such a core value it was once part of their name (not least because it was discriminatory). I was compared to Hitler in the second ever talk I gave about it. After that, everything is easy.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:21 PM on December 11, 2013

from the article:

The one or two bad experiences I’ve had on stage were due to me procrastinating for weeks as the date approached (while getting increasingly nervous about disappearing time), throwing together something in the last few days, practicing the talk a couple times, then winging it up on stage. I noticed this pattern led to sub-par results about 7 years ago and since then I’ve taken on a more serious approach of spending three months working on every major talk I do.

Practice doesn't make perfect, but plenty of practice makes good enough.
posted by bukvich at 2:21 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a hideously ugly monkey and I've forgotten where the bananas are.

I am doomed.
posted by Decani at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hey thanks all for the kind words. I'm glad it is resonating with people. I wrote about 75% of this last summer and have been meaning to come back to it. For some reason yesterday was the day, and I reviewed everything I wrote and hit publish.

I forgot to mention one aspect that has helped me immensely, but then it's a weird thing not everyone can copy and that was: do a podcast. The little MeFi podcast we do once a month (since 2007?) has done wonders for my public speaking. I'm no longer super scared on stage, when unexpected stuff happens I can roll with it. I've done a few completely unprepared panel discussions at conferences and those are almost identical to doing the podcast.

It's tough to tell everyone to just start a podcast to improve their ease of speaking, but it seriously is a huge help. I wonder if I should add a paragraph to the essay about that?
posted by mathowie at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

But, just as there are people who are better at learning through auditory channels, there are people who are not better learners through auditory channels. In addition, there are content creators (the other side, which seems to get neglected) who are not particularly good at delivering that information through auditory channels. It seems weird to try to venerate this method over all others when it is not ideal for all recipients and not ideal for all content producers.

I spent over a decade tutoring; I know the kids who have to watch, the kids who have to hear, and the kids who have to be hands on. They vary. Why try to jam this particular straitjacket over everything? That's what is completely bizarre to me, this adherence to ancient mode of communication that not everyone is great at understanding and not everyone is great at creating.
posted by adipocere at 3:03 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, I can't remember where I heard the pretty monkey stuff first. I searched for scientific articles and found some social anxiety papers that connected public speaking to our sympathetic nervous system responses, but I wish I could find the first place I heard this entire notion.

I do know that stand up comic Maria Bamford has some joke bits about how we all read People Magazine because they put they put out the "world's sexiest man/woman" issues, which she equates to the covers having the prettiest monkeys on them and she buys those magazines hoping they share the secrets of where they stash bananas so she can be a pretty monkey too.
posted by mathowie at 3:04 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I know the kids who have to watch, the kids who have to hear, and the kids who have to be hands on. They vary.

Yeah, I sense that in myself (mostly a visual learner, with lots of hands on, pure audio lectures bore me) and others. My advice taken as a whole still stresses some visual (prettier slides that reinforce your points), I just don't think the slides need to look like this to get information across, and you can engage audiences more if you focus on one concept at a time.
posted by mathowie at 3:07 PM on December 11, 2013

These are some notes on the Gettysburg meeting. I'll whip them into better shape when I can get on to my computer. HEH!

I'll give an example: I never paid attention to the MeFi podcasts until someone produced a transcript of them. While I will listen to music all day long, hearing people put sounds together to convey something over many seconds which my eyes could absorb in a single scan is beyond wearisome for me. Similarly, I think that recognizing that not everyone is verbal on the other end of that might be a step towards better communication in general. The effort required to make someone like me a decent speaker at an event simply isn't ever going to pay off in any sense beyond "now this person has become proficient in the art of elocution;" my time would much be better spent writing something, making a graph, or developing a punchy analysis.

I'm having a difficult time framing this before I have to dash off, but at some point, I suspect we've begun to value public speaking because we think we ought to value it, and in a way this may be tied to a culture increasingly focused on media and celebrities. Who are you if we can't see you on a large videoscreen, and if we don't know who you are, what worth is what you say?

Maybe it's just me, though, a guy with a stutter that comes out under stress and who has had a couple of bouts with selective mutism. I can't be the only one, though.
posted by adipocere at 4:24 PM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I never paid attention to the MeFi podcasts until someone produced a transcript of them

Oh my god. This changes everything...

I have to agree with a few others that as a strong visual learner, when I see people present in the format suggested here (mostly talking with a bunch of pictures), it goes in one ear and out the other. I really need some kind of diagram, or failing that, at least a few key phrases to remember (not individual words, those are useless).

Still, most people err on the other side (words vomited everywhere) so this is an improvement over that. And I'm definitely going to remember that I'm a pretty monkey for the future.
posted by randomnity at 4:38 PM on December 11, 2013

But, just as there are people who are better at learning through auditory channels, there are people who are not better learners through auditory channels. In addition, there are content creators (the other side, which seems to get neglected) who are not particularly good at delivering that information through auditory channels. It seems weird to try to venerate this method over all others when it is not ideal for all recipients and not ideal for all content producers.

Learning was not the point. If you judge oratory by this, it will fail. Because it is dog shit at teaching things, and always has been.

The contention that there are different kinds of people who learn things better via different learning styles is not supported by the evidence. It might be the case that it is true, but if it were true, then it would be like Lucretius saying that matter moves and is seen in a nondeterministic way: a hypothesis only, and not a tested one. Stated preferences lie towards that way, but we really can't give credence to those, if we have no data on revealed preference.

I don't think the original orators ever claimed that oratory was a useful tool for learning. In their behavior, they acted only as tutors. Only in the last century has it even been feasible, with the advent of amplification and recording, to use oratory as a teaching tool for anything, and it will be only a little more until people successfully eliminate it, because it's a dog-shit teaching tool.
posted by curuinor at 5:12 PM on December 11, 2013

I worked at a wonderful living history museum during college summer break, where I learned to love speaking in front of people and shifting the narrative for the crowd. A nerdy engineer and his son in a Model T? I better talk about the transmission and show them how the pedals work (Left is clutch, right is brake, middle is reverse). A horde of field trip fifth graders drunk on the power of non-parental supervision? Keep it pithy. Fifty people in the gristmill? Turn up the volume and ask some questions, let them drive what I say.

As a result, I'm pretty good at improvising and feel energized in front of a crowd. But, like backseatpilot, I work in a regulated industry with requirements for data-heavy management review presentations. So, I've given lots of talks from a slide deck template, and while I think I'm better than the average management presenter, talking to a small conference table sucks. I think the problem is threefold:

1. The goal of management review presentations is to evaluate performance to goals. In short, this means "Is this number a good number. If yes move on. If no we must talk about it at length." The goal is to move on, and I think everyone's secondary goal is to get out of the meeting early. It's hard to make rote production data compelling (especially with small sample sizes), so as a consequence, I care less.

2. In a small room or speakerphone, I can't project. When I project, I feel like I'm on stage, I'm putting on a show, watch me dance! But I lose confidence if I'm talking at an inoffensive volume to six people, especially if I'm seated. I've read that there are different neural pathways for public and intimate speaking, which makes some sense. I certainly feel different if I'm walking around while I talk versus sitting at a conference table.

3. I lose the ability to improvise creatively. Basically, it means I can't go off on tangents, be it for a joke or whatever else floats into my head at the time. I really like to chase those butterflies, and if harnessed, it can be much more interesting than see slide, read number.

This advice isn't a perfect fit for my role, but I want to try the templates and prepare better. Part of the fun of the museum was intimate familiarity with the information, which allowed me to angle the prism however I pleased. It's hard to do that with on-time shipment metrics, but, well, it can't hurt, and there's nothing worse than squinting to read a slide along with everyone else in the room.
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:29 PM on December 11, 2013

Cool article, thanks. The trick to psych yourself out is a good one, as is thinking about timing and story structure.

Some of the specific advice wouldn't really work for the type of presentation I tend to give. I work in academic science, so generally when I present the audience is other academics and sometimes a smattering of people from industry. In general, academics are very suspicious of anything that looks too slick and polished, so I can't really think of a situation where an edge-to-edge stock photo would be appropriate to include, except perhaps your acknowledgements and/or opening slide. Academics want to feel like they've learned something non-trivial and also that they can evaluate your work properly, which means that I would save the images for presenting data.

I have a couple of other points of departure. First, in science talks I think you do want to avoid too much text, but I think it's possible to go overboard with this. I think some text (not more than a headline or two, plus labels) is almost always necessary to help interpret figures. I actually don't think it's such a cardinal sin to read these short headlines almost verbatim - a little redundancy is sometimes useful, especially if you want to go relatively slowly through individual data slides.

Second, you also need to think about avoiding too many graphical elements per image. Airdropping a multi-part figure into a single slide is rarely helpful, for instance, because the image isn't meant to be processed all at once. You may even want to add visual elements to a graph gradually if it helps you guide your audience through how you thought about the figures.

Finally, it's very easy to get lost in a scientific talk if you lose your focus for a second, particularly if the talk is slightly outside your area, so an additional thing I'd emphasize is building in cues to catch people up who have fallen behind.

To respond to curuinor, the scientific talk is by no means an optimal way of conveying information; you can get much more in-depth at a poster than at a talk, for instance, to say nothing of the paper. But there are also necessarily tradeoffs between increasing depth and rigor and being able to reach a broader audience (who may not already care about what you did and why you did it), so for things like job talks and conferences I don't see it becoming obsolete any time soon.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:29 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing I think talks work very well for is an introduction to a topic, or a 50-mile-high overview of one. If the presenter is engaging it can make the difference between becoming interesting in a thing and ignoring a thing.
posted by maxwelton at 6:41 PM on December 11, 2013

mathowie: "I forgot to mention one aspect that has helped me immensely, but then it's a weird thing not everyone can copy and that was: do a podcast"

I once tried to do a screencast on an open source tool, and that was damn near impossible. I just literally feel so weirded talking to a blank wall that it's very difficult to continue speaking for long. When I think about it, nearly every successful podcast I listen to is conversational in nature.
posted by pwnguin at 8:21 PM on December 11, 2013

When I took part in a public speaking forum, one of the first trials was the use of a buzzer which would be sounded whenever a verbal tic was uttered, such as "Umm..", "Uhh..", "Like..", "..So..". All of those appear incessantly in these speeches. Also, bobbing back and forth, pacing, or rocking to and fro are distracting. That happens in these talks a lot as well. Eye contact is also important, and the feeling of taking the audience into your confidence, as opposed to appearing closed off or defensive (read: shy.) This was also not addressed in these speeches. Better presentations perhaps, but compared to what? It took four months to develop this?
posted by ReeMonster at 8:42 PM on December 11, 2013

ReeMonster: When I was in debate camp, they threw a ball at us.

Actually, I've been collecting these in my head for a long time, so here's a dump. They are extremely variegated in their purpose, source and apparent insanity and excruciation. If I remember a source, I'll put it in.

1. Stand in front of an audience of silent people for an excruciating amount of time.

2. Have someone throw a cavalcade of balls at you if you make a verbal tic. Foamcore, so it doesn't leave marks or hurt seriously, but with a little bit of heft so it annoys the crap out of you.

3. The Demosthenes drill: stick things in your mouth and still try to enunciate. Enunciate really, really well. With all that stuff in your mouth. Demosthenes did it with a bunch of pebbles: people do it with pebbles, Jolly ranchers, 3 or 4 jawbreakers, (for the duration that the candy lasts) a whole pen, or other interesting materials. Interesting fact: I got into Stanford and Princeton by writing my college essays about this. I think The King's Speech has the unsympathetic quack doctor try this, but it actually does work quite well.

4. Bing-Bong Ding-Dong: say it, in a sing-song voice but as low as possible and getting deeper. This is to get men's voices deeper. This one will fuck up your vocal chords if you do it too much, so don't do it too much.

5. Description exercise: this is from Cognitive Blockbusters. You sit across a person. And you say a word that describes yourself. Nothing else. And they say a word that describes themselves. And nothing else. And you two take turns, until you twist away out of desperation, which is usually by the 10th utterance. This is to teach you that you yourself usually don't have a ready description of yourself.'

6. Status invariance: this is from Impro. Take a partner and hold their head still when they speak. This is excruciating, because you're holding their face. Then, have them hold their own head still when they speak. Instant auctoritas!

7. Act "entering the wrong room": also from Johnstone. Leave the room, and then come back in, but this time suddenly realize you're in the wrong room. Don't act, just do what do you in life: you've previously prepared your status but you have to change it now.

8. The Board of Governors exercise: also from Johnstone. Act like you're a teacher going in front of a class, holding your glasses in your hand. Put them on, look at your "class", actually realize it's the Senate, or the Supreme Court, or whatever. Then, grovelling, try to rush out of the door, but the door has stuck. Then do it over and over again. Very excruciating.

9. Point at things and say out loud, and loudly, the wrong name for things, that comes first into your mind: also from Johnstone. It makes your weltanschauung lighter, and I don't even mean that in a metaphorical sense: like, your judgment of color will temporarily become fairly bad.

10. Have a list of insults. Play out a boring scene. Add the insults after each line. Get insulted all to hell. Also from Johnstone.

11. Pose practice: reaching up into the sky for a little bit will give you a bit of confidence for basically no reason. Hey, free confidence!

12. It's Tuesday: also from Johnstone. Start with an innocuous statement. Your partner must overreact like hell. Then, you overreact to the overreaction, and so on:

"It's Tuesday."
"No! It's the date predicted for my death by the evil prophet!"
"But the evil prophet is my cousin's uncle's wife's housecleaner!"

13. Shit list: from Cognitive Blockbusters. Basically, say out loud a long list of things. Do the things have to be anything? No. You should be uninhibited, and fluent, and you should start over again when you're not fluent until you can bullshit out 5 minutes of this stuff.

14. Good tongue twisters, for me, are extremely long. It's fairly easy to do even the MIT tongue twister, given your tongue isn't tired. But your tongue will be tired by the end of a speech. So practice tongue twisters over and over, or take a long tongue twister ... and practice it over and over. My favorite is the Announcer's test:

One hen
Two ducks
Three squawking geese
Four limerick oysters
Five corpulent porpoises
Six Don Alversos tweezers
Seven thousand macedonians in full battle array
Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt
Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth
Ten lyrical, spherical diabolical denizens of the deep who hall stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.

15. Silent scream, from one of my old saxophone books: smile as if you were dog.gif, so super super wide, and then pucker your lips for a kiss. Do this 50 times. This will work the crap out of your cheek muscles.

16. Musical scale: plan out a sentence by making a pseudo-musical scale and putting in the places where you want to intone things: "They threw a ball at us" becomes "Med: They High: Threw Med: a Low: ball Med: at Med: us", and becomes a lot more interesting.

17. Take a large corpus of text, and read it aloud, saying "banana" between each word.

18. Take a large corpus of text, and read it word-by-word backwards: something like "yourself of description ready a have don't usually yourself you that you teach to is this utterance 10th the by usually is which desperation of out". This helps you read text that you really don't understand.

19. Combine 17 and 18: "yourself banana of banana description banana ready banana a banana have banana..."

20. Do 19 while jogging.

21. Do 17 while reading a large corpus of text that you despise: I've been suggested Conservapedia, which is a fine choice.

22. To learn how to breathe from the diaphragm: stack a stack of dictionaries or other big books on top of you and then breath so that the dictionaries move. Not too many dictionaries, but not too few.
posted by curuinor at 12:05 AM on December 12, 2013 [44 favorites]

This was a great article. I hate public speaking, but have managed to pull a few off successfully. All his tips ring true to me.

And I (of course) agree with his point of making your slides minimal. One of my pet peeves is people who dump a screenshot of a project plan or spreadsheet and the text is so tiny that NOBODY can read it.

"So as you can see, we're 85% complete on task #71. We're just waiting on the vendor to get back to us on that one."

No! I can't see it! What is task #71, who is the vendor, and how does it impact me? And how do I stay awake through 20 minutes of looking at fuzzy screenshots?

On a side note, I'd never seen either of Matt's talks linked in the article. The second one is particularly wonderful.

Metafilter: Where people write full sentences and make sense, and stuff.
posted by Diag at 1:39 AM on December 12, 2013

Aargh. I just did the thing mentioned in bukvich's comment on Monday, and flop-sweated my way through the whole thing.

I operate from the premise, contrary to all advice I've seen recently, that since I was at a fairly technical conference I should just pack my slides with as much info as possible--because people aren't going to remember what I said but they will want copies of the Powerpoint (which is true!), and that is fine. I didn't read anything off the slides, but tried to create a parallel description of the research conclusions I was outlining. Still, procrastination is a bitch.
posted by psoas at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I think about it, nearly every successful podcast I listen to is conversational in nature.

Oh! This explains why I can't get into Welcome to Night Vale! Trying to pay attention to one person just... speaking... slowly... drives me nuts; I hadn't thought about that.
posted by psoas at 11:40 AM on December 13, 2013

I prefer podcasts that feature one person reading a script, eg history of rome, history of philosophy without any gaps. Night Vale is different - it's overly thespian.
posted by rebent at 1:35 PM on December 13, 2013

psoas: "Oh! This explains why I can't get into Welcome to Night Vale! Trying to pay attention to one person just... speaking... slowly... drives me nuts; I hadn't thought about that."

Mainly what I meant is that it's much easier for the untrained to record a conversation than rehearse a script until it's perfected. At least for me, talking to yourself in a room by yourself is a difficult process. Maybe it's the same reason I have a few dozen blog posts and a few thousand MeFi comments...
posted by pwnguin at 4:31 PM on December 14, 2013

slide: "hire the best, as early as possible"

posted by jessamyn at 11:48 AM on January 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

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