A little while ago I was searching through my inbox for something and found an email I’d written to a friend who’d asked for feedback on a presentation. Reading it though I think a lot of it applies more generally. It’s really my take on both presenting and getting better at presenting.
I’m posting it here almost unaltered, apart from rewriting some identifiable material to protect the privacy of everybody involved (and fixing more typos than I care to admit). I hope it might be interesting to some of the early-stage researchers I know who keep an eye on the blog.
First of all, it must be said that it is extremely hard to judge your own presentation performance - nobody is an unbiased judge of their own performance. The ways that count are:
- Will the people who saw you present this year, come back and see you present next year?
…and you can’t know that yet. People talk about the number of emails you get, the number of people who ‘tweeted’ your talk and such, but most of that is about how high you are in the pecking order of the community, NOT how well you presented.
To give you an example, I felt that the presentation I did this year was pretty average. The presentation you saw me give last year was good.
There are a bunch of reasons why I wasn’t as good this year, but the thing that is important is that almost everyone who came to the first presentation this year was in the presentation last year. Given that there is a choice of 8 presentations at any given time (and a lot of people wouldn’t have been back this year) I’m counting that as a win (I certainly don’t expect the same level of retention this year…).
The next thing to say is that as far as I’m concerned the only feedback worth getting is a videotape of yourself giving the presentation (or at least an audio recording). It’s a horrific thing to watch, but it’s also very beneficial. You watch it once though, then once with only the sound, then once without the sound (because you are looking at body language) then you watch it again. And you’ll get more out of that experience than you ever will having people tell you if they liked it or NOT. (Don’t get me wrong, I love people telling me how awesome I am - the problem is that it’s NOT scientific, and I don’t think it’s the best way to either sustain or improve the level of awesome)
Having said all that, we can now do some specifics.
On the topic of worrying about audience questions. One should never feel inferior. Intimidated… possibly. Certainly the audience can always ask questions that are designed to make themselves look good at the expense of the presenter (and it’s generally obvious to the rest of the audience that this is happening). But you should bear in mind you have friends in the audience too. Part of the responsibility of the chair is to avoid someone getting metaphorically beaten up and they should help in. And you can always call for help if you need it (If I’m in an audience I can (and have) give a spirited defense of JUST about anything on short notice…).
If you are NOT willing to rely on yourself, you can rely on your friends. You are alone at the front, but you’re NOT as vulnerable as you think - I’ve had friends in the audience busking for me for 15 minutes while I frantically rebuilt some software we were showing… So if you are nervous, take some people with you.