By Laura Spradlin
It’s after midnight, you’re taking a quick look at the slides for your research presentation the next morning, and you have this distressing thought: “I think my research is interesting, but will anyone else?” No one wants years of hard work to be met with blank stares or a fascinating discovery to be dismissed by wandering minds. Your research is interesting, but how do you get people to realize that?
Tell a story.
Regardless of your discipline or degree, you are surrounded by stories—listening, telling, and retelling them. Author and entrepreneur Jonah Sachs says, “Stories are the original viral tool. Once you tell a very compelling story, the first thing someone does is think, ‘Who can I tell this story to?’” Telling your research story can help your audience connect their own experiences to your data. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes: As you’re giving your talk, they’re likely thinking, “How does this relate to my life?”
Stories follow the same general framework: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Present your work in a familiar and engaging structure, and you have a good chance of hooking your audience. Set up the big picture, let yourself be the hero and explain how you’re addressing the problem at hand, and give us your “Aha!” moment. What is something unexpected that you learned? Why should your audience and the rest of the world care?
Put PowerPoint on hold.
Creating some distance between your talk and your presentation tool may be healthy. You might experience slight separation anxiety without a blank slide deck, but you might also experience some freedom. Nancy Duarte, author of Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, recommends putting presentation tools away while you construct your message. Instead, she suggests using sticky notes or index cards to write down and organize ideas. Once you have developed a natural framework to your research story, then approach your presentation tool.
Duarte reminds presenters to let visuals be a reminder to the audience of what you talked about, not a script of what you said. “The slides…are supposed to be a mnemonic device for the audience so they can remember what you had to say,” she says in a TED Blog post. Also keep in mind that numbers and figures may be important to your research, but the audience is relying on you to relay their importance. Don’t let numbers and figures be orphaned from meaning; tell the audience what they mean and why they should care.
Show us you’re interested.
Boredom is contagious. When you appear uninterested in your research, your audience is more likely to be uninterested. When you appear enthusiastic, your audience will feel the same. Think back to some engaging speakers you’ve heard. What grabbed your attention? Their passion for the topic and personable demeanor or a muffled voice and uncomfortable shuffling?
Non-verbal communication is one of the keys to demonstrating interest. Maintain eye contact with your audience, and be aware of your body language. Shrinking, stiff gestures can be just as distracting as wild, flailing movement. Aim for the middle ground—not too much fidgeting, but also not a rigid stance. Aim for being welcoming. You may also consider using specific movement as a way to add emphasis at powerful moments.
Be aware of your verbal communication cues as well, like the tone and speed of your voice. Being relaxed, approachable, and finding a balanced pace and enthusiastic tone all come with practice. Speaking of practice…
Rehearse enough to be unrehearsed.
Write down your research story, but then put it in a drawer and try telling it to your roommate. Did you notice a difference between what you said and what you wrote? Very rarely do we speak the way that we write. It’s important and useful to write down your ideas first in order to organize thoughts, think through metaphors, and construct your story, but don’t forget to put the written words away and internalize what you will say. Be careful to internalize, but don’t necessarily memorize. If you know your key points but don’t focus on the exact sentences, you’ll be able to recover if you go “off script” or forget a word.
Say your presentation out loud, and say it to other people. Friends and colleagues can give feedback on your non-verbal communication as well as the structure and flow of your story. Listeners outside of your field are also great jargon detectors. If jargon is absolutely necessary, be sure to explain it. Most importantly, practice, practice, practice, and then practice again.
Laura Spradlin is the Thesis & Student Development Specialist at the Graduate College. She is an alumna of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois and studied English and French at Illinois Wesleyan University. Prior to joining the Graduate College, Laura worked in communications and public libraries. In her spare time, you can find her browsing libraries and used bookstores, writing, knitting, or running (slowly).