Why Conferences Are Like Blind Dates

Court your audience like you would on a blind date.Credit: uschools/Getty

About a year ago, a friend outside of academia attended a talk I gave on the science of emotions, a topic I research at Stanford University in California. I thought the conversation went very well. My friend, who works in insurance, disagreed. She said academics are experts at making interesting things boring and inaccessible – and that we should all be required to take a course in public speaking.

So, a few months later, I signed up for a public speaking course given by James Wagstaffe and Bruce Bean, authors of Romancing the Room: How to Engage Your Audience, Court Your Crowd, and Successful Public Speaking (2002). Their book likens communication to a romantic relationship; it starts with catching someone’s attention on a blind date and blossoms when you’re attentive to their interests, respond to their comments, and avoid monotony. Since completing the course, I have continued to lecture on research and received much more positive feedback. For example, a senior faculty member said my last lecture was the best he had seen in a long time, and over the next few days I received nearly a dozen similar messages from other members of the faculty and graduate students.

The noticeable improvement in feedback inspired me to continue working on my public speaking skills. It’s a trip of a lifetime, but here are the four most useful things I’ve learned.

Your voice is an instrument. Learn to play it

Too often, science talks hit the same note, at the same pace, for 45 minutes straight. The best way to get better at playing the voice instrument is to practice. For example, practice saying the following sentence: “Why did you blame him? »

If you emphasize a different word, the meaning of the sentence may change. This is the power of inflection in speech. Whisper and shout the phrase (volume); speak it slowly then quickly (rate). Add and remove pauses, and say it in a deeper, higher pitched voice. Practice these changes in your voice; they don’t just change the meaning of your words, they teach you how to speak in a more engaging way.

Do not stuff material

Adding information to a presentation is like adding salt to food. Not enough and it becomes bland, but too much creates something unpleasant. Unfortunately, many presenters seem to empty the entire spice rack. They cram too much material and overwhelm their audience, who then have a hard time retaining anything from the presentation.

When working on our interviews, we need to remember two things. First, people usually complain when talks go on too long – not because they’re too short. Ending early makes time seem to pass and leaves more time for questions and discussion. Second, your audience probably doesn’t care about the details as much as you do. If they care about the details, they’ll just ask in the Q&A or via email or social media.

When I prepare for a lecture, I now spend a lot more time describing. I constantly ask myself, “What are the most essential details? When I want to add a note about, say, how I handled outliers in my data, I ask myself: how likely is this audience to care? If it’s less than 25%, I omit the detail. I err on the side of exclusion — because I know I will leave plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Find out about the setting

Research your audience and tailor your material to their interests and skills. For example, I could talk about how I modeled data in a lecture, but I probably wouldn’t in a first-year undergraduate psychology seminar.

Also, don’t forget to ask about the room. Before my last interview, I asked for a full description of the space. (How big? Layout? Capacity?) I wanted to visualize the space as I practiced. I wanted to think about how loud my voice should be, what people could see, and how I could move. By the time I arrived the setting was familiar and comfortable. Rather than worrying about the venue, I was able to focus better on engaging the audience.

Prepare two concluding statements

Research interviews often end with a wrap-up slide and then a question-and-answer session. But that can mean the last thing the audience hears is a mediocre question or a clumsy, “More questions?” To make sure things end on a good note, you can prepare a second conclusion after the Q&A session. For example, in a recent lecture on emotion, my first conclusion was about my research results. After the Q&A, my second conclusion reminded them why I care about this work: you can’t hope to understand the human condition if you don’t understand emotion.

Two conclusions are not the norm, so it is useful to inform the conference coordinator and the public in advance. I simply tell them that we have, for example, ten minutes for questions and that I will reserve the last minute for a closing remark. This last minute is the reminder. I can end on a high point, thank the audience and clearly signal the end of the conference.

These four tips have served me well so far. We researchers study interesting and important things, but we often lack the training to speak effectively about this work. Nevertheless, there is room for optimism. There is a simple way to increase the impact of our scientific efforts: by working on our speaking skills.

This article is part of Nature Events Guide, an independent editorial supplement. Advertisers have no influence on the content.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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