How Not to Suck at Speaking to Difficult Audiences

Following this post, a classic post (I don’t say “rerun”) on the basics of public speaking for graduate students is included.

Once you develop the basics of speaking at professional conferences, you have built a sense of confidence. You have conducted a series of good to outstanding conference presentations and each presentation is better than the last. But then you apply your speaking skills to a new situation, new audience, or new environment and you bomb completely and totally. The audience is napping, updating Facebook status, yawning, having side conversations, or just leaving. Your confidence crashes. You used the same skills and techniques that proved successful in the past, but this time everything failed. What happened? Some examples of the scary and new types of talks that often provide speakers with challenges: symposia, professional development activities, long-form workshops (i.e., 6-8 hours), keynote addresses, guest lecturing in classes, and professional colloquia. Each of these scenarios present unique challenges.

The general idea is that you are trying to move your audience with your speaking skills from Point A to Point B. Conference presentations are easy because we know Point A, who the audience is and what they know; and we know that Point B, to communicate the findings of research. But to survive difficult talks you must make the effort to identify Point A and Point B. There are two major reasons why new situations often lead to failure even for competent and experienced speakers: audience is different (i.e., Point A) and the goals of the talk are different (i.e., Point B).

Audiences at conferences are usually in your sweet spot. They are professionals in your area who choose to attend your talk specifically because they share an interest. You already share a vocabulary, professional culture, and knowledge base. They are your people. Difficult audiences have little in common with you. As a school psychologist, I have spoken to audiences of teachers, nurses, physicians, medical residents, parents, social workers, and school principals. This is a matter of homework. What does each audience require. Where is their Point A? What is the current state of their knowledge in the subject area on which you will be speaking? What is their perceived need to know about what you will be speaking? How can we speak the same language and work toward a common goal? In consultation, this is referred to as “referent power.” That is, the power that you gain by sharing similar experiences and goals. Make explicit how your topic directly influences the day-to-day work of each audience. You need to investigate what types of talks that are common to the culture of the audience. For example, parents tend to like activities in workshops and do not sit well for long periods; but activities for medical residents are usually disasters. I ask the coordinator of the talks and often interview potential members of the audience on what they know related to your topic. Know where they are (Point A).

The second concern is the goal of the talk (Point B). Does the audience want to be inspired, informed, supported, influenced, surprised, entertained, or learn more about you? Do they want knowledge or to develop a specific skill? Unless you know the goal of the talk, it is difficult to meet the needs of the audience. I usually negotiate this and interview several potential audience members on this topic. If I cannot or do not want to take the group where they want to go, then I decline the opportunity to speak. Know where they want to go or where they are willing to go (Point B).

Some specific challenges:
Symposia—I hate symposia at conferences. The audiences are nearly the same as for conference presentations, so that is easy. Yet, usually each speaker has only 15 minutes (the most difficult length for any talk). The problem is that fellow speakers do not time their talks and always run over. The last speaker is left with 7 minutes and it creates a mess. You lose friends this way.

Professional Development Activities—Audiences usually want to gain practical skills rather than knowledge. The problem is that truly useful skills are extremely narrow in scope and often apply to only a small segment of the audience, leaving others to be bored. My strategy is to weave specific practical skills with bigger picture theories and ideas, then back to a new specific practical skills. So big picture and rationale, detailed and focus skill, back to big picture, then return to a slightly different detailed and focus skill development.

Long-form Workshops—These 6 to 8 hours talks are physically demanding. You need to stand, move, and constantly bring the energy for an entire day. These are my favorite kinds of talks. You need to have a tour de force of experiences, research results, specific practical skills, jokes, big picture ideas, and integrate the whole thing into a full day. You need to be entertaining and authoritative. They have to like you. These talks are also forgiving. I can go on a rant, anecdote, or tangent and still stay on time. I like audience members to interrupt with questions and comments. I can engage them at all times and ensure that I am meeting their needs. I use the same general strategy as for the professional development activities, but can cover many related concepts. I usually divide the day into 4 equal parts with a mid-morning break, lunch, and mid-afternoon break. As in all talks, never ever, ever run over time. You are taking the audience on a journey with you to get them to their Point B. The hardest part is continuously bringing the energy all day. Another thing is your voice. Make sure that you are physically able to speak for so long. I ask for a microphone for even the smallest rooms. I once took voice lessons to learn how to project and protect my voice.

Keynote Addresses—These are fun. 70% inspiration and 30% information. You usually only have time for one or two points. Usually you want to engage the audience on an emotional level first, but buttress your engagement with research. This is where poignant stories, humour, and anecdotes lead. You are usually there to empower and engage the audience and set the stage for an excellent conference or event.

Guest Lectures in Classes-The main thing here is that you want to be different from the regular course instructor. As an outsider, you are often being given the benefit of your expertise. So engage the class by actually spending time identifying the Point A of the classroom. This starts a brief discussion. Then you can go into your content. Remind the class that you will be giving your outline or slides to the regular instructor for use on exams.

Professional Colloquium—You are being judged. Being judged is the Point B. These are brutal. A group of professors in the same setting is a mine field of score settling, insecurity, and showing off. Whether you are an invited speaker or on a job interview, there are some key points that I use. You must be the alpha dog. They smell fear. I usually start with a warm smile, thanking everyone, making reference to my travel to the site or a meal I before the talk, and make a humorous comment or story. Then I launch into the most detailed and arcane aspect of my talk. Unlike other talks, you do not need to communicate content at first. You are communicating that you are the most knowledgeable person in the room in this area and don’t fuck with me. At least in this small component of science that you are presenting, you are the true expert. All with a smile, of course. Then you can relax and explain the arcane stuff in great and clear detail. If someone is a jerk and is openly hostile, then smile and say, “That is an interesting point. But here is why that is wrong (or irrelevant, dated thinking, or something like that)…” My job talk for my current job, I actually said, “If this was the 1980s you would be right, but much has changed over the last 30 years and here is the current thinking on that.” You put them down hard. Everyone in the room knows who the jerk is, so taking control will not hurt you. Challenging, but respectful questions need respectful answers. Student questions need to be treated with the most respect. Remember the most respectful thing that you can do is expand on someone’s questions and work it into your talk. If someone says something brilliant, insightful, or corrects an error, then say, “I love this idea. Can we talk afterward? I see potential collaboration.”

Speaking is so hard. You have to be an actor, entertainer, wit, truly organized, and be able to  muster your knowledge automatically for rapid use. It just takes practice. The more you practice, the more confident you become. You cannot really conduct a good talk when anxious. Relax and bring the energy. You are doing the talk because someone thinks that you have expertise. But the biggest thing to remember is to identify Point A and Point B.


How Not to Suck at Public Speaking

November 1, 2013

There are few things that will turn a confident graduate student into a quivering mess like having to speak in public at a professional event. However, most graduate students have conducted oral presentations in classes for years and, with few exceptions, these sorts of presentations go off without a hitch. Classroom lectures are generally presented in a smooth and easy manner. In some cases, the graduate student has taught classes and has conducted weekly lectures to undergraduates with few nerves. Yet, when a graduate student is faced with an oral presentation to an audience of professionals at a conference, research colloquium, or workshop; the butterflies, nausea, and perspiration of anxiety go into overdrive. There are ways to manage fear, develop a professional speaking style, and glide through these events with excitement and not with panic and dread.


I am a pretty good person to discuss public speaking. You know those people who seem confident and brilliant in front of a crowd. Those people are wonderful, but I am not one of them. Now I am an accomplished and in demand speaker, but have certainly not always been such. I was a terrified and terrible public speaker with distracting nervous tics and a panicky delivery. To evolve into a good speaker, I needed to learn every step along the way to being a confident and strong speaker. Here is how I did it.

Identifying and Analyzing the Problem

All problem solving involves identifying and analyzing the problem. Paralyzing nervousness usually comes from the unknown circumstance and not knowing what to do. Of what are we truly afraid? Here are the big ones: we are afraid that we will have a panic attack and fall into a whimpering, crying, sweating, fetal ball of humiliation; have a nausea attack and be forced to run out of the room; be verbally attacked and filleted by some sadistic expert who wants to figuratively undress you and expose your ignorance for all to see and hear; you simply suck and you might prove to the entire audience that you are a useless know-nothing and imposter; and you might forget the entire presentation and stand in front of 200 people saying, “…um….uh….” for 50 minutes. Maybe I am projecting my worries on to you, but here they are. Are these things harsh and unlikely? Of course they are and you know these things will not happen. But that does not stop you from worrying about them. Personally, I like a little bit of excited energy—it makes me sharper. But that is not paralyzing fear that is energizing motivation.

Developing Solutions

Preparation is the key to managing nerves. Anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong and have a plan. Here are some things that I have learned: I carry 3 different types of batteries in case the microphone goes out, my laser point gets tired, or the hotel’s TV remote fails to work. I have extra shoelaces, a handkerchief, a ziploc bag (useful for everything from a airsick bag, holding wet clothes, storing food, and a waterproof container if you get caught in the rain), an extra shirt (I once squirted ketchup on myself at lunch), hand sanitizer, instant stain removers, aspirin, candied vanilla ginger (a delicious candy and a powerful anti-nausea aid), a water bottle with built-in filter, a knife/corkscrew (only if you check your bags), sewing kit for popped buttons, glasses repair kit, chewing gum, and an LED mini-flashlight (twice have experienced power failures at workshops). If you have problems, your hotel concierge can save you. Do not forget to eat. Not a big meal, but eat a high protein meal. Crashing blood sugar can be lead to lightheadedness and upset stomach. Rule #1—check yourself in the washroom mirror immediately before your talk. Make sure you are appropriately fastened, zipped, tied, and buttoned. Make sure there is no spinach in your teeth, toilet paper on your shoes, or other appearance issues. Look professional and feel professional.

Preparing the talk is a major issue. I like PowerPoint, but do not rely on it. I use it as an outline. Make sure that you have 3 to 6 points on each slide—no more. Graphics, animations, and other tricks can be used, but sparingly. Often such presentation tricks are distracting. If you want the audience to look at you, then make the presentation screen go blank. Have your presentation on a flash drive in case your computer dies; in which case you can borrow someone’s computer and keep going. Make sure that you have a hardcopy of your slides in case the projector dies. My best talk ever was when the projector died. I just kept going from memory for 30 minutes until the tech people brought a new one. That is the level of preparedness you need. Sounding natural can take a lot of work. Rule #2—have your talk memorized. If you get nervous and go blank, then rely on your slides to help get you back on track.

There are hosts of presentation basics that everyone needs to know. Remember that people are terrible listeners. The trope: “say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said” is something that I take seriously. Repetition is okay and desirable. You are trying to move people’s knowledge from point A to point B. A critical issue is to know where point A is for the audience. What do they know? What are their experiences? If you do not know, then find out well in advance or simply ask them. You also need to know what they want to gain from the presentation. If it is not completely clear, then I start out workshops by asking what they want to know from the workshop. Even if you do not or cannot change anything in your presentation, they know that you are listening and responsive to the audience. Rule #3—know your audience’s current knowledge and desired outcomes.

How you speak is often more important than what you say. Presenting tables upon tables of data will put even the keenest audience member to sleep. Present data via figures, if possible. However, shadow pictures on the screen and interpretive dance also work. Only kidding a little bit as both methods are preferable to tables. Speak with energy and conviction. Even if you are quiet, little person with a soft voice—you can radiate power and confidence. No upspeak. This is the rising inflection used mostly by young woman. End all sentences on a down note. Watch how TV news anchors do it. An ending down note is authoritative. If you have nervous energy, then move. There is a tendency to grab hold of the dais for dear life. This makes you look more nervous and small. Walk out around the people—it shows power, energy, and eases your nerves. It helps you own the room, which is what all very good presenters do. Hand gestures also can be valuable. They animate your style of presenting. Know your verbal and physical tics. Everyone has these, but try to minimize the most distracting ones. I tend to play with the keys in my pocket—so I remove everything from my pockets beforehand. If you say, “um”, “uh”, “basically” (I hate when people say this), “well”, and other filler words, then you tend to lose credibility. This should go without saying, but never ever read a paper in front of people. Speaking loudly, clearly, with energy and confidence actually addresses a fear. Remember that this is a performance—no matter how technical the information that you are presenting might be. People may forget your data or your points, but they will remember that you presented it well. Rule #4–The only thing that can derail your talk is you being nervous.

Organize, practice, and time your presentation. You do not want to run out of time. This is a disaster. It is also unprofessional and rude. The first thing you do when developing the presentation is create the take home points. What do you want to make sure that the audience knows? You can only create a maximum of one take home point for every 20 minutes of presenting. Say your take home point, support your take home point, and then review the take home point. If you have long talks with multiple points, then be sure to sum up all take home points at the end of the talk. Rule #5—keep the primary points simple and few, but you can use complex data or arguments to support them.

There are distractions and rude people all of the time. People will get up and leave in the middle of your talk. Others are texting and updating Facebook. It would be kind of cool if audience members are live tweeting the talk, but not likely. Some people even have their phone ring during the conference and answer it! Audience members will sleep, sneeze, have conversations, and be rude. Rule #6—take charge, it is your room and your time. When people talk, I tell them to be quiet. When the phone rings, I tell them to take it outside. When someone sneezes, I say bless you. Turn distractions into opportunities.

There are many things that make good speakers; humor, presence, organization, energy, and so on. You will find your own style and turn yourself into the best possible speaker. Being natural (or appearing natural) is a large aspect to being a good speaker. As Joss Whedon said, “Always be yourself, unless you suck.” And if you suck, then listen to a lot of speakers and find parts of their style that you can copy and incorporate into your own style. Rule #7—it is okay to steal style from others until you get your own style.


The big thing. What happens when an impressive and well-known big shot in the field is sitting in the audience? Usually it is a great experience that has helped to build many academic careers. This happened to me, when I was doing a presentation that criticized the big shot’s theories. I was terrified, but he could not have been nicer and more supportive. But what if it goes south? What do you do when some big shot says something such as, “Your presentation sucks, you suck, and you are stupid.” It has never happened, but we all fear this. Telling them to eff-off or punching them in the nose are off limits, but I have a close friend [female] who told a heckler to eff-off and received an ovation from the audience—I admit, it was kind of awesome. But the better thing to do is take a deep breath, keep calm, and say, “I am having a hard time interpreting your comments as productive. Could you please reframe your comments so that I can interpret them in a manner that is conducive to appropriate academic discourse?” Then the person needs to rephrase the comment or question so you can respond well—and give you time to think; or they need to acknowledge that their comments were not productive and they are just being an a-hole. Other issues: many people ask questions that start with “how come you did not do…..” Usually, the meaning of the question is “why did you not do a different study?” The answer is nearly always, “That is an interesting point and potentially a valuable study. But that is not my study. My study answered different questions and used appropriate methodology to answer my question.” If you are feeling cheeky, then you can add, “But I look forward to reading your study that takes into account your ideas.” The third problem is when someone says something like, “Why didn’t you use the 1936 Haggelstein Phister correction in your analysis?” The correct answer is the true answer, “I don’t know.” And make no further comment. The questioner is usually trying to show how smart they are and there is no need to play into that game. If someone says something condescending or stupid, like, “Well, young lady, you clearly do not have much experience, but….” What you do is repeat exactly what they said very slowly. In this fashion, the arrogance and stupidity of the statement is clear for all to see. No need to be witty or cutting. Just allow the stupid to enter the ears of everyone. Then laugh at them and say that you do not need to comment on that.

Constant Evaluation and Improvement

No matter how good you are at presenting, there is always room for improvement. Videotape your presentations. It is painful for most of us to watch. Once you get over the way your voice sounds and how odd your shoes look, it is extremely valuable. Ask your friends to list one thing that you can improve in every talk that you make. Keep improving.


Oral presentations will provide both highlights and low lights of your academic career. Many of us are introverts, anxious, or actually quite shy; making presenting in front of people a major personal challenge. But once you address your fears you can be an outstanding presenter of your ideas and research.



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