Simple Guidelines for Speaking at Conferences

a man setting up a microphone

Academics ought to be great at public speaking, or at the very least pretty comfortable with it, but it doesn’t often seem that way. While I’m sure everyone who reads this can think of some presenters they admire (hi, Bethany), it’s probably also easy to conjure up images of suboptimal lectures or conference presentations one’s seen over the years.

And we’ve certainly written about speaking tips quite a bit: Heather has suggested recording oneself speaking (for practice), and Natalie has affirmed she records her conference presentations (for research); Brian’s revealed his tech stack for talks; and the whole series on challenging the presentation paradigm is as much about public speaking as it is about sliding out from under PowerPoint’s oppressive thumb.

But as long as there are conferences, there will be posts about improving academic speaking. Robert Kosara (of UNC Charlotte & Tableau) has conveniently assembled a list of “Common Speaking Mistakes to Avoid,” based on his experiences at academic conferences. As Kosara explains, it can sometimes be easier to improve by noticing what others are doing wrong, rather than trying to capture a great presenter’s style right from the start.

Kosara has advice for getting started (don’t apologize! have a strong opening!), what volume to speak at (pretty loud! with a mic! vary your voice!), and how to wrap up (try having a conclusion!), all of which seems pretty sound. And he delivers the advice in a friendly, if direct-to-the-point-of-blunt style:

In addition to not speaking loudly enough, many people don’t modulate their voices. That doesn’t matter for very short talks, but anything longer than a few minutes gets really boring and tiring this way.

This is usually a sign of a speaker who’s nervous or unprepared. But this doesn’t help the audience at all. It just means that the monotonous sound of your voice is lulling the audience to sleep – or, more likely, becomes background noise to whatever they’re doing on their laptops.

I’m a soft-talker, even at conferences, so there are points in Kosara’s post that are useful to me. But what about you? What aspects of public speaking would you like to see academics improve? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Public Speaking” by Flickr user Intangible Arts / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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