I recently attended an excellent conference full of interesting papers with fascinating informal chats with colleagues that provided a lot of food for thought for my own work. However, one thing became blatantly obvious during the course of the day: some of the speakers had no idea how to actually ‘speak’!
You would imagine someone who lectures and leads seminars for a living would have no qualms about presenting a conference paper to a select gathering of interested colleagues but it is surprising how many academics do struggle with their public speaking techniques. And this has an impact not only at the conference or in the classroom, but also in the job market too, because being able to project yourself well orally is the key to interview success.
So, what are the pitfalls of conference papers (and interview presentations)? Going over the length of time you have been assigned shows disorganisation and arrogance. It shouldn’t be done, full stop! Yes, this may mean the tedious process of reading through your speech while timing yourself, and then pruning it accordingly, but believe me, you’d rather spend time doing that now than when you’re on the podium in front of a sea of faces.
The other main issues, and they are connected, are speed and volume of your speech. It is possible to speak too slowly, but far more people speak too quickly, either through nerves or having too much material (see the paragraph above!). Listeners simply cannot follow your train of thought if you rush through your paper.
The most difficult aspect for listeners is when someone speaks too quietly and is unable to project their voice. It is worth developing the skill of speaking to fill the size of a room without a microphone as you never know when the technology will fail. This all sounds blatantly obvious, but many seasoned academics get this wrong, so if you can excel at this, you are half way to delivering a successful presentation.