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Don’t Do That! Five Things to Avoid When Planning Your First Conference Speech
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by David B. Feldman, PhD - Santa Clara University (CA), Paul J. Silvia, PhD - University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Categories: Personal/Academic Growth
One of life’s special pleasures is sitting in the back of the classroom, posting
comments on Facebook and watching videos of ninja kittens. As professors, we are
technically obligated to chide students for this behavior, though we confess that
we like it, too.
But even students must sometimes stand in front, with a crowd of faces staring blankly
at them—or down at their laptops— as the case may be. Perhaps you are one of those
valiant psychology majors who has gotten involved in research and will have an opportunity
to present your work at a conference.
Unfortunately, such presentations involve more than posting a clever synopsis on
Twitter:“no main effects but big-time interaction, p < .01, yay!” They involve public
speaking, which can be technically defined as the art of standing in front of strangers
while trying despirately not to embarrass oneself (Feldman & Silvia, 2010). Even
though “speaking” and being in “public” aren’t scary by themselves, when these two
words come together people often fear disaster.
Giving your first talk is hard, and that’s okay; such is the nature of being a beginner.
But even beginners need not embarrass themselves. Take heed of the following most
common mistakes, then take heart. With the right preparation, you can ensure that
your first talk will be at least above average.
Mistake 1: Avoiding Rehearsing
Public speaking can make students nervous. Sometimes, really nervous. Although students
often fear that their anxiety will get the best of them, we have yet to see a student
vomit or pass out. Most of the time, anxiety serves a more positive purpose by motivating
people to take action. These actions are usually the right ones, including spending
time preparing the talk, developing PowerPoint slides, getting feedback, and rehearsing
until roommates shout, “Enough, already!”
But feeling nervous can trigger avoidance, too. Often, this is what derails talks.
Many people avoid rehearsing. They may think, “I’m better off not rehearsing so
my talk will be more spontaneous and interesting.” When you’re nervous, this reasoning
may be a tempting way to reduce your anxiety in the short term. But our bet is that
you know, deep down, that this thought is delusional and ultimately won’t help you
to give a good talk.
Confronting feared things makes people anxious. Even as seasoned presenters, we
dislike developing slides for a new talk and stumbling through the first few awkward
rehearsals. However, we’re thankful that we can stumble alone instead of in front
of an audience of strangers and friends.
Mistake 2: Using Your Notes as a Crutch
Some students cope with anxiety by developing notes that are way too extensive.
We’ve seen students give a 12-minute talk holding a sheaf of papers that would clog
an industrial shredder. Even more commonly, people develop PowerPoint slides so
detailed that they resemble architectural blueprints. As a result, the talk itself
does not go well. The presenter just reads from the slides, and the audience slowly
drifts off to sleep (or finds another video of ninja kittens). The basic connection
between speaker and audience has been broken. Moreover, research suggests that people
learn less when speakers simply read from their slides (Kalyuga, Chandler, & Sweller,
2004; Leahy, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003).
Experienced presenters can unleash a talk with nothing but their brains, but beginning
presenters shouldn’t feel bad about using their slides or a set of brief notes to
prompt them. A common mistake, however, is that these become a crutch or, for some
students, a full-body prosthetic exoskeleton. You should think of notes—be they
a sheet of paper, note cards, or cues within your slides—as prompts for memory,
not as things to read aloud. If a random stranger could give your talk based on
your notes or slides, you have listed too many details.
Instead, choose one of two strategies. If you use your PowerPoint presentation for
cues, make sure each slide contains no more than four or five quick bullet points
rather than complete paragraphs. This will reduce the temptation to simply read
from the screen.
Alternatively, if you feel you need separate notes, create only a brief outline
of your talk. Don’t use complete sentences or long statements; simply write a few
words to cue you. You’ll be able to glance at your notes quickly, remind yourself
of what comes next, and get back to connecting with your audience.
Mistake 3: Embracing the Chaos of Time
You have rehearsed, and you are ready, but you might be too ready. Students often
stuff too much information into their talks, usually for fear of leaving something
out or to preempt questions. But presentations have time limits, which are typically
firm. Talking too long is the cardinal sin of public speaking. First, you may suffer
the moderator cutting you off. And second, you’ll ratchet up the anxiety of the
other presenters, who will find themselves with less time to present than they expected.
There’s an easy solution to this all-toocommon problem: time yourself when you practice
your talk, and don’t consider yourself ready until you have the timing down cold.
Seasoned presenters use an 80% rule (Berkun, 2009; Reynolds, 2008). If your talk
is slated for 15 minutes—the typical slot in regional conferences—then aim for 12
minutes; if your talk is 20 minutes, aim for 16. The remainder is time for questions
or a handy buffer in case you or someone before you takes too long.
What if your talk is too short? We rarely see this at conferences, but we see it
a lot in our classes. The answer is simple. Add stuff. If your talk doesn’t fill
12 minutes, you’re missing too many details about your method, results, and the
conceptual background of your work. Your research advisor will have suggestions
for things to add.
Mistake 4: Ignoring Looming Technology Doom
Although the biggest worry of novice pre-senters is that the audience will dislike
their talk or ask impossible questions, the biggest worry of experienced presenters
is that the equipment will fail. Will the crusty LCD projector belch fire? Will
I have to present using an laser pointer the size of a baguette? The cruelest fact
of giving a talk is that you rarely give your talk on the same computer you used
to make your slides. Fancy elements like embedded audio and video, huge images,
and flashy backgrounds work well on your own machine but usually fail in dazzling,
flamboyant ways on someone else’s computer. That sweet font you downloaded from
the Internet could be your undoing.
Before your talk, develop your slides to run well on any PC: make them in PowerPoint
(not OpenOffice Impress or Corel Presentations), use boring sans-serif fonts that
all machines have (e.g., Arial, Helvetica, and Verdana), and avoid embedded audio
and video. On the day of your talk, bring your slides in three forms: (1) attached
to a message in your e-mail account, (2) on a friend’s USB drive, and (3) on your
own USB drive, which you should keep on your key chain or duct tape to your stomach.
Before the talk, show up early to load your slides on the machine and to make sure
they look right. If they don’t, you’ll have at least a few minutes to change them.
Mistake 5: Forgetting to Prepare for Questions
The end of a talk is always a relief. Once again, humans prevail in the ceaseless
struggle of mankind vs. LCD projectors. But your task as a presenter isn’t finished—
nearly all audiences have a few questions. A common mistake is to forget to prepare
for this part of the presentation. Most students prepare extensively for the talk
itself, but when it comes to the Q&A period, they throw themselves on the mercy
of a fickle and capricious universe.
Don’t let the Q&A period freak you out. Students often fear facing hostile questions,
but this rarely happens. There are two important reasons you won’t get a questioner
who stands up and shouts, “I denounce this!”
First, the audience is on your side. Most attendees have given talks before, and
they know how hard it is. They’re probably glad they’re not in your shoes. Second,
rude questions are grave violations of the polite social norms of psychology conferences.
Instead, you’ll get normal, well-meant questions. With experience, you’ll even be
able to predict these questions in advance.
You can expect a couple basic kinds of questions. The first and biggest class of
questions concerns details about the methodology of your study. Many people will
ask for more information about what you did in your research; many others will ask
if you think your study would work if it were done differently (e.g., with different
measures, tasks, or samples). These questions are generally easy to handle—you did
the study, after all, so you know its details well. The audience doesn’t really
know your study, so they probably won’t even notice if your answers are technically
incorrect. To prepare, just review the nuts and bolts of your research project—the
sample, procedures, methods, and analyses—the day before giving your talk.
The second class of questions concerns the implications of your research. People
commonly ask what your work means for the major theories in your area of study or
how your work could be applied to social and clinical problems. To prepare, interrogate
your advisor. Ask, “What are the major applications of this work? What are the major
competing theories? What’s the most controversial idea in this talk?” Your advisor’s
answers (or evasive hemming and hawing) will give you direction to begin crafting
The Big Picture
Although speaking at a conference may seem intimidating at first, with basic preparation,
even first-time presenters can give a talk they’ll be proud of. Every psychologist,
including those in your audience, has had a first speaking experience. They know
you’re a student and want you to succeed. In fact, they’re probably sitting there
remembering their own fledgling days.
Or maybe they’re watching ninja kittens.
Berkun, S. (2009). Confessions of a public speaker. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.
Feldman, D. B., & Silvia, P. J. (2010). Public speaking for psychologists: A lighthearted
guide to research presentations, job talks, and other opportunities to embarrass
yourself. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2004). When redundant onscreen text in
multimedia technical instruction can interfere with learning. Human Factors,
Leahy, W., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). When auditory presentation should
and should not be a component of multimedia instruction. Applied Cognitive Psychology,
Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery.
Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
David B. Feldman, PhD, is an assistant professor of counseling
psychology at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, and coauthor of the book,
Public Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentations,
Job Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself. His research
and scholarly writings address such topics as hope, meaning, and growth in the face
of physical illness, trauma, and other highly stressful circumstances.
Paul J. Silvia, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at
the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has published several books on
professional skills, including Public Speaking for Psychologists, What Psychology
Majors Could (and Should) Be Doing: An Informal Guide to Research Experience
and Professional Skills, and How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive
Academic Writing. He is actively involved in teaching public speaking and
mentoring undergraduates in research.
Author Note. David B. Feldman and Paul J. Silvia are the authors of Public
Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentations, Job
Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself (APA Books, 2010).
David B. Feldman, Department of Counseling Psychology, Santa Clara University; Paul
J. Silvia, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David B. Feldman,
Department of Counseling Psychology, Loyola Hall, Santa Clara University, 500 El
Camino Real, Santa Clara, California 95053. E-mail:
Summer 2011 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 15, No. 4, p. 23), published
by Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright,
2011, Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.