Speaking in public can be nerve-wracking, or exciting for some! For me, it was a combination of both! I still remember getting an email that I was selected as an oral presenter for the American Public Health Association (APHA) 2016 Annual Meeting & Expo in Denver.
I was one of the presenters for the section “Epidemiological Research in School Settings”. One of the things which caught my eye instantly was that I was the first presenter in that section and that too, early morning. I knew then that I had to nail my presentation.
My topic was how specific dietary habits are related to better sleep duration among high school students. How ironic would that be if I was talking on sleep and my presentation was not interesting enough to keep my audience awake! I did far better than what I expected and here are a few things which helped me in doing so.
Start with humor: you might think this is a very formal presentation and as such, one has to adopt a boring and conventional way of starting the presentation. Instead, just casually start by pointing out something funny or interact with your audience by asking them one or two questions related to your topic! This is the ice-breaker you are looking for and it takes off a lot of the stress.
Practice: How many times have you heard that “Practice Makes Perfect”? It does hold true. Practice, practice and practice. For my presentation, I was allowed 15 minutes of speaking and 5 additional minutes of answering questions from the audience. I made sure I was sticking to that length of time and I timed myself a number of times while practicing. It made the flow of ideas in my mind more natural while also giving me that extra confidence that I knew my content very well. In addition, I practiced in front of 3 different groups of people: my professors, my colleagues, and my friends. This enables one to get insights from different perspectives and this is needed to face a diverse audience of individuals while also getting feedback on what could be improved in the presentation.
Advice: My advisor, Dr. Middlestadt, was instrumental in helping me out with my presentation. She not only provided me with constructive feedback but also gave me a number of useful suggestions. Actually, she was the one who told me to interact with my audience as early as I could and to be more engaging through putting more visuals and less words in my slides. Dr. Thiagarajah, who was my co-author on the paper related to my presentation, helped me considerably. Having her input throughout the whole preparation process was so worthwhile.
Prepare for the questions: Having a pool of probable questions from your audience makes it much easier to be clearer when you are answering them. Before my actual presentation, I brainstormed with my advisory group and friends over what questions could I be asked. I made a list of those and made sure my answers for these sounded coherent. However, unexpected questions are bound to arise and in such situations, come up with what you know. If you do not know the answer, the best solution is to acknowledge it. No one is perfect!
Visuals: Although it is good to be using visuals and less words, it is important to strike the right balance between these two strategies. Visuals should be viewed as a means to better represent your findings which would look more appealing to the people listening or watching you. My findings were represented in terms of bar charts, tables and figures rather than mere words. This enhanced in better understanding of what were the main results.
Focus on the main conclusion: Make the main conclusion of your presentation very obvious. People tend to get lost in many details and it is very easy to lose track of what is the take home message from the presentation. The best way to do it, from my experience, is to talk of the main conclusion right from the start of the presentation itself and then make it clear throughout the presentation how you reached to the main conclusion. Ending a presentation with answering the main research question is a sound way to do it too.
Presenting at a research conference requires paying attention to certain aspects, as mentioned in here. Above all, my last advice would be to wear on your best attire – your confidence! A confident speaker makes a huge difference. If you are aspiring to do an oral presentation, irrespective of the setting, I wish you the best of luck!
Trishnee is a second year PhD student in the Department of Applied Health Science, studying Health Behavior. She was born and raised in Mauritius – a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. She is currently having the best time pursuing her doctoral studies and working on her research goals in the wonderful B-town. Her hobbies include cooking, working out, knitting, gardening, reading romantic novels, and playing with her pets. Anything related to health highly interests her and she hopes to reach out to others on health-related issues that matter.