In Simon’s post about first impressions, he references the need to “own the space” when disseminating information to others — especially people one has never interacted with before.
It would be nice if every doctoral program required students to take an acting class so they learn to walk around, gesture with the hands, vary voice tone, etc. That’s what I mean by “work a room.” At my first “real” conference, where I presented post-PhD as a full-time visiting assistant professor, I saw one person deliver her talk while not moving anything below the waist. Another presenter, in contrast, was excellent — she strode across the entire room, connecting with her audience. I asked her afterward if she was a lawyer with courtroom experience, and she said yes.
This is making me remember my classroom experiences as an undergraduate, some of which now make me cringe. Looking back, most of my professors who were terrible at working a room were in the humanities/social sciences rather than in the hard sciences and engineering.
In contrast, at an event on Egypt, I’ve seen people who are frequently assumed to have great hard skills but terrible soft skills — executives from companies like Google and Microsoft — give the most amazing presentations I’ve ever witnessed. Their ability to communicate to an audience of strangers was far superior to what I’ve seen among the vast majority of academics I’ve encountered over the years. It was a real shock to me — I had thought my ability to communicate was fairly good compared to my peers — I don’t deliver presentations by reading a paper word for word in a monotone — but now I know I have a lot of work to do.
While it is obvious that different subjects and teaching environments can require different strategies of engagement, but there are few techniques that that I’ve learned through trial and error over the years that help me make my presentations more engaging than they otherwise might be:
- When talking to an audience in person, speak more slowly than one typically does in informal conversation.
- If speaking on video, talk faster than normal.
- In both formats, make sure your hands are visible and move them around.
- As I’ve mentioned previously, comedians are experts at communication and we can learn much from them.
- Knowing how to organize a presentation in ways that take advantage of innate cognitive processes is also helpful.
While being an effective presenter helps us out professionally by making us and our work more interesting to colleagues, it also enables students to learn more while in our classrooms.