As academics, we constantly give presentations—in classrooms, at conferences, and at job talks. In other words, we constantly perform. Yet, academia tends to treat knowledge production as a disembodied act. As long as the arguments on the page are sound, the thinking goes, that should be enough. But it isn’t. How many presentations have you seen falter because the presenter failed to consider the embodied delivery of their ideas?
If you want to ensure that your arguments realize their full impact in public, then not only should they be sound but they should also sing. Not all of us are natural or trained performers, but all of us can improve our ability to perform. Below are some techniques to help you connect your ideas to your audiences.
Before you arrive “onstage,” make sure you’re going to be comfortable. For example, if wearing a tie is going to constrict your neck, your audience will notice. Instead of focusing on your brilliant ideas, they’ll be distracted by each hand tug and tense note in your voice. So choose clothing for both its style and comfort.
Also, make sure you’re fed, hydrated, and rested. Do some slow, deep breathing if you’re nervous. Look into the mirror and strike your best Beyoncé pose. Anything to ensure that your body and spirit are at their peak by the time you hit the spotlight.
Read your audience
If you’re giving a conference paper or a keynote address, do a quick scan of your audience. Do they look tired or excited? It might be difficult to ascertain the status of individual audience members, but their bodies will communicate their emotional states, and thus, their capacity to receive your ideas. Modulate your performance accordingly.
Use a hook
If you’re naturally funny, add a relevant humorous anecdote as a way into your presentation. If humor isn’t your thing, thank your audience for attending. Either way, put your audience at ease and guide them into your presentation. This will help you stand out from the rest of the presenters/candidates who dive right into their argument.
Make eye contact
This seems obvious, but it’s astounding how many academics give a presentation as if there’s no one in the room. Staring at your paper will make it harder for your audience to engage with your ideas. So remember to periodically look up from your paper and into the eyes of your audience. Do so by scanning—left to right, right to left, front and back.
Mentally divide the room into four quadrants if that helps, and make sure to look at a different set of eyeballs each time you pass through a quadrant. Think of eye contact as the “glue” that ensures your ideas stick to each person and the entire room.
Slow down, speak confidently, and speak loudly
Making eye contact with your audience will force you to slow down—which is a good thing. Nervous energy tends to translate into a rushed, slurred, and chesty vocal delivery. Slowing down will help calm you.
It will also allow you to harness the physiological launch pad of our voices—the diaphragm. Many people are “chest breathers,” which means they shrug their shoulders and neck muscles to inhale. That leads to shallow breaths and a shallow voice. Breathing and speaking from your diaphragm—a sheet of muscle that connects your stomach (power) to your lungs (breath)—this opens up more air, and adds more depth to your voice.
This is especially important in a large, crowded room, or one with people sitting in the back. You want to be able to “tag” each person with your voice, and that can only be done by using your diaphragm. Click here for some helpful tips on harnessing your diaphragm.
Use “dramatic” pauses
Audiences can only absorb so much information, especially at a long conference with many presentations. So insert dramatic pauses immediately before your key argument, concepts, and takeaways (this is where speaking from your diaphragm is especially important). Doing so will alert your audience that something really important is about to be said.
When you state your really important thing, make sure you say it slowly, clearly, and loudly. This is especially important in a room full of tired-looking people. Like eye contact and a resounding voice, a dramatic pause will ensure that your idea sticks.
Always, always rehearse
Doing so will ensure that you give a “rockstar” performance—which is exactly what Ideas on Fire wants for you.