On Public Speaking Across Disciplines

We had a faculty meeting yesterday, at which one colleague suggested that in addition to our “Writing Across the Curriculum” requirement, we should have a “Speaking Across the Curriculum” requirement to teach students oral presentation skills. This provoked a bit of tittering about the possible acronym, but it’s not an obviously awful idea. The basic problem is the same as with the WAC requirement: there isn’t actually all that much that really crosses the curriculum. Presentation standards and styles are dramatically different between disciplines, whether you’re talking about oral or written presentation.

The biggest differences are pretty obvious: on the arts and literature side of campus, professional academics have traditionally presented by reading pre-written papers. Scientists, on the other hand, do a very odd quasi-improvised thing using visual aids. Back when I started grad school, there used to be a very clear division between scientific fields regarding what sort of visual aids you used– physicists used overhead transparencies, biologists used 35mm slides– but these days it’s almost all PowerPoint or the functional equivalent thereof (Keynote, Prezi, PDF, etc.). There’s a little bit of a shift going on with these– I see more colleagues on the arts and letters side of things constructing their talks in a way that makes use of projected images, though not always very gracefully– but it’s still a pretty strict division.

And that style division makes a huge difference in how you prepare for and deliver a talk. If you’re presenting a pre-written paper, you will speak in a very different manner, because written langauge is very different than spoken language, as pointed out by John McWhorter:

Written papers almost always have a more complicated and formal style, and you can tell when somebody is reading from a text that originates as a written document. Academics aren’t the only ones who do this– politicians are also famous for reading pre-written text verbatim, and even the best practitioners of the form sound very different when giving a formal address than when genuinely speaking off-the-cuff. Bill Clinton is about as good as it gets, and ad-libs a lot of his speeches around a pre-written text. That mostly comes from having the ability to speak off-the-cuff in a fairly formal style, though, with a little bit of folksy colloquialism thrown into written material.

This is on my mind, of course, because I’m giving a six-minute talk next Tuesday for TED@NYC, and preparing for that is turning out to be a different sort of experience than I’ve had in a while. For one thing, the last time I gave a formal talk shorter than half an hour was, I think, 1998. My last year in grad school, the only conference talks I did were invited presentations and my thesis defense, and since then it’s either been posters or invited talks at the 30-minutes-plus-questions length, or hour-long seminars. Six minutes is not a lot of time, and requires a greater degree of rehearsal than I’ve had to do in about fifteen years.

The other thing that brought this to mind in the wake of yesterday’s suggestion was that the TED folks did a speaker prep thing on Monday via the web, and some of the advice they had ran directly counter to advice I’ve gotten elsewhere. They specifically advise against “Presenter Mode” for talk slides, for example, and will not display notes on a monitor, which is one of the key elements of the Becoming the Messenger workshps Chris Mooney and company do for scientists. (Link to a news story about a past workshop, because all the NSF pages about the program have been shut down…) They say it tends to lead to too much reading off the monitors and breaking of eye contact with the audience.

Another suggestion I found surprising is evident in the McWhorter clip above: they suggested that t’s better to stand still than to move around. And McWhorter has obviously taken that to heart, because he doesn’t shift at all from the waist down. I find it kind of creepy, actually, but then I’m trained in a speaking culture that views motion as dynamic– I’ve heard lots of young scientists advised to move around more.

(To some degree, this might be making a virtue of necessity, as the TED@NYC stage set appears to provide a clear space about the size of my bathroom… you can’t do a whole lot of moving around there.)

The last thing that struck me as odd was regarding the time limit– they strongly recommended shooting for a talk that’s shorter than the limit in run-throughs, saying that when people err on the timing, they almost always go long. That’s exactly the opposite of what I learned in grad school, and tell students prepping short talks– when I was a young student preparing ten-minute talks, if the run-through came in at twelve minutes, we figured that was fine, because being nervous would make you speed up at the actual event. This is a risky rule of thumb, in some ways– it fails badly when you become experienced enough to stop getting nervous about speaking– but it’s also been pretty effective.

Then again, this might be an effect that flips sign when the time limit drops below some threshold. When I just read the prepared text for my talk, it comes in 10-15 seconds under the limit, but when I do it from memory, it tends to come in a hair over, because the timing is so tight. When I flub a line, it adds time, and there’s little or no room for dropping material on the fly.

Anyway, I’ve been devoting a block of time every afternoon to running through my talk in front of a webcam in my home office, which is profoundly weird, and not just because I can see on the video how much I fidget when trying to speak in a confined area. I hadn’t appreciated just how much I really need an audience to feed off. I’ve tried to deliver the talk to the dog, but she gets sick of it after a few passes, and wanders off to look out the window. Maybe if I held a piece of bacon while speaking, but that might give me an inflated sense of my own charisma…

(The real trick here is going to be rehearsing enough to smooth out the rough edges and fix the text in my mind without overdoing it to the point where I’m sick of the topic…)

So, there are huge differences between the kinds of things you do when speaking to different types of audiences, in the same way that there are huge differences between the way you write for arts-and-letters academic journals and the way you write for science journals. To the point where a lot of the detailed training you might give students in one sort of class might be counterproductive in a different sort of class.

Of course, there are common elements to everything: look directly at the audience, not at your text; try to smile or at least look enthusiastic; don’t speak in a monotone; practice, practice, practice. But those are kind of the equivalent of “A sentence needs to have a subject, object, and verb” or “A paragraph is a short collection of sentences dealing with a single main idea” in written work– that is, items so basic that it’s hard to imagine college faculty agreeing to spend time formally teaching them. Which, of course, is where our “Writing Across the Curriculum” program tends to fall down, but that’s a rant for another time. I have to practice talking into a webcam.

3 Replies to “On Public Speaking Across Disciplines”

  1. (The real trick here is going to be rehearsing enough to smooth out the rough edges and fix the text in my mind without overdoing it to the point where I’m sick of the topic…)

    It’s been my experience, both as a speaker and as a musician, that you don’t know your material well enough to present until you are sick of it.

    Once you do know it that well, it gives you two things: the ability (because you know it so well) and the motivation (because you’re sick of it) to improvise competently (i.e. so that you don’t screw yourself up). Practising (and presenting) can stop being a chore and become playful.

    Your mileage may vary, of course.

  2. Way back when in the 1970s in the Geological Sciences area at Caltech there was an oral presentation course required, but no distinct writing course (for the PhD). I do think it helped all be it I ended up in industry,and presentations are different there. (Many are basically today read the slides). One of the issuse is the mode to interrupt the presentation with questions or hold them to the end. At Caltech it was interrupt if you have a question.
    I just checked and the oral presentation class is still required.

  3. I don’t exactly have any speaking awards or recognized accomplishments, but I feel I have always done well… or better than well… simply by a) knowing what I am talking about, intimately and exactly, and b) breaking down my speech into ideas, including which ideas get thrown to the curb if I am at risk of going over time. Anyone who reads your blog knows that you have zero issue with a). I suppose there is also a c) I failed to mention, perhaps taking it for granted, but natural charm and personality go a long way.

    Just speak how you write. Knock ’em dead.

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