Never bore an audience again!

My science career...rebooted! Heather Fireman JacksonMy science career...rebooted! Heather Fireman Jackson

I’m a Toastmaster. I sing the praises of this organization to everyone I know and encourage them to join. But it’s not out of altruism.

Sure, there are many benefits to joining Toastmasters – increased skills, an attitude adjustment, it’s fun! Each club also benefits from having new blood – new perspectives, more people to fill the agenda. But these benefits are purely incidental.

No, my motives are selfish. When other people tool up their communication skills, it benefits me.

Allow me to explain. For every person out there who practices, learns new skills, and (perhaps most importantly) seeks feedback in an honest effort to improve…well, that’s one fewer person lurking out there waiting to BORE me to death by speeches, presentations, and meetings.

Conferences are a great example. In research and development, we attend conferences. We give presentations. We also have the opportunity to listen to lots of other speakers.

At a large conference, I may have a choice of 10, 20, maybe even 50 different presentations all going on at the same time in different rooms. From these, I have to choose one, usually based on a brief written summary of the talk. Multiply that by about 10 time slots per day, 3-4 days per conference, and that’s a lot of decisions to make based on limited information.

At a small conference, there may be only one room with one speaker per time slot. But I still have the choice of whether to listen to that speaker or to wander out of the room to get some air.

At a recent large conference I attended, I became very interested in what it was about some presentations that knocked my socks off and other presentations that pissed me off.

I started looking for patterns underlying successful presentations. I found some of the presentations highly engaging, while I was bored and frustrated by others. I asked myself why? What do these effective presentations have in common? What makes them so engaging? Likewise, where did the ineffective presentations go wrong? How did the speaker lose me?

There are many components to a presentation, and many points where it can be derailed – the organization of the content, the design of the slides, the amount of content relative to the allotted time, the clarity of purpose, and of course, the speaking style of the presenter. Luckily, this means that there are many opportunities to improve.

What’s the point? Why improve our communication skills?

The first reason is that it’s only polite to respect our audience.

In a conference setting, a poor presentation, at best, is disappointing. At worst, I actually get mad. Not only have you, the speaker, failed to meet your objective of informing me or persuading me, thereby advancing your agenda or promoting your research (which is more of a missed opportunity for you, not me).

You’ve also prevented me from seeing any of the other talks which might have been better. Hell, you’ve prevented me from doing just about anything else that might have been a more productive use of my time, like snagging a free tote bag from a vendor at the exhibition or playing Minesweeper. And that is just not cool.

We in the audience don’t ask for much. All we ask is for speakers to put in the time, effort, and empathy toward your audience to ensure that you transmit some useful information. In return for your effort, you earn our attention.

Second, a failure to communicate effectively means that all your great ideas have no chance of making an impact on anyone else.

What good is a new technology or scientific discovery if it’s unclear what it is, why it’s important, or why anyone should care? The burden is on the scientist or innovator to effectively promote their work and match their capabilities with needs in the marketplace.

In the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of technology and innovation, effective technical communication is crucial. We need to:

  • Share our discoveries with innovators in neighboring disciplines where collaboration could really add value.
  • Justify to the people who pay the bills that their money is being well-spent.
  • Get non-scientists on board. Communicate to the media, government, and public the benefits that science and technology brings to their own lives and the world in general.

Third, the most effective communicators get the best results – at work, in relationships, and in life.

Sorry to be the one to burst your bubble. As personal finance blogger Ramit Sethi put it, there’s a game being played around us that many of us are oblivious to. How many of us come out of school believing that hard work is all we need to get ahead? That if we work hard enough and produce great enough results, our value will be apparent to all around us and good things will come our way? We believe, “My work speaks for itself,” when really, our work needs a nudge from us.

Humans are social animals. We are hard-wired to be drawn to other people and to seek connection. Yet no one teaches us that a key pillar of success is building relationships and communicating our value to other people. It should not come as news that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

How I improved my communication skills

When I was a PhD student, public speaking became an important part of my job. Midway through my program, I had given a few technical talks, but I thought of myself as a pretty lackluster speaker – all nervous energy and monotone delivery.

Just a few years later, I’m an award-winning presenter and regarded as an engaging, enthusiastic speaker by my colleagues.

What happened?

Well, first, I finally had some success with my research project. When I had material to present that I was proud of and excited to share, it came across in my presentation. This was a revelation.

Second, I simply got a lot of practice over the next few years. I got desensitized to speaking in front of an audience, whether it was a prepared speech or responding off-the-cuff to questions from the audience. I tested different ways of organizing and delivering my message, and I kept track of what worked and what didn’t. Every question I was asked was noted, and I made sure that my presentation answered those questions the next time.

Third, I joined Toastmasters. In the training program for new members, I worked toward my Competent Communicator award by delivering 10 speeches, each of which focused on developing a different skill, such as body language and persuasion. With every speech I’ve made progress, as I get more comfortable speaking and I learn by watching others speak.

One of the most important changes I’ve seen in myself is that I’m more open to receiving critical feedback and hearing that I need improvement. Each speech in Toastmasters is evaluated by other members. Most of us never ask for critical evaluation in any area, never mind our effectiveness as a speaker. I certainly didn’t for a long time. I still find it a bit awkward to do a dry run for a fake audience.

I used to think that I had a thin skin and took criticism too personally. In Toastmasters, I smashed my assumption that seeking feedback is about subjecting myself to scrutiny and judgment. Instead, everyone is here to help me improve. What’s more, I can be a part of helping everyone else improve.

Who among us has absolutely no room for improvement? Most of us do things that distract from our message, whether it’s constantly saying “um,” fidgeting with our hands, or telling stories that are disorganized. Unless the issue is brought to our attention, we can’t do anything about it.

What would you prefer? To stagnate because you’d rather believe you’re perfect just the way you are?

Or would you rather learn how to more effectively get your message across by seeking the feedback you need and acting on it?

So, back to the question I asked earlier about all those components of a presentation and how they can either derail us or become opportunities for improvement. The outcome depends on our attitude.

Based on my experiences at conferences, Toastmasters, and several wonderful training courses and resources I’ve found, a number of observations and patterns have emerged.

I look forward to sharing these with you in a category of posts I’ll call Never bore an audience again!

If you have a query or dilemma in public speaking, Powerpoint, or technical communication in general, share it in the comments, and I’ll address it in future posts.


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