Teaching Middle Ages

Public Speaking is not Public Reading

Though I have several opportunities to go to professional conferences every year, I don’t actually often attend them. One reason is that I have to pay for them. When you factor in travel, hotels, expenses, etc., it gets quite expensive. Another reason is that I sometimes wonder whether they are really worth the time and cost.

One reason that makes me wonder whether conferences are worth the cost is the widely varying quality of papers and presentations. It really is a lottery. I have attended very good presentations by totally unknown people and terrible presentations by the big wigs, and vice versa and anything in between. The rationale for the quality or lack thereof varies. What seems to be a recurring factor is the confusion between public speaking and public reading. Some people obviously don’t know the difference between the two. Their intention is really not to speak in public but to read aloud a text they hope to publish or is to be published. Oftentimes, it seems to matter little whether there actually is a public. I have attended papers where the speaker barely acknowledged the presence of the audience before plunging into his or her text.

Another reason for the poor quality of papers is simply the lack of preparation of some presentations. This is linked to the previous point. Since the assumption is that public speaking is reading a paper aloud, why should there be a separate stage for the oral presentation? Some speakers actually will tell you that, well, really, they just finished putting their paper together on the airplane or on a Starbucks napkin before coming and they hope you will bear with them. Well, a few attendees may chuckle, I don’t. Unless there are really good reasons for the lack of preparation (sickness, epiphany of a new topic at the checkout line at the food court, etc.) it simply betrays a lack of professionalism and respect (whether conscious or not) for the public or a total lack of awareness of the technicalities of public speaking. After all, I am paying for attending the conference (literally and figuratively).

Some Basics about Public Speaking

So here are some basic advice about public speaking that I wish public speakers would remember. Nothing earth shattering, but they are often ignored

  • Don’t accept or volunteer a paper or a conference you won’t have time to prepare well. I know, you’d think it would be so obvious… but then, I know, some have to speak in public for professional reasons even if they’d rather not do it.
  • Write out your text. This has been such a basic principle of public speaking for centuries that it is simply amazing that so many speakers do not abide by it and think they can get away with it. Most of the time, they don’t. It does make a difference in a many respects, from preparation to delivery!
  • Write for public speaking, not public reading. Fancy footnotes, zillions of technical names, geographical locations that are on the slide you did not make, twenty-five letters German and Latin names, etc. should not be part of a paper to be orally delivered. Even the style and the grammar should be tailored for public speaking. Write short sentences. Try replacing “and” by periods and starting new sentences (a trick from Atkinson, p. 85). Repeat yourself by using different words. It is ok to do so in public speaking.
  • Practice your paper aloud. Yes, that does not just apply for preaching. This again is a textbook principle with centuries of backing up. I practice technical papers and conferences numerous times before delivering, just like the textbooks say you should. Any public speaking must be practiced several times, no matter how long and how technical. If you cannot deliver your conference without being stuck to your paper, you are not ready. Period.
  • Assume ignorance. Assume most people in your audience have not spent the last six months on the earth-shattering half-word found in some hitherto understudied manuscript in a forgotten language or on the very technical and pointed issued you are dealing with (assuming you have prepared your topic).
  • Time your delivery. Writing out a text and practicing it gives you a chance to evaluate its length. The trick is always to use the same page and font size for your public speaking. After a couple of times, you will know how long your delivery will take by the number of pages you have. In the format I use, a twenty-five-minute presentation takes about seven pages. You know there is a problem when twenty minutes into a thirty-minute speech the speaker Oh my gosh realizes he or she is not even half there and voices it but please bear with me. Either the person has a problem practicing or simply, more likely, did not do it.
  • Interact with your audience. That does not mean start with a five-minute joke (the oh so fashionable trick of contemporary public speaking that we hope will go away fast). It means acknowledging their presence, getting cues from them, asking questions here and there, looking at their reactions, etc. This, of course, will be influenced by the size of the audience.

A Book Recommendation

Though I have spoken in public for a long time, I still try to read about and improve my public speaking. The last book I read is the one by Atkinson mentioned in this post. I found it to be a good all-around one-time stop. Even though some parts are basic, they are good reminders. Here is the reference: Max Atkinson, Lend me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, Oxford University Press, 2005.

“When asked about the single biggest problem I have come across since starting to study speeches and presentations, I always give the same answer. Without any doubt at all, it is that far too many speakers spend far too much time trying to get far more detailed information across that it’s possible to convey within the limitations of the spoken word. All too often, audiences are subjected to massive and painful information overload that serves little or no useful purpose. Effectiveness depends on being willing to simplify your subject beyond the point at which you feel comfortable.” (Atkinson, 95–96)