“Communication is the most important skill scientists and engineers are never taught,” said Tim Miller during his presentation, “Mastering Public Presentations.” As the number of platforms for communication continues to increase in the digital age, this holds true now more than ever. As a result, scientists must learn to distribute their ideas to a wide audience and in a way that the public can understand.
Ideas are often spread through the spoken word. Therefore, public speaking is a critical skill to acquire. In public speaking, breathing is vital. Taking deep breaths helps as it increases the volume of the presenter’s voice without straining his or her vocal chords. Deep breaths can also decrease the anxiety that many may feel about speaking in front of large audiences.
The next piece of public speaking is emphasis. By emphasizing certain words more than others, a presenter adds an emotional aspect to his speech. The emotional aspect “adds meaning that isn’t there when the words are read,” said Miller. When paired with inflection, the emphasis provides a deeper level of meaning to what might otherwise be a boring presentation. However, it is important to note that while this aspect can improve a presentation, no amount of emphasis or inflection can mask a lack of substance.
A way of making that substance more intriguing is to form it in into a sort of story. By starting with a “hero,” which could be anything from a person to a product, and explaining what the hero wants to achieve, a presenter can engage the audience and keep them interested throughout the presentation.
When it comes to visual aids and slideshows, “The tools one uses to make the ‘thing’ have an impact on what is made,” said Miller. Many tools in Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote work well for business-type presentations, but not for simply showing data. Although the graphs made in these programs look nice, they obscure data. Graphs should be easy to read from a distance, and this includes labeling each line on the graph itself rather than including a legend nearby. Generally, graphs should be vector graphics so they can be scaled without affecting their quality. One may use Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape to create these graphs.
Although not necessarily as important as the graphs, the slide backgrounds also influence the overall appeal of a presentation. Black words on a white background tire eyes and divert attention toward the background and away from the words. Presenters should also avoid using laser pointers to emphasize certain aspects of their slides. Instead, they should animate arrows into the presentation or use a long stick. Both of these methods keep the presenter facing the audience while showing important points.
One of the largest parts of a successful presentation is practice. This practice should be oral and preferably in a room with a projector to mimic the real presentation. One may practice in front of people who have little or no knowledge of the subject and, if they understand it well, the presentation will be that much better in front of the real audience. Although daunting to many, public speaking is simply a matter of practice. With enough, anyone can learn to become a great presenter in this communications-rich world. Miller’s last remarks echo this sentiment: “How well we speak affects the world we share. Speak wisely and speak well.”
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