Monday, March 19, 2012

The Art of Presenting

As part of my physics courses, my students are usually required to perform a powerpoint presentation about a course-related topic that they find interesting.  As harmless as it sounds, the very idea of speaking in public induces fear in many of my students.  While I do sympathize with them, these presentations remain a part of my courses because (1) oral communication is an important skill, and (2) I feel that if you cannot communicate what you have learned, you have not learned it.

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that the number one fear of most people is public speaking, while number two is death.  He went on to muse that, at a funeral, the majority of people would rather be inside the casket than giving the eulogy. 

What is it about giving a presentation that is so scary?

I suppose that a speech is like a performance, and a performance of any kind, from acting to singing to dancing, is angst-inducing.  I have performed music in front of live audiences, and have experienced the 'sinking feeling' one feels before such performances.  Strangely, one's level of nerves does not seem to correlate with one's level of ability.  Barbra Streisand, one of the most accomplished singers of all time, has openly admitted to experiencing a massive amount of stage freight.

Earlier today, I gave a presentation about the space elevator; a topic that is so familiar to me.  Nevertheless, a few minutes before the talk, I felt a momentary 'breathless' feeling commonly referred to as butterflies in one's stomach.  I suppose the feeling is the result of some combination of anxiety and excitement.

It is bizarre that speakers should feel this way.  The speaker feels nervous because of the audience, but the members of the audience would like nothing more than for the speaker to be calm and at ease.  The audience is actually rooting for the speaker to be successful, so they should not be a source of stress - and yet they are.

Overall, I enjoy giving presentations.  I suppose that is why I enjoy being a teacher.  But, I enjoy being in the audience every bit as much, though for different reasons.  While less exhilirating than presenting, there is nothing quite like being in the audience at a great talk.  Neither books nor television programs are as stimulating as a live presentation.  And, thanks to TED (, we can all experience an endless supply of high quality lectures from leading professionals in fields ranging from technology to film to education.  TED is probably my favourite site to peruse on the entire web.

For those who are not familiar with TED, just imagine YouTube, only that instead of 99% of it being crap, 99% of it is engaging and thought-provoking.  All of the videos on TED are simply recordings of live talks given at TED conferences, which take place all over the world.  I wish I could attend such conferences, but consuming these talks online is the next best thing.

I tend to focus my attention on the technological research talks given by the scientists and engineers whose work pushes the current boundaries of what is considered state of the art.  Over the years, I have observed that speakers have become surprisingly effective in the art of presenting.  You may be watching the world leader in cancer research, but he or she speaks like a professional public speaker.  It was not always this way.

I have been to technical conferences, and typically, the only thing dryer than the equation on the slide is the delivery of the speaker.  I was at my first space conference in 2005, and while the research being shared was downright fascinating, the presentation of it was shockingly dull.

It seems that the massive success of TED has turned the presenting of one's research into an art form.  It used to be that a good talk was one stated simply, slowly, and clearly.  These guidelines remain true today, but it seems that all of the best talks on TED have four other key ingredients: (1) they must tell a story, (2) include at least one impressive audiovisual or live demonstration, (3) include some degree of comedy, and (4) be delivered with passion.

From this list of key ingredients, the most important is probably the first: the presentation must tell a story.  If the story behind the research is told, then the research takes on a life of itself.  If the goal of the presentation is to transmit the information to the audience, then shaping it in the form of a story is the best approach, as the audience is made up of human beings, and human beings love a good story.

If you have never visited TED before, I urge you to leave my site immediately to check it out.  You can then return to my site, and thank me later. 


Anonymous said...

In a Meyers Briggs seminar years ago the speaker pointed out that just about the worst punishment that could be given to an introvert was public speaking. A considerable fraction of engineers are introverts.

As an engineer, and introvert (INTP), I used to be of the opinion that things like Meyers Briggs were just so much psychobabble. That seminar was an eye opener. It gave me considerable insight into myself and the sometimes seemingly baffling behavior of others - liking public speaking for example.

Bob, UofS BScEE '67

The Engineer said...


You bring up an interesting point. The fear of public speaking is psychological in nature.

In today's engineering industry, oral communication is more important than ever before. I would say to engineering students, however introverted they may be, that it is worth their while to take strides towards overcoming this particular fear.