Expect the best but prepare for the worst

Have a backup plan for any technology you plan to use. No matter what tool you choose to use, it can fail you at some time in some way. Even the simple chalkboard can turn out to be missing its chalk. Decide what you will do if the computer fails to work. Bring an extra bulb for the overhead projector. Check the batteries for the projector's remote control. Become so familiar with your handouts that you can speak solely from them if all else fails. As the old saying goes, "you're only paranoid if you're actually wrong."

Whether you have written notes, a set of transparency sheets, or a tray of 35 mm slides - any time your talk depends on more than one of something, number them! Accidents happen; things get dropped. You know the rest.

Practice with the equipment as well as with the talk itself. If your choice involves a projector, know where the on/off switch is, and where a spare bulb is located (often in a small compartment on the side or bottom). Figure out how to focus the equipment and zoom to fit screen size. Check the range of the remote control. Try out the microphone in advance, so you won't need the famous "testing-testing-one-two-three" drill once the audience is seated and ready to begin.

Before your talk is scheduled to start, familiarize yourself with the room and the equipment. (If talks are back to back, perhaps you can get into the room over the lunch hour, during a break, or on the previous day.) Pay attention to such aspects as room size, how the lights and projector are controlled, and where you will be expected to stand relative to the audience. If possible, try out the pointer, the remote control for slide advance, and the microphone. The equipment may not be identical to that you practiced with.

Finally, as your ultimate backup plan, be prepared to give your presentation on your own, with no technology or visual aids. Knowing you are able to do so brings a measure of confidence and security that is hard to match.

Delivering the speech or presentation

At this point, you have constructed a slide set you are proud of, organized your material carefully, psyched yourself into a positive frame of mind, and practiced your talk before a small but helpful audience. Now it's time to consider the mechanics of actually giving the presentation.

Several general tips can improve presentations with any visual medium. For starters, look at the audience. Don't talk to the projector, the screen, or the board on the wall. Casually move around the room, if possible; don't pace, but don't stand in the same location for the entire talk. Remember, your primary role is not to be a robot imparting information, but a human being making a connection with the audience.

Use your visual aids effectively. Whenever possible, reveal information sequentially. With PowerPoint, design slides so that bulleted points appear as you talk about them. If you must put material on a chalkboard or whiteboard in advance, see if there is a pull-down projection screen mounted above it. If so, consider writing the points in reverse order; by raising the screen gradually, you can reveal points as needed. With transparencies, place the entire sheet on the platform and then cover it with paper, sliding the paper down line by line to reveal each new point; switch to a new transparency only when you are ready to have the audience look at it.

If you are using a remote and it won't move the slides forward, first check to be sure you're pointing it at the remote receiver, not at the screen! Then try moving forward; you may be too far away from the receiver for the remote to pick up the signal. If this fails and you're using a computer, note that keyboard keys (usually the right and up arrow keys and several others) can be used to advance the slides.

During the talk, if your mind momentarily goes blank, don't panic. As Swinford (2006) reminds us, silence is golden - it is all right to look at your slides and

Speaking in public: the human factor Table 4.3. Suggestions for ways to handle questions


Possible responses

You don't know the answer.

Question is too complicated.

Questioner seems hostile.

Questioner asks repeated questions or wants extended discussion.

Questioner interrupts during your talk.

Say simply that your research has not supplied an answer to that question. Suggest how you would investigate the question. Offer an educated speculation on the topic. Offer information on a closely related area. Ask the questioner his or her thoughts.

Acknowledge that it is a difficult question. Give the beginning part of an answer, and suggest more discussion afterwards.

Stay cool. Accept the question with a smile, followed by a serious, professional reply that is related to the subject.

Make a positive comment about the complexity of the subject, and suggest you meet to discuss the matter further after the session.

Respond courteously, answer as briefly as you can, and return to the prepared speech.

collect your thoughts. Don't keep talking when you're doing it. Although the silent moment will seem long and awkward to you, the audience will find it to be natural.

Handling questions

Always plan to end your formal presentation with some time left for questions. Be patient - they may take a moment or two to begin. It is all right to fill the awkward-feeling pause by saying in a relaxed manner something like, "While you are collecting your thoughts, I'd like to just elaborate on one of the points I made earlier." However, if you do this, be extremely brief!

Sometimes, there truly may be no questions. That's all right, too. It's not a sign you failed somewhere. Thank the audience and the moderator, and sit down.

Some speakers approach the question-and-answer phase of the presentation with trepidation. What if someone asks a question that you can't answer? Or one that seems to negate the whole study? Or is openly hostile? There are ways to handle all these situations (Table 4.3). Be prepared, then relax. It's important to realize that, whatever happens, you are still in charge.

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