HINTS FOR SPEAKERS
L. Rubin, MD, MS
University of Florida College of Medicine
ideas incorporated into your talks and visual materials will
reward you and your audience by fostering a significant improvement
in your presentations, enhancing the experience for everyone.
have been giving talks for years, but you are not likely to
be aware of many things you are doing or saying that are less
than ideal. And obviously, if you don't recognize you have
a problem, you will not make the effort to address it. Too
many speakers (inadvertantly, I'm sure) pay little heed to
what the audience perceives. Since those in the audience are
giving you their time, to hear and learn from you, you owe
them your best.
paper I will identify some common foibles and suggest ways
to overcome them. With a little practice you can improve your
presentations and enhance the learning experience for your
listeners. (I will not be addressing content, which I assume
is already cogent and well organized.)
You Suffer from Sloppy Technique?
call sloppy technique afflicts even those with great experience
at the podium. Sloppy technique interferes with understandability.
And if you don't make a distinct effort to be clear and understandable,
you are being disrespectful to the audience. The following
are examples of sloppy technique:
this, learn to form words cleanly, with appropriate use of
your tongue and lips. Do not assume that the quality of your
diction is good. It takes conscious and persistent effort
to pronounce and enunciate clearly, even if you otherwise
have good speech habits. If you have a slight speech impediment
or mumble or speak with a high squeeky or nasal sound, you
need to be especially sensitive to what the audience hears.
to speak clearly, of course, but you must also project your
voice, talking loudly enough (without shouting) for individuals
in the back row to hear you without straining. If they can't
hear you easily and comfortably, you will not hold their attention.
Keep in mind that your voice has to overcome ambient noise
in the room -- noise that insinuates itself between you and
the listeners (many of whom can be tactless, even rude to
the speaker, as they add to the noise themselves -- another
your mouth and speak out, since your verbal gems are going
to be filtered through side conversations, coughs, throat-clearing,
beepers, cellphones, rattling papers, and even noisy projection
equipment. Any or all of these interfere with the receipt
of your message. Make sure your voice carries above the din.
use a microphone, learn how to speak into it. Listeners find
it annoying if your voice fades in and out as you move your
head back and forth or shift from facing the audience to looking
at the screen behind you. From your position in front of the
room, you are not likely to know how your amplified voice
sounds or carries to the audience.
Remember, microphones vary. Some are unidirectional, others,
omnidirectional. (You have more leeway to move about when
you use the latter type.) If your microphone is fixed in position
and unidirectional, be sure to speak into it with a natural
intensity and from a relatively constant distance. Though
a lapel mike moves with you and helps even out the sound,
the level reaching the audience will still vary with your
head position, so try as much as possible to keep your head
steady relative to any microphone.
any idiosyncrasies crept into your speech -- pet phrases that
you use over and over again? And what about those utterings
that are unconsciously used to fill pauses, such as, "um.
. . and uh . . . ya know. . .right? . . .okay? . . .know what
I mean? . . ."? These contribute nothing to your talk and
are annoying to the listener. (A nice, quiet pause is far
preferable). Make an effort to rid yourselves of these irritants.
down. Most speakers talk much too fast. To be understood from
the podium, you must speak more slowly than you do in everyday
conversation. This slowdown is needed to compensate for the
time it takes for aural information, especially technical
jargon, to reach, be digested and processed by the listener;
and also to compensate for the room reverberations, which
increase when your voice is amplified by a microphone, and
for room noises, which tends to cover your voice. Speak in
a conversational style, but more slowly and deliberately,
always pausing between phrases, to facilitate the listener's
cerebral processing of your message.
Monotonous Sounding Speech
at a podium seems to bring out a monotone, even from individuals
who would never talk that way in conversation. Monotones are
soporific, even when content is interesting. Enthusiastic
speech is exciting. So, learn to modulate the sound level
of your voice. Speak in conversational tones. Emphasize important
words and phrases by varying your pitch, intensity and tone.
speakers simply read their manuscript. That can be insulting
to listeners, first, because reading is usually done too rapidly
(and with too little pausing between phrases), and second,
because the material was originally written in a style for
publication -- in other words, meant to be read, not spoken.
Written language just doesn't sound like spoken language,
which is conversational, often colloquial, with natural pauses.
is a significant difference between written and oral language.
The eye/brain network grasps written content quickly, much
more rapidly than the ear/brain combination can possibly do.
Material written for publication is necessarily compact and
concise. (Any concept not understood the first time through
can always be reread until it sinks in.) When read out loud,
however, it is not easy to follow.
it is acceptable to read from a script if you have carefully
prepared it using conversational English -- in the language
you'd use in talking with someone. After you've written your
talk, practice reading it aloud so that it sounds like you're
talking. Do not keep your eyes fixed down on the manuscript;
look up frequently at the audience (which also helps cover
up the fact that you're really reading).
Actually, since you probably have no idea of how you sound
to others, it is a good idea to record what you plan to present
and to listen to it carefully to make yourself aware of your
own speech patterns and diction. Or, you might present your
talk to a friend, someone willing to be constructively critical
and honest enough to tell you how you really sound. It's amazing
how much you'd benefit from either of these efforts.
to Enhance Your Presentations
or without a microphone, whether you read your talk or not,
do not get into the habit of turning around to talk to the
projection screen behind you.
toward the audience.
eye contact with them.
be afraid to use natural hand and body gestures to help
express yourself, but don't overdo it.
always good policy to encourage questions since that promotes
understanding, but, right at the start of your talk, set
some ground rules for the audience. You can leave time for
a general question-answer session following your talk, or
you might even permit clarifying-type questions during your
talk if such interruptions do not hamper your train of thought
and if there is no time-constraint.
But inaudible questions are worse than none at all. You
can help make the questions audible to all by (1) asking
the questioner to stand, and (2) if there is no floor mike
or movable mike available, repeating the question so that
the entire audience and not just the questioner benefits
from your response.
sure your visual material is well designed. Projected graphs,
tables, charts, diagrams, or clinical photographs can significantly
add to the impact of your talk and help your audience absorb
its content. But the material -- whether slides, PowerPoint,
or overhead projection -- needs to be properly constructed.
Too often it is not.
Furthermore, more is not better. Visual materials are so
readily available, they tend to be overused, with too many
superfluous examples given. Keep the number of slides reasonable,
sufficient only to list, explain, or amplify.
to Make Visual Materials More Meaningful
what you say with what is on the screen. When you're
finished with a particular slide and are going on to talk
at length about something that does not have any accompanying
visual material, turn the room lights partly on until you
need them off again. Anything on the screen that is not
being utilized right then distracts onlookers from what
you are saying. But, do not keep flipping the room lights
on and off too frequently.
If the time gap between slides is going to be only moderate,
leave the lights off, and fill the break with a neutral
slide (a simple pattern, color or gray, but not one that
is completely opaque or completely clear since the sudden
darkness or brightness of either is too jarring.)
simultaneous double slide projection whenever possible.
Double projection is excessively overused by academicians
the world over. It is usually unnecessary to have two slides
on the screen at the same time; in most cases the second
slide is only the consecutive slide anyway and could just
as well follow immediately after the single projection of
Only rarely is double projection used appropriately -- the
second (side-by-side) slide complementing or amplifying
a detail that is being shown on the first slide, to make
rapid visual comparisons easy. Most of the time, that same
comparison can be accomplished almost as well by using single
slide projection and quickly shuttling back and forth between
the two slides you want to compare.
My main objection to double projection is that the second
slide on the screen is distracting, since it gives the audience
something extraneous to look at, which may not be what you
want them to look at at that moment. In addition, having
two projectors on simultaneously more than doubles the chance
for something to go wrong -- mechanically or electrically,
but most often by the paired slides getting out of sequence
with one another. Surely, you must have experienced that
situation, along with the attendant frustration of both
lecturer and audience waiting for the slides to be re-synchronized.
a pointer. A pointer is a mandatory adjunct for any
lecture with slides, PowerPoint, or other illustrative visual
material. If your slide displays a large array of data,
a graph, clinical photograph or radiological study, a pointer
gives clear direction to the audience to the particular
detail you wish them to notice.
Without a pointer and, for example, more than one graph
on the screen, if you say, "The graph shows such-and-such,"
the audience is faced with trying to figure out which graph
you're referring to. Without your pointing (especially on
clinical photographs or radiographs), the audience has the
task of trying to quickly determine, identify, or locate
something that might be just about anywhere in the picture.
Why not preclude all doubts by using a pointer? Do not point
with your finger from afar, which is necessarily aligned
with your eye and not with the audience's, so they can't
tell what you're pointing to. If you're using a laser pointer,
make sure the spot is bright and clearly visible. Hold the
pointer still, using it only for specific pointing. Do not
wave it around on the screen as you talk, since the audience
will get dizzy trying to follow it. That is obviously distracting
what's on the slide or PowerPoint: Content should always
be simple, simple, simple. Most slides are far too packed
with written or tabular information. (As a worst case example,
think of those vastly congested data tables that the speaker
typically apologizes for, yet still continues to show.)
If you are presenting a list, keep it short -- no more than
three or four lines -- with key words or phrases highlighted
with bullets. People seem to learn best by seeing material
in "clumps." (PowerPoint offers the capability of "progressive
disclosure," highlighting a specific item on a list and
then darkening it as you move down the list, but don't overuse
any of the elaborate motion gimmickery. Yes, it can be attractive,
but often it merely distracts the audience from the point
of the talk. Keep it simple, using only an occasional touch
Too much written information on a slide is not only hard
to see, it beckons the audience to read it while the speaker
is talking. Simultaneous reading and listening is almost
impossible, so attempts to do both generate yet one more
type of audience distraction. Again, less is more.
Do not use complete sentences in a slide. Not only does
that make things difficult for the audience, it encourages
the speaker to read from it, which should never be done.
Your slide might serve as a prompt, but never as a script
Whatever printing you put on the slides must be easily legible
to everyone in the room. You can control legibility
by varying print size, spacing, typeface (font), contrast,
size should be large enough to be read easily from the rear
of the room by someone with reduced visual acuity. As
a rule of thumb, the letter size should be about 1/15 the
vertical height of the slide frame or screen.
spacing -- between letters, words, and lines -- is a must.
Crowding of print is anathema for legibility. Exactly how
much space is needed is best determined not by rule but
by "eyeball" judgment. Even large print can be illegible
if the letters are crowded too close together. I've seen
slides having only two bold lines of print, but positioned
so close to one another they could not be read from even
the front of the room. Be moderately generous with space,
but not overly so.
should not be ornate or script-like. A simple font with
or without serifs will be legible if it is large enough
and has enough space around it and it is sufficiently contrasting
to its background.
is of critical importance. It is the major factor that
determines whether or not the contours of any letter or
object are discernible to the eye. The greater the contrast
between the letters and the background, the greater the
chance the type can be read. You can use either light letters
on a darker background or vice versa.
An interesting physiological point: For a normal eye and
small letters (near threshold size), it is easier to read
dark letters on a light background than the converse. (Light
letters on dark creates a slight blur of the letters in
the retinal image because of image irradiation -- lateral
light spread.) Because of this light spread, the best acuity
for seeing light letters on a dark background is only 20/40
or so, whereas with dark letters on light (a typical printed
page), the best acuity is 20/20 or even finer. But no audience
should ever be subjected to slides with print that is anywhere
near as small as threshold size.
lights should be lowered so that the screen is "in the dark,"
even if there is some light on in the back of the room.
Extraneous light falling on the screen will markedly reduce
the contrast of any projected details and reduce their visibility.
can be used to add interest and variety on a slide or to
identify details (for example, for distinguishing among
several graph lines.) But not every color or shade is suitable
for use in slides. The key is to select colors that provide
strong contrast to whatever background you choose. A dark
color on a dark background (or a light color on a light
background) might suit a room decorator but is virtually
useless for slides since it can be almost invisible. For
legibility, the greater the contrast the better. (But stay
away from blue print on any background. Because of the chromatic
aberration of the eye, blue -- short wavelength light --
is focused slightly in front of the retina and will appear
a bit blurred; even the emmetropic eye is somewhat myopic
for blue print.)
Note: PowerPoint offers a choice of backgrounds;
a commonly used one varies gradually in darkness from top
to bottom, from a dark navy blue color at the top to a light
blue at the bottom. On the darker part of the background,
any print in a light color will be easy to read; however,
that same light color may be almost illegible against the
light part of the background. Be aware of the variable background's
affect on the legibility of print.
* * *
Be prepared. After you've finished your preparations, you
still need to plan ahead. Arrive early, well before you are
scheduled to give your talk, to make sure that the position
of any podium and its lighting and all equipment you plan
to use (a pointer, microphones, projector or computer) is
in proper working order and set up as you wish it to be. The
audience should not have to wait for your setting up during
the time allocated for the talk.