New guidelines for speakers

11 February 2008

What goes on behind your back when you don’t face the audience during a presentation…

If I was to ask you: “How much information do you get during meetings?”, most of you would admit that it is often much less than anticipated... Nevertheless, we are all spending an ever increasing time in meetings. So what’s wrong with this picture?

I personally believe that one contributing factor is the poor quality of presentations in general. As a consequence, very few people listen:  the vast majority resorts to their laptop either to catch up on e-mails, finish up the details of their own presentation or read the slides from another presentation. Muriel was brave enough to be the first one to stick her neck out on this: see her summary in the January 2007 issue of ATLAS e-news, but unfortunately, nothing has changed.

But it can change. One good place to start is if you decide to improve your own speaking skills. Here are a few tips that will help you be a more informative and interesting speaker. More details can be found in the new ATLAS guidelines for speakers.

Talk to your audience, not to the screen. The most important thing is very simple: look and talk to your audience, not to the screen, not to the floor. Nothing could be more boring than turning your back to everybody and reading your slides in a monotonic voice. Look directly at your audience by placing your laptop facing the audience. Make eye contact with various people in the audience, getting cues to make sure people are with you. Of course, you can turn occasionally to point to the screen but that should be the exception. If you are shy, ask a friend in the audience to give you positive feedback. You can look at this person when you need reassurance and feel confident throughout your talk. Rehearsing in advance helps tremendously: it will help you streamline your talk and finish within your time allocation. Plus, if you turn your back to the audience, the laptop lids will be popping off like crazy!

Keep it simple. If people can follow your talk, they will listen to the end. If it is all jargon and acronyms for a handful of experts, nobody will be with you. As a listener, don’t you like it better when you can follow what the speaker has to say? Write clear slides, with as few details as possible. Add links to web pages or detailed documents for the interested people but aim at having the whole audience with you. Remember that if your talk is scheduled during an ATLAS Overview Week or even a regular working group meeting, many newcomers or people working on totally different topics will attend. Give an introduction and a proper conclusion. Get a clear idea of your main message and make sure to convey that to the audience.

Speak slowly and clearly. You’ll see that it is much easier not to mumble, stutter or repeat yourself if you just slow down slightly. And use the microphone! People in ATLAS come from all over the world: make sure everybody can understand you: no inside jokes, no reference to Andy, Maria or MS: there are about 2000 of us working on ATLAS. Give the full names all the time, including your own! And ban acronyms from your talk. People will get distracted trying to figure out the last obscure acronym you are using rather than following your ideas.

Feedback and payoff. Ask friends for honest feedback. You can also watch yourself on video and see what it all looks like if you have the chance to have your presentation taped by the Michigan Web Lectures.

Spot speakers you like and see what works for them. Improving our collective presentation skills will pay off when we report ATLAS results at conferences. We will be more easily quoted if our results are clearly presented than if we give a boring talk. And that’s an easy way to distance ourselves from the competition!

Alan Mincer


Pauline Gagnon

Indiana University