A few years ago I gave a talk in the biochem department at UNC. Afterwards I went out for lunch with my mentor, and he berated me. (Did I mention that he can be an intimidating guy? But I listen to him, since he’s the one who helped me go from no grants to lots of grants…)
He berated me for several things, including using a difficult-to-read font, giving a software demo that took a bunch of time to get running, and, most of all, for not conveying “the point” of the talk.
I thought I’d conveyed the point clearly. I thought I’d shown how cool and nifty my new project was. But I was wrong. I hadn’t.
I was really bummed out because I used to let things like that affect me all too much.
I was soon coming up for tenure! I knew I’d have to give one or more “tenure talks” at which I had to really wow folks – including this mentor – before they’d vote me in (or out).
I figured that this was a sure sign I was going to fail. Here comes the unemployment line!
Only six months later, I gave a talk for my department, after which the same menotor came to me and said “that was a great talk.”
After I got over my long bout with destructive self-pity, I had a few important realizations.
One of the most important of those was that I hadn’t been treating my audience with respect. I was doing the talk simply to build up my own ego and my own reputation, without paying attention to the “needs” or “wants” of the audience.
I see this all the time. I estimate that about 60-70% of all talks I see are coming from the same place. Maybe that’s why they’re often so tedious. The person is talking from a perspective of “hey, you should listen to me because I’m great and my research is great” – without any real engagement.
And here’s the one key thing I did to change it around. I discovered “love.”
Not romantic love… but love for my audience.
Around that time when I was preparing my tenure talk, I went to a friend’s wedding. There was a tremendous feeling of love at the wedding. It made me think about my talk, and I realized that I hadn’t been putting my talks together from a standpoint of caring about how my audience was feeling. And that was a big mistake.
Any human relationship that’s lacking a sense of caring or love is going to be dissatisfactory.
I applied that principle as I put my talk together. For each slide, each sentence, and each figure in the slides, I asked myself: does this help my audience to see or hear this? Or is it just another thing that I’m putting in here for selfish reasons (such as wanting to impress with how hard I’ve worked)?
In other words, I was constantly thinking to myself “I’m going to love my audience and treat them right!”
I haven’t done all of my talks that way. I’ve forgotten and then remembered this principle multiple times. But every time I do a talk or presentation based on this notion, it goes better – much better. That’s because I’m going outside of myself, thinking about the other people involved. I’m considering the time that they’re spending listening to me. I’m not just considering my own time or fame or fortune, I’m thinking about: how can I give them a great experience?
It works. It works really well. If you want to ramp up your results in front of an audience, this is the most potent way I’ve ever discovered. I hope you’ll use it!
ps – to summarize, whenever you’re preparing a talk, constantly ask yourself “am I treating my audience with love and respect?” It will ramp up your talks considerably.