On academics who speak poorly

I’ve gone to a number of artsy and/or academic events recently, and sadly, they’ve all been underwhelming. I had expected a talk on Rwandan refugees to be fascinating and had high hopes for a presentation about Beijing’s old bookseller district, yet was disappointed on both counts. But it did get me thinking about the importance of presentation.

In the theater there’s what they call a “triple threat,” someone who can act and sing and dance. It seems that in academia, you have to be a triple threat as well: You have to be able to network, to write grants and do outstanding research, and you have to be able to give a decent presentation of your work. Surprisingly, I’ve met many academics who excel in the first two categories, yet fall flat when it comes to giving a speech.

There are some folks who seem to have missed out on the basics of Public Speaking 101. Don’t put your watch on the podium and pick it up periodically to check if you’ve gone over time. Don’t precede your talk by saying you hope no one falls asleep. Don’t speak so quietly that someone in the first row can’t hear you, and don’t sway from side to side intermittently speaking into the microphone.

Reading a paper does not a great presentation make. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that you can write a fantastic paper, but suddenly when you read it out loud it loses some of its vitality and cleverness. In my own experience, I’ve tried to compensate for this problem by purposefully inserting pauses and using more casual language when I speak. I am not saying this is the only or the best way to circumvent the paper-to-speech problem, but it has worked fairly well for me thus far.

Other mistakes are even more egregious. When someone pauses in the middle of their speech to struggle with a difficult word, or abruptly stops talking to shuffle their papers around, I tend to get frustrated. Did the person not practice beforehand? Is lack of preparation the norm in some academic circles? It makes me wonder if there is a “cult of praise” surrounding academics when it comes to presentations. Is it analogous to the “cult of praise” that seems to indemnify the worst of the contestants on American Idol who, despite blistering feedback from the judges, continue to delude themselves into thinking they sing beautifully?

I know they say public speaking is the number one fear among Americans. Yet I dread much more having to sit through a poorly prepared and poorly delivered speech than I do actually giving one. I would rather be nervous and push myself to put together a decent presentation.

Thoughts? 

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