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Observations From Chicago: Feedback to Speakers at the 2004 SIOP Conference

Joseph F. King

Thats awful!; What was she trying to do?; and That was the worst performance Ive ever heard! 

You might think these are quotes from Simon Cowell from American Idol. Actually this is what I was saying to myself after too many of the presentations at the recent SIOP conference in Chicago. I must confess that I havent been to the annual SIOP conference in about 10 years. So maybe there was a shock factor when I compared what I experienced with what Ive come to expect from presentations in a business setting. I am not an overly critical person. What follows is some friendly advice on giving presentations.

Tip #1: Fully Understand your overall context and setting. Set your goal accordingly. When I was reading through the thick red program book trying to decide which presentations to attend, many titles caught my attention. I read through the brief descriptions. I could always find something interesting. Oftentimes, however, what I actually got and what I read were quite different. Sometimes for the better, but too often for the worse! 

Symposia coordinators establish the theme, and they are fully aware of the planned time slots. You as the speaker should know exactly what the parameters are. So establish in your mind exactly what you are trying to do in the 12 minutes. Tell the audience that up front. Some successful presentations gave a history of the issuethat was good for the laymen in the audience. Some presentations gave in-depth statistical resultsthat was desirable for some. The point is, state what your goal is so that the audience members can manage their own expectations. 

Tip #2: Prepare your talk, then cut the material by 10%. One of the most annoying aspects of presentations at Chicago was that speakers had prepared way too much information. I would cringe when the speaker brought up a box of transparencies. There was no way that they were going to get through 1520 slides. Once the speaker realizes that they wont get through it all, you sensed that he/she got confused and tried to jump ahead. Or worse yet, the speaker would begin talking real fast and zipping through slides so quickly that there was no way the audience could read them. I got lost too many times. 

Weve all done this. The unconscious fear is that we will not have enough to say. Were afraid that someone will ask about a nuance of past research and we want to show the audience that weve done our homework. Also, some topics are just too complicated to address in 1012 minutes unless the audience is very well-versed in the issue and very focused. Think back to your goal (Tip #1). If youve set the realistic expectations in your own head, and if youve communicated that goal to the audience, then you can control the amount of information to bring. In the end, youll have a much more relaxed and successful presentation. Its acceptable to finish early if youve accomplished your goal.

Tip #3: If this is your first conference presentation, read from a script. If this is your second conference presentation, start with a joke. If this is your third presentation, let the slides guide you and the audiencejust talk to me! I admit this tip is controversial, and like so much advice, it depends. From my experience in academic settings or in business settings, this is an important decision that a speaker must make.

If you have not had much experience with public speaking, Id suggest that you write out a narrative and go into the conference knowing that youre going to read your script. You can structure it just like you want it; you can practice it by yourself or with a friendly audience at a rehearsal, and you can time it. Even with the script, if your nerves are getting the best of you, take a deep breath and go slow.

For those who are a little more comfortable up in front of a public audience, it is always helpful to let a little of the person show through. It helps you as a speaker to emotionally connect with the audience (even with these dry academic topics). A brief informal comment or joke upfront is a good way to do that. 

If youre experienced, its my belief that simple and well-structured slides will serve as your script, and you can just talk through the topic with the audience. This way you can make eye contact; you can read the audience reactions or respond to quizzical looks or questions. 

Tip #4: Projectspeak one notch louder than you think you need to. Every presenter in any setting you can imagine has to think about this issue. Is there a microphone? Are people too far away? Is there background noise or hallway traffic outside the room? Its quite frustrating for the audience when they cannot hear the speaker. So, play it safe. Err on the side of speaking too loudlyif you bring it up one notch louder than you think you need, youll be just fine.

Tip #5: Physically engage the audience in some way. At a SIOP conference with an audience of 4060 people, the speaker is challenged because you have a real mix. You might have a layman, like me, who has not kept up with the literature sitting right next to a recognized expert in the specialty. Also, you are probably facing a group that has heard 34 hours of speeches already.

I always feel more involved in a presentation (and less likely to get up and walk out early) if the speaker asks me to do something. Maybe the speaker asks for a show of hands indicating who is familiar with this line of researchor who works in academiawho works in an applied setting, and so forth. Maybe the speaker asks the audience to read a test question and jot down the answer on a piece of scratch paper. These speaking techniques serve to engage the audience members in the topic at hand. Experiential learning really works! 

Public speaking is often associated with our greatest fears. We know that it takes practice. No matter what the setting, in business or in academia, giving brief structured presentations is a crucial skill that builds ones professional credibility and communicates the value of what we do as I-O psychology professionals. We should all continually strive to improve our presentation skills.

Overall, despite my comments above, I was quite pleased with what I learned at the SIOP conference. I was really glad that I attended. I work in a business setting, not in academia. I am not as well-read in the research literature as I should be. This 3-day experience left me with a lot of new ideas and tactics for how I can apply my technical knowledge to the work setting.

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