Several weeks ago, I received a cry for help from an early career faculty member in the sciences who had been getting less than ideal student evaluations. She asked for my feedback on her teaching style. After watching a video recording of her teaching a class, I sent her the following notes.
These comments may seem obvious to many public speakers, yet I find myself repeating them over and over, not only to scientists and academics, but also to people who are presenting in government, finance, insurance, law, leadership training and the arts. I’m posting them here as a checklist for anyone who would like to improve their presentation skills.
I’ve got lots of ideas for you, and I want you to know that my comments are not meant as criticism, but as assistance.
It’s good to hear that after watching the video you can immediately see some areas where you need to improve.
I’d like to start with your vocal use:
1. Try to avoid using “um but um,” “um but really,” “sort of,” “um and um,” “um kind of,” “just kind of,” etc. These filler words make you seem less confident and less knowledgeable.
2. Be careful of drifting off at the ends of sentences. You start a thought strongly and then let it fade away vocally as you continue. This also happens when you are asking questions.
3. You are also using some “uptalk.” This means that your pitch is rising at the end of a statement, turning it into a question. The rising pitch at the ends of sentences makes you seem unsure of yourself.
4. Your voice could be more powerful, resonant and flexible — using more volume will help you seem more confident and knowledgeable; more variety will make you sound more interesting. One way to accomplish this is to really tap into your passion for the material!
5. This may sound odd, but your sentences are too long. What happens is this: you get started on a sentence, use your filler words (see #1 above) and then the sentence just keeps going on. As a result, you are taking long pauses between phrases, perhaps to figure out what you are going to say next and how you can make it link to what you just said. That contributes to your halting delivery. If you speak in shorter sentences, each one can be said with confidence, without an internal pause, and without an upward inflection at the end. You will sound more confident and it will be easier for your students to follow your speaking.
Here are some ideas on physical use:
1. Be careful not to shift your weight from side to side. Stand confidently and you will feel more confident. And watch out for standing with your legs crossed.
2. Be careful of using “protective” gestures. You are at your best when your arms are open, not held across the front of your body.
3. Be careful not to fiddle with your clothing. This makes you seem ill at ease.
4. You might think about “dressing for success.” The rule of thumb is to dress one notch above your listeners. This will also help you feel like you are in charge.
And here are my pedagogical notes:
1. Be sure to be fully prepared for the event. By flipping through pages of research papers on the PowerPoint, it looks like you haven’t really done the work to help us understand the material. It might be a better choice to have distilled some of the information that you really want the students to get and prepare your slides with them in mind. They have read the papers, right?
2. You can ask more provocative questions. This also shows your students how prepared you are. Also, rather than “any questions?” or “anything else?” how about saying “what questions?” or “what else?” Additionally, when you ask a question, be sure to pause in order to give enough time for people to think and then answer. You should never be answering your own questions. You might have to wait a bit…
3. I also had trouble understanding the through-line of the class. For every class, ask yourself “What is my purpose?” and answer it with something like this, “My purpose is to find a way to get these students to be so excited about _____, that they are hungry for more.” Not, “My purpose is to get through all this material in the next hour.” This will help you plan your class to find the BEST way to get the students to get it. Think creatively about what that might be. (Putting a paper that they have read onto the PowerPoint screen might not be that.)
I hope these ideas are of help. I’m looking forward to meeting with you soon, so we can practice these techniques.