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Speaker Management
Speak Queasy?
Tips to quell nerves before a big plenary—for Speaker & Planner


Path-breaking research is at the heart of most great STEMM conferences, but even presentations with the most exciting discoveries will flatline if they don’t have speakers who know how to present them. Of such stuff, nightmares are made—not just for the petrified performer, but also for meeting planners after they have chosen their “stars” for the upcoming plenary sessions. Yes, on paper these speakers may appear peerless, sitting atop esteemed academic institutions or having garnered the most prestigious awards. But all those accolades will mean nothing should they speak with mouths of cotton and point to slides that are as indecipherable as Mayan hieroglyphics.

Conference organizers can do more than sit at the edge of their seats with fingers crossed and hope for the best. Some societies, like the American Diabetes Association (ADA), have honed methods for making sure their speakers are up to the occasion. Throughout her career, Allison McElvaine has seen hundreds upon hundreds of conference presentations, but some are memorably awful — including one speaker who created slides with text in a small red font on a black background. “I walked out of the room before he finished,” she recalls, “because I thought, ‘Obviously this guy doesn't want us to see his work.’”

Today, as Vice President, Research & Scientific Programs, McElvaine would never allow such a slideshow to see the light of a meeting projection screen. Rather than wait until the last minute, her society spends months working with plenary speakers on every aspect of their presentations.

Of course, no one attending a STEMM conference expects a Tony Award-winning performance, so why, you may ask, does the ADA invest so much time in speaker readiness?

“Because they have a lot of data to get across in a presentation,” explains Kirt Riegler, ADA’s managing director of professional education. “You want speakers to go up there and give their findings clearly and concisely. And you want people to be able to understand them and talk about what they say to continue the conversation.”

Associations can also turn to consultants who specialize in helping scientists with their public speaking. Laurie Brown, who initially started out in theater, has worked for more than thirty years as a communications coach, often employing the same techniques with academicians that she would use in acting. Like the ADA meeting planners, she believes that proper preparation and practice are essential for a successful talk, but she also believes that no space is more critical for preparation than the one between a speaker’s ears. Quoting Henry Ford, she says, “Whether you think you can or you think you can't, either way, you are right.”

Below are strategies for both speakers and meeting planners that help keep that thinking on the right track.

For the Planner: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

When speakers take the stage for the ADA annual meeting’s largest Award Lectures, the audience can range between 4,000 and 6,000—a daunting sight for even the most seasoned orator. Making the challenge that much greater is not just the size of this crowd, but its diversity. Attendees can include research scientists, physicians, diabetes educators, nurses, and diabetes patients. “While our speakers are encouraged to discuss and present their science and their data,” ADA’s McElvaine explains, “we want to be sure that we provide them with guidance on how to contextualize it, so non-scientists can also understand their main points. That’s why we put so much effort into helping the speakers prepare.”

The ADA’s effort translates into more than forty hours of preparation for a 45-minute presentation, which includes considerable help with formatting slides, four practice video conferencing sessions, and three-to-five on-site rehearsals to help get the speaker comfortable with the teleprompter and staff person advancing the slides. “I'm not familiar with another conference that puts as much time and focus on preparing these major lecturers as ADA does,” says McElvaine, who oversees the process.

While ADA’s intense involvement may seem over-the-top for most societies, McElvaine explains why it makes sense to shortstop a PowerPoint several weeks before the event. “There’s still time to make some really specific recommendations for whether an additional transition slide is needed, or a summary slide, or something else.”

No matter how well intended, such advice is not always appreciated. “Some speakers are more willing than others to let us put our hands on their slides,” McElvaine admits. “But if they do go through the process, we hear [later] that they really appreciated it.” In the process, she adds, “They end up with a polished slide deck that they can then use in other lectures.”

For the Speaker: Shift the inner monologue

For some speakers, all the preparation in the world cannot prepare them for any public performance—especially in front of a large crowd. When clients ask Laurie Brown for help, she says, “their number-one issue is stage fright.” Others may be too embarrassed to admit that, but she adds, “It’s absolutely normal to feel some trepidation.”

Brown has developed several techniques to dial down the fear factor, but mostly she wants to reframe the feelings that prospective presenters associate with public speaking. These can include elevated heart rate, flushed face, and sweaty palms. “I'll ask, ‘Are those the same signals you get when you're excited about something good?’ The answer is, ‘Yes. It's almost the same.’”

That’s a significant realization because when people interpret sensations negatively, their emotions can spin out of control: My hands are sweaty, my heart is pounding, I must be afraid. In response to these changes, Brown encourages clients to shift their inner monologue from fear to eager anticipation: I’ve got butterflies in my stomach right now, but it’s because I am so excited to give this presentation. She says, “When you translate the signals from your body in a positive way, you can ignore them. You tell yourself, ‘This always happens when I get excited, and it's no big deal.’”

Brown also advises speakers to do some deep breathing before stepping on stage. This keeps speakers focused and calm. After inhaling, Brown suggests holding your breath for a couple of seconds, and then making the exhale last slightly longer than the inhale. Another of her techniques to quell nerves involves briefly tensing up a muscle group during the presentation and then relaxing it. Any muscle group will do, but Brown is partial to the toes. “Nobody will know, and it allows your muscles to go, ‘Oh, okay, I can relax.’”

For the Speaker: Non-verbal speaks volumes

According to Brown, a presentation may be affected as much by body language as anything a speaker has to say. “The non-verbals communicate how credible we are,” she says. She breaks the bad behavior into two categories: the too stiff and the too loose. While stage fright can add to the stiffness, even calm speakers can develop bad habits. These include speaking with hands in their pockets or clutched in front of them, or with arms crossed. On the other end of the spectrum are the speakers who sway, which Brown calls a pervasive problem. Even worse are those who step side to side or back and forth (“I call that a salsa,” she says). Brown understands that these movements are unintentional, so she has a couple of body memory cures to counteract them. One involves doing a deep knee bend (assuming they have healthy knees) while practicing the presentation. “After you stand up, your legs will feel heavy and keep you still. If you do that enough in practice, your body will do it naturally during the presentation.” Brown has another solution that’s less strenuous: She tells clients to curl up their toes while they’re standing because that prevents swaying.

For the Speaker and Planner: Don’t slide into oblivion

Some more reticent speakers would prefer for their slides to be the real stars of their presentation. But Brown sees slides as principally a visual aid to help viewers follow what the speaker is saying. She says, “You destroy slides by thinking you have to put everything on there. If you ever find yourself telling the audience, ‘I know you can't read this but...,’ then you've got a problem.”

After they received complaints about hard-to-see visuals, slides became a particular focus of the ADA’s speaker preparation. You can click here to download their guidelines for PowerPoint and Keynote presentations, which they assembled from tips used by other associations. Again, the ADA’s attitude is more friendly persuasion than arm-twisting. Riegler explains, “We try to say, ‘Hey, we've attached this guide for you. It provides you with some helpful hints and some ideas when developing your presentation.’”

Some of their slide suggestions would apply to non-STEMM presentations as well. They include:

  • Slide Font Size: 32 pixels is ideal. Nothing should be smaller than 24.
  • Slide Length: No more than seven lines.
  • Slide Content: Bullets should be main points only, which can then be expanded upon verbally.

Since the ADA created the speaker guidelines, Riegler hasn’t heard any attendee complaints about slides. “I go into the presentation rooms and have seen for myself that people are actually following the guidelines for font size and things like that.”

For the Speaker: Memorize concepts, not words

When practicing, Brown encourages her clients to memorize concepts, not a verbatim presentation. “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever — I don't know if I've made my point yet — ever memorize your speech,” she warns. “When we memorize, we lose content. We lose contact with the audience, too, because all we care about is getting the words out as we have memorized them.” If a presenter forgets a word, it can sabotage the rest of a speech. “It's like taking a pearl out of a necklace — then everything else falls apart.” When speakers memorize concepts, they won’t waste mental energy keeping that metaphorical pearl necklace intact. “If you forget a word, it doesn't matter. Your audience still knows what you're trying to say.”

For the Speaker: Timing is everything

According to Brown, one of the biggest mistakes inexperienced speakers make is misjudging how long their presentation will take. They assume that a talk that runs thirty minutes in rehearsal will take up the same time in actual performance. But Brown cautions, “If you're nervous, you can speed up. Then you’ll leave people wanting more. Or conversely, you fall in love with your material and get in way too deep.” Going over your allotted time is the cardinal sin of meeting presentation because it steals time from other speakers.

To avoid those timing pitfalls, Brown teaches her clients Need to Know, Nice to Know and Where to Go—a three-pronged method for padding or trimming the presentation if it’s not running according to plan. “For every slide, you should have the one thing your listeners Need to Know if you have to rush. You should also prepare a Nice to Know which is some color commentary you can use to fill extra time. And finally, if you run out of time entirely, you need a slide that tells them Where to Go for more information.”

With these backstops in place, Brown then has her speakers set milestones during rehearsal, so they know what slide they should be on at each ten-minute interval. “If during the actual performance, I’m running ahead of schedule, then I can add a little more of the Nice to Know. If I find that I'm running a little late, then I just stick with the Need to Know.”

For the Planner: Place to practice makes perfect

During the ADA’s 2016 meeting, Riegler remembers, “Our speakers were asking, ‘Is there a place where I can practice?’ They just wanted a quiet spot, but we usually don’t have a room available, because we can be running 13 to 14 sessions at one time.” To accommodate these requests, they draped-off a rehearsal area in the Speaker Ready Room and let speakers sign up for 30-minute slots. It proved so popular that the ADA will have two practice spaces at the 2018 meeting in Orlando.

Visualize Success

Brown has one last piece of advice for speakers during their final rehearsals before the big event. “I tell them to visualize the audience nodding at them, leaning in and being fully engaged.” She says that this technique, which is also used by professional athletes, is more than wishful thinking. “There have been many studies showing that when people visualize success, the body takes that on in a whole different way.”

On the other hand, she forbids negative self-talk. If a client’s inner critic starts to nitpick, Brown advises, “Just shut that guy up. I’ve seen too many people talk themselves into a bad presentation because that's what they believed was going to happen.”

For more information on Laurie Brown Communications, click here.