A year ago, I looked down at my wrist and saw my Fitbit register a heartrate that was suitable for a fast walk. Perhaps even a jog. The problem was, I wasn’t walking anywhere. I was sitting very still in a meeting room at Deakin Downtown, next to others in my Honours cohort, as I waited to present a brief talk based on the early findings of my thesis.
It was completely unreasonable for me to be so nervous. I knew my material. I had slides, prompts, and an undeniable geeky joy for my subject. I had a supportive supervisor and an interested audience. Yet, I sped through my talk. My voice shook. I fidgeted and forgot my material. I knew, when the session was over, I had not presented well.
This was not a good outcome. Presenting is a substantial aspect of professional life. For academics, there are everyday presentations at lectures and seminars. There are less frequent conferences, symposiums, forums and workshops. Outside of the Academy historians present to historical societies, professional organisations, secondary and primary schools and special interest groups.
My experience led me to ask my supervisor for her advice. We discussed the importance of practice. I had read a blogpost by another PhD student who had used her candidature period to present her research at eight events. This intrigued me. Could I use my PhD candidature to gain the experience I needed? I did not want to repeat the performance of my Honours thesis presentation at my annual review. My supervisor agreed to the idea and suggested I attend Toastmasters. I did go along to a meeting. Yet after attending this session I realised the issue I had was not speaking in public, the issue was presenting my research in public.
With the problem identified I looked for a resolution. I approached this task as I would a research project. I had a goal-to present my research confidently to a group of people. I had a due date- the date of my annual research student review presentation. This would be a good opportunity to test my research and planning skills.
My first stop was The Thesis Whisperer. Here I read about the importance of knowing your audience. Afterwards, I located and viewed multiple Three Minute Thesis presentations. I noted what I liked about their presentations, and what I did not. I watched tutorials that discussed common mistakes.
I also paid attention to the presentation methods of senior scholars. When I attended workshops, conferences, symposiums and lectures I saw some presenters fidget with pens as they spoke. I noticed their presentation printouts had large font and annotations in the margins. I sat in the audience as PowerPoints failed and there were lighting goofs. I observed as some people laugh it off while others displayed frustration.
I was also an active listener at these events. During the refreshment breaks, when asked, I spoke about my research or areas of interest to others. I listened to the way other people spoke about their research. These were small soundbites, but they were an important aspect of learning how to speak about my research in public.
Advice was also sought from my peers. I listened attentively as they recounted their successes and their failures. On Twitter (via #phdchat) I partook in debates about presentations. As I thought about the importance of printouts verses memorised script for conference presentations, I began identifying what made me comfortable when presenting and therefore improved my delivery method (I am firmly on the side of having a script when presenting).
Not long after I started this research, speaking opportunities were presented to me. The Professional Historians Association (Victoria and Tasmania), Doing Feminist History Symposium, the Contemporary Histories Research Group weekly seminars , the National Museum and Art Gallery (Papua New Guinea) and the Pacific Adventist University all offered unique moments to assess my progress as a public speaker.
I defined a rubric for these events. The presentation had to support my thesis progress. I didn’t want to spend the first year of my candidature presenting my work, with nothing to show for it at my annual review. When I presented, I pushed myself to write a different aspect of my thesis. For an early presentation, I wrote about working in the archives. The next, theory. The next two, findings, and so on. Each time I said ‘yes’ to an event, I also asked the organiser if they had any tips. Everyone did, from ‘have fun!’ to ‘remember Australians talk fast- slow it down.’ I worked to ensure I incorporated the relevant knowledge into my presentations.
Improvements to my speaking style came gradually. At the first presentation, my voice shook and I got flustered. However, the shaking stopped after a few sentences as I had practiced this material for the past week. I felt okay when I was done, but I wished I had something to fidget with.
For the second presentation, I practiced for two weeks prior, reading my material aloud to my family and timing the presentation. I also created a PowerPoint a couple of days before presenting. I thought I had uploaded it correctly, but it quickly became apparent I had not. Being the day was being run on a very strict timeline I didn’t want to cause a fuss. Confident that my material was written to stand alone without images, I was happy to continue on. Plus, I had the knowledge that many, many academics before me had experienced the same issue. Technological issues are a rite of passage.
The third time I presented I practiced over a two week period, with a timer and a pen, and my PowerPoint slide. I had a USB and my laptop as backup to present the material should there be a glitch on the day. This time the “issue” was an unexpected audience: members of the public had been invited as well as institution staff. This development challenged my presentation process and led me to focus more on audience responses. This had an unexpected benefit as I saw which elements of the presentation were working for people, and which lines were problematic and required editing.
At the fourth presentation there was an almost full lecture theatre. I went off script to welcome the audience and to apologise for an error on my slide: I had received new information that morning that challenged what I had written previously, yet I had no time to make a correction prior to arrival. Then I returned to my script and spoke with the attendees. For the first time, I had questions and comments from the audience. Taking inspiration from comments that I had heard presenters make at other events (that’s a good question; that’s outside the scope of this project, but I hope to address it later; thank you for that comment; did that answer your question?) made responding easier.
Now, writing this blog piece, I can recognise how this gradual process of learning how to speak publicly has had many benefits for my career. The process of networking has led to invitations to present my research. The content I wrote for these presentations contributed to my book chapters. I also recognise public speaking is a career investment, one that involves practice, research, active listening, networking, and a little risk taking.