An intriguing piece about online education in the New York Times got me thinking about really knowing and understanding the environment in which you’re about to speak. From Mark Edmundson’s article:
As a friend and fellow professor said to me: ‘You don’t just teach students, you have to learn ’em too.’ It took a minute — it sounded like he was channeling Huck Finn — but I figured it out.
With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.
Speaking at a scientific conference is no different. But which conference is it? Are you speaking in front of 20 people or 200? How technically savvy or scientifically broad is the audience? Is there a “go, caution, stop” light planted in front of your face or were you invited to speak at a Friday afternoon seminar at your old, alma mater? You know “that talk” you’re so damn good at giving? What if I told you that your polished talk isn’t right for every speaking event — GASP! — and that you should change the wording, photos, graphs, maps, and plots (please, use equations sparingly) based upon the venue, number of audience members, and even time of day?
Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.
The author goes on to say that the best lecturers are gifted at reading their audiences. The same could be said for talented speakers. Like a professor preparing tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations, the experienced speaker has gone over her presentation so many times that she could do it in her sleep. As a result, when it’s gig night she can focus her attention on taking the presentation to another level by adjusting aspects of her talk if need be. What is the mood in the room? Is the audience engaged or have the warm, fuzzies taken over right after lunch? Is the audience responding to humor or is this business time?
Make adjustments as needed but be proactive with your planning, notes, and talking points. Speak with others who have attended the conference or venue if this is your first time. Watch videos of others giving presentations at similar conferences, if they’re available. Go to as many talks as possible before giving your own. What did they do wrong? What did they do right? How did the audience respond? Were you engaged and why? Many experienced speakers are capable of giving great talks simply because they’ve given the same one 39 times — they’ve had a chance to improvise, or even A-B test, portions of their presentation — and nail it every time.
But a good jazz musician rarely plays the same tune in exactly the same way. Preparation and knowing your audience is the key; you’ll be more relaxed (which the audience can sense) and have the freedom to improvise.