By Maurice Casey |
Public speaking is perhaps my favourite part of the PhD experience. There’s nothing quite like having a room full of people obliged to hear me drone on interminably about interwar Irish socialism. It’s an experience that brings me closer to my research subjects too, so many of whom spent their lives attending never-ending meetings. Here are some tips that have helped me stir up the masses (or, at least, the half-full seminar rooms).
Practicing your speech out loud before delivering it to an audience is a no-brainer – but there are some specific individual quirks which you might try to mitigate, for example:
- ) . Ummm… : This is something I have a lot of trouble rooting out of my own presentations. I find I am most likely to use ‘um’ to indicate a line of information was unfinished or a slide change, so I’ve started working transition lines so as ‘let’s now move on to..’ into my speech practice.
- ) Moving around: When I first started public speaking, my body moved like it was 3am in a club and I had just pounded seven tropical VKs. To avoid an involuntary performance of the signature Casey Shuffle, I have started practising eye contact. The effort to catch the gaze of the audience (or the potted plant in the room in which I am practising) roots me in my place.
Last year, I met a radio producer who gave me this simple tip for public speaking he deploys when delivering radio scripts: get emotional. When looking at a speech you have written, identify the emotional crux of a paragraph or sentence and inflect your voice with that emotion. Adding emotion to every sentence may be a tactic best designed for 3-minute radio scripts. Indeed, doing so for a twenty-minute paper would likely be exhausting, both for you and your audience. Nevertheless, I have found this small piece of advice hugely helpful in bringing some more life into my speeches. Bringing in a tone of surprise, curiosity or foreboding helps to break the monotony of a speech read from a script. I usually use my presentation slides to demarcate when the emotional register changes – which brings me onto my next point…
Your partner in the venture of public speaking will likely be some kind of slide-based presentation. Slides as a speaking aid have been around longer than you might initially think – after all, the nineteenth-century advent of the Lantern Lecture could be considered the birth of a protean PowerPoint. To ensure that slides remain an asset to my talks, rather than a crutch which devalues them through over-reliance, I set myself some guidelines:
- Never string together slides with block quotes and avoid long quotes in general. This forces you to extrapolate from the slides on screen rather than making them the substance of the lecture. Plus, pictures are often more evocative and engaging.
- Use a unique template. This is easier than it sounds, even though PowerPoint and its Mac equivalent Keynote have a disappointing roster of templates. To set yourself apart from the ‘Wood Type’ using masses, choose a blank template, set an interesting primary source as the background image and make it partially transparent so that the text reads well when imposed. In this example, I have used Soviet visa stamps from a passport as an unobtrusive backdrop:
- Once again: get emotional. If you have a particular sentimental attachment to an image, then let the audience know. I find this acts in the same manner as a laugh-track in a sitcom, causing the audience to scan the image for the emotion you have found within it. You might, for example, inform the audience that a particular picture seems poignant or ominous, foreshadowing a point later in your talk when the individuals portrayed in the image meet an untimely fate.
Of course, public speaking is more art than exact science. One of the trickiest aspects is humour to nail down. In this case, I am fortunate as my research subjects often found themselves in surreal scenarios. But your material might not have innately funny moments. The only foolproof advice I can give in this category is to avoid Donald Trump or Brexit analogies/references.
Overall, I’ve found these tips allow me to keep people focused and engaged. You have made it all the way to becoming a PhD student, so it’s likely that your material moves you at some emotional level. Show that to your audience and, hopefully, they will find themselves infected with that same sense of excitement.
Maurice Casey is a second year DPhil student at Jesus College, Oxford. His research examines the international connections of Irish radical women during the interwar period. You can follow him on Twitter: @MauriceJCasey
(Photo: Delivering my signature Irish-Soviet dish at the Dublin Festival of History, 2016)