UNCG Campus Weekly

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Paul Silvia takes the pain out of public speaking

If you’ve been to enough conference talks and poster presentations, you’ve seen it all. Speakers running an hour over their time. They can’t access their PowerPoint. Or they’re simply ill-at-ease – and they’re making their entire audience wish they were somewhere else, even though the subject matter may be fascinating.

Dr. Paul Silvia (Psychology) recounts a number of these hard-to-forget moments in his most recent book – some of which happened when he was the speaker. He calls each of them “Paul’s Woeful Tale of Woe,” adding humorous, real-life examples of what to avoid when you’re the speaker.

They’re part of “Public Speaking for Psychologists,” which Silvia co-wrote with Dr. David Feldman (Santa Clara). They wrlyly subtitled it “A lighthearted guide to research presentations, job talks, and other opportunities to embarass yourself.” It was written for the American Psychological Association Press, but the advice is applicable for many fields involving speaking in front of groups.

Among the tips they pass along:

  • It may be natural to have fear, but keep in mind that the audience is on your side.
  • Don’t talk too long. “To keep the session on track, vigilant moderators will shut you down, and you will look foolish.”
  • Don’t avoid questions at the end of your talk. Just be yourself.
  • If few people show up, no problem. Just give the talk to those who did.
  • For general audiences, avoid jargon. For them, stories and meaningful anecdotes are more attention-grabbing than stats.

With public speaking, what many fear are the unexpected events:

  • What if your PowerPoint projector inexplicably shuts down? Perhaps a graceful quip – “Wow, even the projector is bored by my talk” – and keep going.
  • What should you do if you’re pregnant and your water breaks, mid-presentation? Simply announce you’re going into labor, you’re leaving – and to please not steal your laser pointer.

Yes, the advice can be sometimes lighthearted. But if you have fear of public speaking, it’s a knowing humor. Calamities don’t happen usually – but if something unexpected happens, make a little joke and get on with it, is their advice. The audience is there because they want to be there and hear what you’re saying. They are on your side.

And with experience, you can anticipate what may go wrong and prepare. For example, having some handouts, even 4-6 slides to a page, can come in handy if your presentation will not load. To ensure it will, have it on PowerPoint for PC’s, not some lesser-used software, and perhaps email the presentation to yourself so you can access it in case your flashdrive fails.

And get there a little early – so you can make sure everything works and be prepared if it doesn’t.

“We try to take a light-hearted and realistic approach to learning public speaking,” Silvia told Campus Weekly. “People are nervous, and that’s okay. They simply need to get out there, do their best and eventually they’ll feel more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.”

The book is great for graduate students and newer faculty members, because it lays out the norms of job talks, poster presentations and other talks, so the reader can benefit from those who’ve been there before.

Silvia has used this book several times in teaching his public speaking course for undergraduates, he said.

“As professors, we hope to cultivate specific knowledge and expertise, but we also hope to cultivate global skills, especially writing, public speaking and critical thinking,” he added. “UNCG has always been forward-looking in this respect.”

By Mike Harris