01 June 2014

In May 2014, I hosted a 5-week “Learn How to Give Awesome Scientific Presentations” workshop. This case study is a summary of the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned. I hope that if you’ve thought about putting together a workshop, reading this will encourage you to take the leap.

1. Don’t wait to get picked. Pick yourself

Nobody asked me to share my thoughts on scientific presentations. I’ve been caring about how to give good talks since I started my graduate studies four years ago, and organizing my thoughts into a workshop seemed like an interesting challenge. Unfortunately, my lizard brain kept nagging me with this question:

Who are you to teach anyone how to give a presentation?

Good point. No famous college has ever certified me with a Great Presenter’s diploma. No rating agency includes me in their Top 10 Presenters list. So what? If you know something that your audience doesn’t, you are qualified to teach. If you know something that your audience already knows, but you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about efficient ways to explain it, you are qualified to teach. If neither you or your audience know something, but you’re willing to do the hard work to learn it and to come up with a way of explaining it, you are qualified to teach.

So, I decided I was going to do the workshop (feel the fear and do it anyway), I wrote up a description of what it would look like, and then sent it to the office of my department to see if it could also fulfill my teaching requirement. They agreed, thought it was a great idea, and offered to sponsor the weekly serving of pizza. It would have never happened if I had waited for them to ask me.

2. Don’t spam. Share with friends

I wanted to let people know that I was putting together a workshop, that it was going to be interactive and interesting, and that it wouldn’t resemble a boring seminar series. I spent a few hours designing a poster, printed a bunch of copies, and went around campus pinning them to notice boards:


I quickly learned that nobody reads notice boards. Most of the 60 people that actually signed up did it after they received an email from one of the student associations I sent it to. Almost nobody typed the link by hand. Next time you announce an event, spare the trees and don’t bother printing.

I announced the workshop a month in advance, but I didn’t want to wait 30 days to start talking with the people who had signed up, so I launched a weekly newsletter with presentation tips (the one you’re reading now). At the bottom of each post I added a link and people shared it with their friends (I got around 15 new sign ups that way).

3. Question the defaults

The room I reserved for the workshop is the same that my program uses for student seminars. The row furthest away from the speaker is the one that fills up first, then the second furthest. If you come in late, you can always count on an empty seat in the first row.

before chairs

This weird behavior stems from the seating arrangement. The people in the back feel safe because they can see everyone in the room from afar, the people in the front feel exposed because the entire room can see them but they can only see the speaker. Whoever chose this default was thinking about placing x number of chairs in a y number of squared meters, but my goals for the workshop had nothing to do with space efficiency. I wanted to help the audience participate and remember what we talked about, both of which are easier to do up close.

I decided to rearrange the tables and build a barricade that would delete the back row from the menu of seating options. This encouraged people to choose one of the amphitheatre-style seats in the front, and it changed the vibe from formal presentation to casual gathering.

after chairs

Defaults only become a problem when we don’t question them. One of the most popular pre-workshop newsletters, Vulnerability Kills Robots, talked about breaking tradition, and why we’re afraid to do it. Am I allowed to move the tables? Can I ask a conference organizer for a microphone so I don’t have to hide behind the podium? Is it okay if I don’t show the logo of my university in my poster? Just because everyone does one thing doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

4. Make public commitments

At least three times before the first session, I felt the urge to call the whole thing off. My lizard brain kept saying that I had nothing interesting to share, and that I would be publicly humiliated unless I gave the perfect workshop. Then I would get a notification saying that another person had signed up. If I didn’t chicken out in the end, it was because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing 60 people (I had no problem with the thought of disappointing myself).

I’m a big fan of 30 day challenges exactly for this reason: they help you leverage your fear of being judged to achieve difficult goals. Without someone to hold you accountable, it takes a lot of discipline to stick to your commitments. Use fear to your advantage.

5. Record yourself doing things that scare you

The premise of the workshop was that presentations should be outlined, illustrated and rehearsed, in that order. Rehearsing is the least appreciated of all three because it shatters our belief about how awesome we are. Watching yourself on video and hearing your voice in a recording is one of the most useful (and painful) things you can do to get better at public speaking. I knew this was common advice but I never thought about actually doing it before the workshop. What tipped the scale this time was that my department bought a fancy digital camera and they told me I should use it to record the workshop. Yikes!

You don’t have to buy a tripod and a dedicated studio. A smartphone (and bit of duct tape) will faithfully record your annoying pauses, ticks and manerisms. Yes, it’s hard to watch. Yes, it will make you cringe. But it will also point out a bunch of mistakes that you’ll be able to fix easily once you notice them.

Recording yourself is a useful way to deal with stage fright in a safe environment. I used to avoid making eye contact because I would focus on one person and forget what I wanted to say. I practiced getting over the feeling of being watched by looking straight at the camera lens as I rehearsed. When I was in front of the audience at the workshop, I was used to the feeling of being watched, so it felt less scary. Exposure is the key to overcoming fear.

I want to attend your workshop

I am a different person from the guy that announced the workshop back in April. A month later, I feel more entitled to voice my opinion, I’ve gotten better at verbalizing my thoughts, and I have a lot more fun when I’m on stage. Reading this newsletter wouldn’t have helped me improve, the only thing that makes a difference is taking action. I would love it if everyone around me went through a similar experience. You know things others don’t, so share them. Write something every day, commit in public, do things that scare you.

Learn, and give back.