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Over the last month or so I’ve been to a lot of talks and its started me really thinking about what makes a good communicator. First it was the Maurice Wilkins Centre (MWC) for Molecular Biodiscovery‘s annual symposium (New ways to image the body – from macro to nano) followed by the New Zealand Microbiology Society‘s annual conference in Dunedin.

The MWC symposium was an exhausting day – 22 speakers with most of the slots just 15 minutes long. The speakers were given quite clear instructions – to do an introductory talk on their imaging technique in 12 minutes, leaving 3 minutes for questions. I know this because I was one of them. What was astonishing to me was that almost every speaker went over time. Most spoke for about 20 minutes. One spoke for almost 30! I’m becoming less and less tolerant of this kind of behaviour. In my mind it shows an immense lack of respect for the audience, the other speakers and the organisors. The other thing that struck me was that quite a few speakers pitched their material to a much more advanced audience than they actually had. Was this because they didn’t know who their audience was? And the jargon! Wow. I’m also becoming really aware of how data is visually presented. Busy slides with loads of different graphs are a nightmare. I think the most I’ve encountered was a single slide with 3 bar charts, 2 line graphs, a table and a pie chart. Where am I supposed to be looking?! Another classic mistake is for the speaker to point to a bit of their slide and telling the audience to ignore it as its irrelevant. What?? Then remove it!

So what makes a good communicator? Well, someone who sticks to time and correctly pitches the talk to the audience for a start. I’m pretty sure these are things we are told when we give our first talk, so why do we all forget them? Something we are not really taught to do is ditch the jargon. Or at least explain it properly first. I think this is important if you are going to speaking at an event with a broad audience. Both meetings I went to recently covered a lot of subject areas. No one is an expert in all of them, so not using hideous acronyms without explaining them first is essential if you don’t want people nodding off. I also think relatively simple, clean slides with good headings help.

So how am I doing? I’ve started setting an alarm to make sure I don’t go over time. And I’m trying to turn all my talks into more of a story with less emphasis on minute details as I’ve decided they really aren’t going to be of interest to the majority of the audience. I’m also trying to make my slides clearer and easier to follow. One thing I would like to do is have a play with the awesome looking presentation tool Prezi, but that will have to wait till I have some spare time. But I think what I most need to work on is speaking more slowly. I’m finding this really hard though as when I’m nervous or excited my mouth just zooms off! Hopefully practice will make perfect.

So, what do you think of my list? Is there anything that I missed?