How to Present Effectively

A few weeks ago I had the marvelous good fortune to participate in the Legacy Heritage workshop, a professional development workshop for a select group of Ph.D. students sponsored by the Association for Jewish Studies, and held immediately following the AJS annual conference, this year in San Diego.  The theme of this year’s workshop was “Public Presentations”, and the 4 invited speakers (along with the wonderful organizer Rona Sheramy, assisted by Amy Weiss) led a day-long series of talks on the best practices of public presentation of scholarship, a particularly important topic for those who work in Jewish Studies, as they are frequently invited to speak at synagogues and other non-academic or semi-academic locations.

The event was wonderful–warm, supportive, collegial, and filled with humor (and excellent food!).  I remarked to the organizers later that I would have loved to have had an opportunity to attend something like this when I was a grad student. I urge any faculty members reading this to consider organizing a day-long event on professional skills for the Ph.D. students in your charge.

Anyway, my task was to talk about the physical and performative aspects of presenting – issues of speech habits, body language, managing space, and handling Q and A.  This was the first time I’d ever been asked to speak on this subject, and I was at first worried that I wouldn’t have enough to say.

But as soon as I began writing down my thoughts, I could hardly stop.  It turns out, there is almost endless amount of things to be said about good presentation practices.  Eventually, given my time limit, I whittled my primary thoughts down to six slides, which I labeled “Practices of Good Delivery, I-VI.”  These covered Preparation, Connection, Body Language, Speaking Mode, Visuals, and Handling Questions.

In today’s post, I’ll share my talking points on the subject of Speaking Mode:

First, breathe deep into your body, and speak from deep in your diaphragm.  Most of us talk from our throats, even more so when we’re nervous.  But our voices get tense, high and thready when we do, and this isn’t good presentation practice.  So job number one is to discipline the source of your speaking voice, making it richer, and lower in tone.

Second, SLOW DOWN.  The near-universal pitfall for inexperienced speakers is speaking too fast.  It is an inevitable byproduct of nerves, and also of Imposter Syndrome, where you secretly worry or believe that your material is dull and obvious, and unconsciously minimize it through a muttered, indistinct, too quick delivery.   Your material is good, and it deserves a slow and authoritative presentation.

How to do this? Imagine a person of authority – Toni Morrison, perhaps – and channel her voice.  You will be amazed at the instantaneous change in your delivery.  It doesn’t matter who your muse is – he or she can be famous, or just an impressive professor you once had – but model your delivery on theirs, and begin to learn to how feel that authority and poise in your own body.

Beyond this, practice conscious rhythm and pacing.  Pacing is essential to effective delivery, and you must pause for effect and/or modulate your voice to emphasize important points. Pacing and rhythm are your cues to the audience to attend to the development of your argument, and to track the progress of your organization toward a conclusion. Feel free to write notes to yourself in your written material to “pause,” “gesture,” “make extemporaneous comment,” or “look around room.”  Master the dramatic pause. It is your friend.

Interested to learn more about Presentation Techniques?  Please come to my webinar, Hacking the Academic Presentation, Jan 19 at 6 PM EST.  I will share everything I spoke on at the Legacy Heritage workshop, with much more focused specifically on the most high-stakes presentation of all: the Job Talk.  As I remarked at the workshop, without a tenure track job, it’s much harder to get opportunities to speak publicly even in a non-academic context.  The job talk continues to be one of the most critical gatekeeping mechanisms, yet rarely are the job talk presentation best practices taught. Please join me!

(And don’t forget this week is the Negotiating Your Tenure Track Job webinar on Thursday 1/12 at 6 PM EST!)

Find webinars here.  All are $50.  Everybody gets access to a recording of the event, even if you can’t attend the live event.

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions–University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I’ve created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don’t.


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