Practising conference presentations is vital – even for native speakers

Overloaded slides, peculiar body language and speech that is too quick, slow, quiet or relentless are all easily fixed, says Brian Bloch

November 29, 2022
Source: Getty (edited)

At a conference in Paris that I attended a few years ago, I was interested to hear a professor introduce his innovative work on a managerial process that entailed two aspects linked to one another in a delicate interplay. In particular, he proudly described his development of what he seemed to call the “two hundred model”. But why give a model about a dual strategy such a strange name, I wondered.

Eventually, it became evident – but only through his body language – that it was actually called the “two-handed model”.

From my experience of delivering conference training here in Münster, I know that most German (and other non-native-speaking) academics make between five and 10 pronunciation errors in a 15- to 20-minute presentation – and some of these errors are, of course, repeated.

Another choice example I recall is: “The president is to be commented for upholding the ruler floor”; the speaker meant “commended for upholding the rule of law”. An aviation expert asserted that the amphibious “Dornier Zeesta was an innovative aircraft”; the plane in question was actually the Seastar. And movie buffs may be intrigued to hear that “The Hills Have Ice” was a seminal horror film. While some hills do indeed have ice on them, the word in the title is “Eyes”.

Pronunciation is a much-underrated problem for non-native speakers. Errors significantly lower the amount of a presentation that is comprehended, making it difficult for the audience to comment meaningfully on its content. Take the graphic that was presented as illustrating “the various faces of gentrification”. That sounds plausible, except that “phases” is what was meant: a very different concept.

In the worst cases, between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of what is said in academic talks is unintelligible thanks to some combination of pronunciation errors, a heavy accent and poor articulation. Only last month, an exchange student needed to repeat a mystery word three times until I realised she meant “verified”.

And the problems don’t end with pronunciation. In my experience, non-native speakers’ talks (and slides) typically contain between 15 and 20 instances of incorrect or suboptimal word choice. For instance, given the importance of introductions, this was an unfortunate start: “My goal of this presentation is to talk on lendings into the arms industry.” They meant “loans to the industry. A talk on the 2010 Love Parade disaster, where 21 people were crushed at a music festival, asserted that “there was too less security staff and nobody know about it”. And a classic of Denglish (English clad in German idiom): “This is discussed controversially”, meaning that the issue is controversial.

Of course, non-native speakers will always make errors. But in a mere one-hour session, an experienced, native-speaking presentation trainer with sufficient subject-related knowledge can point out these errors and help with other aspects of presentation, too.

Indeed, those other aspects apply just as much to native speakers since many are the result not so much of language difficulty as of nervousness or just a lack of experience of public speaking. Peppering talks with filler phrases such as “um…er…ja” is common and very distracting, but one can learn not to do it. Many presenters talk too fast, too slow or too quietly, which can also be remedied easily.

It is also amazing how many slides contain too much text (and minuscule fonts), which the audience is given no time to read. No matter how often I warn them, there are inevitably those who still “compete with their slides”. As for body language, some of my students stare only at me, rather than looking around the audience. Others do peculiar things with their hands, legs or feet, and some never smile.

I, too, made some of these blunders in my earlier teaching days, and I certainly mispronounced some German words. And even now, after years of living in Germany, I would do a trial run with a native speaker before giving an important presentation in German. Apart from anything else, feeling prepared makes you less nervous.

Yet many academics are surprisingly apathetic about the quality of their presentations. There seems to be a misconception that unrehearsed and uncorrected presentations are “good enough”.

Certainly, some people would simply be too busy to attend a full presentation course, but most should be able to spare even half an hour for a brief online rehearsal: a minuscule investment in comparison with the effort, time and money required to present at a conference. A useful halfway house is a one- or half-day workshop, which enables a mixture of presentation theory and practice.

Part of the object of giving talks is to create a good impression in front of potential collaborators and reviewers of your grants and papers. Of course, it is unlikely that anyone will openly criticise a poor presentation: the questions will stick politely to the topic, and the audience will applaud at the end no matter what. But the damage will still have been done.

I will never forget a German professor who was sitting next to me at a conference. While still clapping at the end of a talk, he turned to me and said – in a very good English accent – “That was absolutely awful.”

The small amount of effort needed to avoid provoking such reaction is well worth taking.

Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster.

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Reader's comments (1)

I'm glad somebody's bringing this up. So much audio content is fraught with these things, even on the BBC and certainly elsewhere. The worst thing, in my view, is wall-to-wall talking. There is a need for spaces where just silence is heard otherwise our ears and brains are overwhelmed and the whole listening exercise becomes a fatiguing marathon to get through against all the odds. Any teacher knows that presentation style matters enormously. When are paid and unpaid presenters going to start looking critically at their own presentations BEFORE putting them out there for consumption.