Speakers with good content who can also communicate it in an interesting and engaging manner are the unicorns of the conference circuit: They are rare and magical beasts. Technical talks can be some of the most challenging to deliver; there’s important information to get across, that may not be very ‘sexy’, yet the audience needs to hear and absorb it – without falling asleep! Nigel Oseland of Toastmasters International offers his top tips for a terrific technical talk.

  1. Set it up – Too often, speakers turn up minutes before their presentation. They may not know how to use the AV and could miss out on being fitted with a lapel mic and so be tethered to the lectern. Arrive a little early, speak to the technician and the chair. Double check the timing with the chair as programmes change/slip. Remember to establish whether Q&A time is within or outside your time allowance and give the chair a question to ask you to warm up your audience
  1. Open with a bang – Hook your audience from the start and grab their attention; make them want listen. Try opening your presentation with a provocative statement, pose a question or offer an amusing anecdote. Above all, be confident, bold, passionate and audible! Psychologists have demonstrated the “serial position effect” in which people tend to recall better the first and la things they hear. So, also end on a high. Let the audience know you have finished by summing up, finishing with a poignant quote or leaving them with a call to action. When you practice your speech, specifically practice your opening and closing.
  1. Stand out from the crowd – The opening to your speech will attract their attention but to maintain it you’ll need to be engaging and possibly entertaining. Inject energy through your passion for the subject, consider your vocal variety; changing the volume and pitch. Humour will also help keep your audience engaged – but only offer amusing anecdotes or observations relevant to your topic. Likewise, offer strong opinions and the occasional provocative comment, rather than play safe and sit on the fence. Also, don’t hide behind the lectern but come forward and use the stage area. Consider your body language, eye contact and movement across the stage which can all help with audience engagement.
  1. Pitch it right – Get to know your audience by finding out more about participants from the conference website or organisers. This will enable you to pitch the right level of technical detail and understanding – not too little that you lose credibility but not too much so that you lose the audience or appear arrogant. When presenting data, don’t get too bogged down by all the details and caveats. Offer your personal insights on the research and your personal experience. Try and say something new that is not already in the paper. Refer to previous speakers and links between your research and theirs – don’t present your work in isolation.
  1. Present it perfect – For me, there are two main speaker crimes at technical conferences: An over-use and over-reliance on tables and charts. Speakers sometimes present figures that cannot easily be read, often the charts are complicated but due to lack of time, the speaker does not explain the axis or the data points and the information is lost; and turning your back to audience and reading off the projection. Ideally, there will be a monitor in front of you which you can refer to if needed, or even better, practice and know your presentation off by heart. But the worst crime is presenters reading their speeches or - worse - reading their papers. This is no fun for anyone, and certainly not interesting or engaging. Audiences don’t like being read to and would prefer to read the paper by themselves. Likewise, don’t read your slides, especially bullet points. People can usually read quicker than someone can speak and if we read the slides then what’s the point of the presenter being there! If you do use bullet points, then attempt to make each one a memorable phrase or a soundbite.
Remember the old speakers’ adage; “it’s not what you say but what the audience remembers that counts”. Practice the above pointers to gain confidence in speaking and ensure your audience enjoys and remembers you, your presentation and your research.


Nigel Oseland is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org