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Ways to improve my academic presentation skills

  1. Feb 14, 2012 #1
    Hi,

    I'm an international student in the United States and a non-native English speaker. Needless to say, I have an accent. Also, when speaking, I have trouble converting ideas in my head in to English sentences. This is not a problem when writing, because I have enough time to think. But when speaking, it is necessary to 'think on my feet', and identify the correct vocabulary and the correct way of stringing together a sentence in a very short time, and I just can't do it.

    I've had to do several presentations, and the audience just looks dumbfounded. From the apparent strain in their faces I can see that they are making an effort to understand what I'm saying, but because of my accent and the poor choice of words, they have trouble doing so.

    I've joined a toastmasters club. It's too soon to tell whether it'll help me improve.

    What else should I do? How do I improve my accent and make my ability to convert my ideas to English faster? But I can't spend too much time on it because I also have a lot of academic work.

    Whether I get employed here, or go back to my own country, learning to communicate in English is very important, because English is the de facto language in industry/science. Since I'm surrounded by English speakers right now, I intend to make the best of the situation. Has anyone else faced this kind of problem? Any advice is appreciated.

    Thanks.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2012 #2
    Have your friends talk to you in only English and spend a lot of time on it. Full immersion, I guess you would call it.

    But keep the accent..if you're a guy, chicks dig it so plan on getting a lot of girls...if you are a girl, then guys dig accents and girls, so plan on getting a lot of guys. :tongue2:
     
  4. Feb 14, 2012 #3

    berkeman

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    Staff: Mentor

    I was going to suggest the Toastmasters Club, so I'm glad to see that you already know about them. I think you will get a lot out of participating with them. :smile:
     
  5. Feb 14, 2012 #4
    Also, I'd suggest practicing your academic presentations many many times before giving them. For the large part of a presentation, you don't need to think on your feet. You just need to say exactly what you've practiced saying. For the question and answer session, it's a bit more difficult... but whenever I go to a conference, I've practiced my speech so many times that I can say it in my head without even seeing my slides. Write it down first, then practice again and again, out loud.
     
  6. Feb 14, 2012 #5
    I agree.

    But I've seen some professors have such command of language that they give brilliant talks about their research after they were asked to give one two days before. I'm sure they don't memorize it word for word. It's their research, so they know about it intimately. But they are also very good at converting the abstract concepts to language.

    Practicing talks beforehand will definitely improve my presentations in the short term. But in the long term, I want the kind of ability those professors have. I don't know if it's possible at all. But if there's something I can do to try to improve, I'd do it.
     
  7. Feb 14, 2012 #6

    phyzguy

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    Science Advisor

    It's possible, it just takes a lot of practice. Practice speaking in English whenever you can, and use your native language as little as possible.
     
  8. Feb 14, 2012 #7

    Choppy

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    Education Advisor

    Practice - with feedback.

    Those professors who are really good at it usually didn't start off that way. They just do it a lot and the onse who improve are the ones who make an effort to solicit feedback and get better.

    Students often get really excited about their projects and want to explain every little detail about them - a difficult task in a 10 minute time slot. I try to tell my students to first decide on the most important points they want to communicate. (This of course, implies a thorough understanding of your project AND its greater context.) Using the key points, you then establish goals for the presentation and orient it towards attaining those goals.

    Pay attention to details. Your slides matter. Font matters. Contrast matters. You want your audience to be able to read everything that's up on your slide.

    Personal presentation also matters. I once had a discussion with a student who felt that he should be judged on the content of his talk and this his jeans, T-shirt logo and ballcap shouldn't matter. I agreed and explained to him that the logo on his shirt distracted from the content of his talk.

    I'm not sure who started this approach to presentations, but I think it's pretty valid. Break your talk into 3 parts:
    (i) Tell your audience what you are going to tell them.
    (ii) Tell your audience.
    (iii) Tell your audience what you just told them.

    After you give a talk, solicit feedback. Talk with people in the audience and ask them what they got out of the talk.

    There's a whole neuroscience to learning a language. Every time you say a word, you reinforce whatever neural pathways you need to make it. This is why feedback is important. If you're just reinforcing a poor pronounciation, you won't improve. So try recording yourself speaking and identifying what phrases are difficult to catch. One technique that can help with this is to listen to some famous speeches and then try to give them yourself.

    Good luck. Speaking (in any language) is a skill that can often be overlooked, but - particularly in academia - it can play a huge role in your success.
     
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