Why You Shouldn’t Read Your Academic Talks

3 minute read

I’ve recently seen more academic talks where the author has been reading out their paper out loud in front of the audience.

I’ve heard a couple of different reasons why people do so: they have problems staying on time; they are nervous about giving presentations; they need help to stay on track. Staying on track and on time is definitely important, so these are important things to focus on and reading a pre-written talk can help with these.

However, I think writing down your presentation and reading it is the wrong solution. It has downsides that make your presentation worse, undermining the whole point of why you’re giving the talk in the first place.

There are a couple of reasons you shouldn’t read your presentation:

First, it’s difficult for non-native speakers to follow complex English. Academic language is often complex and hard to follow to begin with, and written English tends to be much more complex than spoken. In a conference, especially international conference, most people won’t have English as their first language, so they will be following talks in a second, third or fourth language (if you think having a fourth language sounds unlikely, you’re probably a native English speaker). Chances are, you are not a native speaker either, so you’re likely to mispronounce words or simply have an accent some people won’t be familiar with. Native speakers can also have accents that make following their talks more difficult for some. For example, not everyone is accustomed to listening to Australian accents.

Second, reading from a paper means that you’re not engaging with the audience, making it even harder for the audience to focus on what you’re trying to convey. Instead of focusing on the audience and on what they get from your talk, you’re focusing on the text. Even an interested audience will struggle with maintaining their interest in a talk if the speaker could be replaced with a loudspeaker.

I understand that it might not be realistic to assume that everyone present their talks fluently and with confidence. Many people have some form of anxiety from public speaking. Even if you must write down your talks beforehand for whatever reason, you can still make the presentation easier to follow, if you make sure your talk is written like spoken language. Spoken language is simpler, has shorter sentences and is much easier for the audience to follow. You might have to go through your talk multiple times to turn it from complex written English to simpler spoken English.

However, if you’re already converted your talk to spoken language, you’re halfway to presenting it without reading from a paper. The secret to confidently presenting your talk is preparation. As an example, here’s what I’ve previously done when presenting under a strict time limit:

I first wrote my talk down as an argument, focusing on the ideas I wanted to convey. After that, I translated the text from written English to spoken English. That required several rounds of editing and speaking out loud, where I replaced all the words that I struggled with. I also made the sentences shorter and easier to follow. I then focused on the timing, making sure that I wasn’t going over time, editing the text until I was sure I could present it in the time I had.

At this point, I had spoken the presentation out loud multiple times, learning it in the process. The goal wasn’t to memorise the talk, but that happened as a side-effect of the preparation. I then converted the main talking points to notes on my presentation slides. I talked through the presentation following the slide notes, editing them as needed.

When I actually gave the talk, I could keep myself on track by just glancing at the notes on the slides. I also had the talk printed out as a fall-back in case I needed it, but because of the preparation, I never needed it. The process of preparing the presentation also worked to prepare me for the talk.

I don’t prepare for all talks this intensely, and this style of preparation works best for a shorter academic presentation where you want to make sure that you convey the key points to an audience and want to feel confident in presenting them. For longer talks, like lectures, this would probably be too much work.

I hope these suggestions help others turn their written texts into presentations. If you have any comments or questions, you can reach me from the contact details given on this site.