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Notes on Public Speaking for Academics and Others

Tomorrow's Research

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Be cognizant of your audience and make a connection. There’s a big difference between speaking to academics compared to university students or community members.



The posting below gives some excellent advice on public speaking as well as links to some YouTube videos that demonstrate the process in greater detail.  It is by Dr. Alvaro Huerta, assistant professor of urban & regional planning and ethnic & women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” San Diego State University Press (2013). This posting was first published July 17, 2017 at HuffPost:

Copyright 2017 Alvaro Huerta.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Research

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Notes on Public Speaking for Academics and Others


I’ve been a public speaker since 1985, starting as a UCLA student activist, then as a community organizer and, now, as an academic. This includes delivering countless political speeches, academic lectures, interviews, keynote presentations and two TEDx talks. My TEDx talks include “Migration as a Human Right” and “From Tijuana to East L.A. to Academia: Life Lessons from a Scholar.” I’ve also delivered several eulogies (one too many) and one failed wedding toast.

Thus, I’m sharing some public speaking advice (and related videos) for academics and others based on what I’ve found to be effective over the past three decades. The first two videos represent satirical YouTube talks. These hilarious talks provide insightful tips on my main argument: Public speaking is a performance—not my original idea. (This is not to imply that form prevails over content.)

1. On being a thought leader. View “Thought Leader” by Pat Kelly with almost 2 million hits.

2. On sounding smart. View “How to Sound Smart in Your TEDx Talk” by Will Stephen with over 5 million hits.

3. Start strong and with confidence, like one of the greatest performers of our time, James Brown. In 1964, Brown outperformed Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones with “Out of Sight” on the T.A.M.I. Show.

4. Begin with a hook, to capture the audience’s attention. For instance, in my short story, “La Pistola,” based on my late father, I started with this sentence: “My father never left home without his gun.”

5. Be cognizant of your audience and make a connection. There’s a big difference between speaking to academics compared to university students or community members. Before delivering a talk/presentation, secure as much information about your audience as possible. As you learn more about your audience, aim to make a connection. I once delivered a talk at a juvenile hall, where I felt nervous given my outsider status. I did, however, grow up on the mean streets of East Los Angeles, where many of my childhood friends spent their “summer vacations” in juvenile hall. I made sure to mention this fact. Actually, I started with a joke about leaving my cell phone in the car, given their criminal records. Luckily, they laughed and I made it out safely.

6. If you’re losing or have lost your audience (it happens to all of us), quickly change your approach. I once attended an academic conference where the speaker lost the audience in the first five minutes. Instead of trying something different, like posing a question, he continued with the torturous lecture for another fifteen minutes, putting the audience to sleep. On a related note, it’s a good practice to record your talks/presentations, so you learn from your errors.

7. If nervous, avoid eye contact with your audience. Look a little above their heads. I’ve delivered a couple of lectures where I found myself focusing on someone with an indifferent or sour look on his/her face, disrupting my concentration.

8. It takes a lot of practice to reach a high level of skill in any field, so it’s imperative to over prepare. Practice your written talks/presentations in front of a mirror or with constructive colleagues, friends and/or family members. Since I deliver all of my talks/presentations from memory (sometimes with the help of power point), I first write them down in polished drafts and then record them. A week or two prior to my talks/presentations, I listen to them several times, while driving on the 10 freeway or waiting at the airport.

9. Know your strengths and limitations. For instance, if you’re not funny, refrain from making jokes. I once browsed the review site and found a few comments by our angelic students, like the following one: “WORST professor ever who isn’t funny and laughs at his own jokes!” It’s good that the student held back. Humor is all about timing, as demonstrated by Father Gregory Boyle in his powerful TEDx talk, “Compassion and Kinship.”

10. Be independent, self-confident and courageous, as Steve Jobs conveyed brilliantly in his 2015 Stanford Commencement Address: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”