On the importance of addressing the audience in conference presentations (Francisco Javier Fernandez Polo)

In this post, Francisco Javier Fernandez Polo describes the variety of roles played by explicit audience-mentions in conference presentations and their contribution to the eventual success of the talk. He finds that native and non-native speakers have different, though equally effective, ways of handling this important aspect of their talks.

"ISSI2005-audience" by jvoss is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0Let’s face it: presenting a paper at a conference is rather different from writing a research article. It is a different language altogether. Okay, the jargon is there, the need to prove your expertise, to mitigate your claims and critiques… The structure generally mimics that of research articles too. But the style is different – and the main reason why this is so is because of the audience. Some are friends and probably you will be attending their talks too. Some are new to you and your work and eager to listen to you. The title of your talk sounds interesting and the topic seems relevant for their own research. Will the presentation live up to their expectations? Will you be able to prove the rigour of your procedures, the relevance of your findings? How can you connect with that bunch of people, create a friendly atmosphere and make them have a favourable impression of your work?

Appealing to an audience is arduous work. They may be tired of listening to paper after paper. Or they might be anxious at the prospect of presenting their own work in the same panel just after you (“I hope this person doesn’t go over time and force me to hurry up!”). Some may even be thinking “why am I not in my hotel room finalizing and rehearsing the paper I have to present this afternoon” or simply dozing off after lunch and wondering why they didn’t go back to the hotel for a short siesta.

Connecting with the audience is always difficult, even when you are a native speaker. But what about when English is not your mother tongue, which actually may be the case for the vast majority of speakers at conferences? You are tempted to read out your carefully crafted text, but you have decided to try and play it natural. So you have memorized most of your presentation and prepared a beefy PowerPoint, just in case. Through extensive reading in your area, you now have an excellent command of your discipline’s jargon and have learned a large collection of stock phrases, enough to prove your expertise. And yet, you feel that, in spite of the indisputable scientific value of your research, your presentation is a bit lifeless, you are at pains to make it sound interesting, friendly, entertaining, enthralling… convincing. What can you do to reach that audience?

I conducted a study of those moments when speakers at conferences divert from the presentation of the topic, properly speaking, to address their audience (see my article on this). My aim was to see what they were doing in these asides. And I also wanted to know if native and non-native, or English as a lingua franca (ELF) speakers, “use” these moments differently. In this post I will share what I found out.

Most frequently, when speakers address their audience they do so to “craft agreement”, by directing their attention to important data or facts that prove the speaker’s point. The audience are invited to “see” for themselves (as you can see here, you see that, etc.) and get convinced. The second most frequent role is that of imparting knowledge, the characteristic professorial role (I’ll show you, I’ll give you my interpretation and so on). But be mindful, – it’s okay if you decide to play the professor’s role, but definitely your audience are not your students, which is why many of these moments are often highly mitigated (I just wanted to show you that, I would like to briefly tell you and similar). Of course, another moment when the audience gains prominence in the talks is the highly ceremonial thanksgivings – a convenient icebreaker at the onset of the presentation – to the panel moderator for a complimentary introduction, to the audience for attending or to the conference organizers and the technical staff for their help.

I have also noticed that there are many moments when speakers divert from the topic to show empathy and solidarity with those attending the event. They will behave as sympathetic speakers, expressing concern for the clarity of the data (you’ve got too many columns), the quality of the sound and the presentation in general (I think you can hear me, yes?) or the interest of the topic (I hope that there’ll be something of interest for you). Others may choose to stress their professional or even their personal links with the audience (if you come from Japan [like I do] or some of you know X [a friend of mine]), or try to befriend the gallery by offering them a gift (I’ll be more than happy to send you the powerpoint), and all of these with the ultimate intention of bringing the crowd on board. There are, of course, many other moments when audiences are explicitly referred to in a conference talk. I will conclude by mentioning a rather important one in my data, and this is when speakers address attendees to direct their attention to or help them understand the inevitable visuals populating today’s conference presentations (you got there an example, if you look at the column on the right and similar). Visuals play such a central part in conference presentations nowadays that learning how to design them and how to weave them into the presentation has become a major conference presentation skill (see also Nicholas Rowe’s post on conference visuals).

Did I observe any differences between native speakers and those whose mother tongue is not English in terms of the way they deal with this crucial aspect of their talks? Indeed, I did find some striking, and yet predictable, differences. For instance, ELF speakers in my data seem to appeal to their audience far more frequently than native speakers do in those moments when they direct their attention to supportive information on the slides. Perhaps because the visual medium is more important for them, a sort of handy lifejacket that can always be relied on when in linguistic difficulty. On the other hand, the native speakers excel at creating moments of personal intimacy at strategic points of the talk. Humour and solidarity may be critical in the set-up phase, to position the audience favourably towards the presentation, but also in the closing section, in preparation for the much-dreaded question time, or even in the middle, to dissipate monotony. However, creating a long and subtle interpersonal interlude demands language confidence, and native speakers naturally seem to have an edge here. It may be a good idea to crack a joke just before you take up the audience’s questions, may be an excellent way of gaining their support… or the perfect way to ruin your public face, and your presentation in the process, if you misfire. Naturally, many non-native speakers prefer to play it safe, just in case!

In my study, I conclude that both groups of speakers might benefit from a critical appraisal of their own practices and a positive orientation towards those of the other group: the native speakers’ successful use of sophisticated positive politeness may be inspiring for ELF speakers, just as the latter’s enhanced exploitation of the valuable multimodal resources of the modern conference presentation may also hold a lesson for the NS presenter.

A couple of caveats before we go. All the participants in my study, both native and non-native speakers, have a fairly good command of English and my research was conducted exclusively on paper presentations at conferences on Linguistics. One may wonder whether these findings and conclusions are extensible to other groups of conference-goers, with a poorer command of English, and to other disciplines. Although disciplinary and even intradisciplinary differences are to be expected, they will have a common denominator, the strategic importance of explicitly addressing audiences at key points and responding to their expectations of participation in the event. How this is achieved in the specific context of the conference presentation, as different, for instance, from lecturer-student interactions, is a complex question with numerous ramifications of a disciplinary, linguistic and cultural nature. The great practical relevance of the eventual findings, in particular for the training of future conference presenters, can barely be stressed enough.

About Francisco Javier Fernandez Polo

PhotoJFdezPolo19Francisco Javier Fernández Polo is a lecturer in English at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain), where he teaches general English, English for research purposes and Spanish translation. His research interests cover many subjects, with a hunch for applied linguistics (in a broad sense) and English used as a lingua franca in academic contexts: conferences, video-mediated student talks and academic forums in higher education. He loves nature activities, traveling, reading, photography and cooking (not necessarily in this order). He hates narrow-mindedness, personal and nature abuse and fanaticism. You may contact him at xabier.fernandez@usc.es or follow him on Twitter.

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