The Presenter’s Secret Weapon: Test Audiences

Two people addressing an audience in a work environment.

When I was invited to give my first keynote address, I was fresh out of my Ph.D. I knew that I would be addressing a broader audience — including people who didn’t study in my area of physics — and I could not simply treat it as another research presentation. I worked hard to craft a talk that would be entertaining, informative, and accessible. I pored over every slide, looking for the right mix of text and images, and I practiced every word to hone my timing and delivery.

But the most important thing I did was ask my friends for help.

Once I had the talk together and practiced, I assembled my test audience and presented it. My panel consisted of three, carefully chosen reviewers — all were highly intelligent and experienced speakers, but none of them had the least bit of experience in fluid dynamics, my specialty.

  • P held a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, specializing in the dynamics and controls of spacecraft.
  • J had a Ph.D. in physics, focused on experiments using cold atoms.
  • R, my non-technical outlier, had a Ph.D. in Classics.

We got together one evening, me beside the television with my slides, and the three of them perched on the couch, each with a pen and paper in hand. I gave them a brief introduction to let them know the event I was speaking at and what audience I expected, but otherwise, I gave my presentation just as I’d practiced. Each of them took notes as I spoke.

Once I finished, they asked follow-up questions, just as you’d get after any talk, but then we got down to the serious business. We’d walk through the presentation a second time, slide-by-slide, so that they could share their impressions, point out any problems, and share their thoughts on how I could improve. They gave me insight into the talk that I couldn’t manage on my own; they told me when I got too technical, what parts were confusing, which graphics worked for them, and which jokes I was better off not making.

I scribbled my own notes as they spoke, sometimes collecting whole pages of ideas to consider. After a day or two, I returned to my slides, made changes, and practiced again. And when the time came to give my talk for real, I stood at the front of the room and delivered with smooth confidence, ending to enthusiastic applause.

My test audience reconvened for many a practice talk, and no matter how much I improved as a speaker, they always had valuable advice for me. Whether you have a poster session or a keynote address coming up on your schedule, you, too, can benefit from a test audience. Here are a few tips for setting yours up:

  • Pick people with a variety of backgrounds. Don’t just pick people from your research group; they already know your work and won’t be able to judge if your explanation is good enough for a newcomer.
  • Select people who will be honest with you. This can be tough. Nobody wants to hear that what they’ve worked hard on sucks, but honest critique is how we improve. I did pick friends for my test audience, but I picked friends who would have no qualms giving me their true opinions.
  • Volunteer to return the favor. Chances are that your test audience members will give a talk at some point, too. Let them know that you’ll help them out in return. Our crew got together to listen to J practice before an outreach presentation, and it let me hone my own critiquing skills, which in turn improved my performance as a speaker.
  • Come with questions. After a 45 minute talk, your test audience may feel a little overwhelmed. If you have some questions to prompt them, you’ll get much better feedback than if you simply ask, “How was it?” If you sign up for my scicomm newsletter, I’ll send you a list of ten great questions to ask your test audience.
  • Show your gratitude for their time. Spending a couple hours listening to and critiquing someone else’s talk deserves some thanks. Depending on your audience, you might offer to buy them dinner, beer, cookies, or something similar. I often picked up take-out from a restaurant we all liked, followed by delivering my talk. Never present to a hungry audience, if you can avoid it!
  • Let them know how the final talk went. Your test audience is invested in your success! Don’t forget to let them know how things went. They’ll appreciate knowing that their advice helped you give a great presentation.

With experience, you may gain more confidence presenting without a dry-run in front of your test audience, but I’ve found that every talk comes out better if you get feedback first. What insights have your test audience given you?

And, remember, if you want to get my list of questions to ask your test audience, simply click here!

(Image credit: MD Duran)

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