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Book review: English for presentations at international conferences

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Book review: English for presentations at international conferences. Technical Communication 58(4):325–326.

Wallwork, A. 2010. English for presentations at international conferences. Springer, New York, NY. 179 p. including index. ISBN 978-1-4419-6590-5 (paperback, US$29.95)

This slim book is aimed at presenters with English as their second language (ESL presenters), and specifically at scientific researchers—an unfortunate choice, as this book has far broader appeal. It’s a great introduction for anyone who must learn the art of presentations, and a great refresher for experienced presenters. Designed as a reference book, it both leads you through the steps to prepare a presentation and helps you quickly find topics through the table of contents, which cleverly serves as a checklist for the overall approach. Although Wallwork claims early on that he’ll largely ignore the issues of designing and creating the visual aspects of slides, that’s misleading. He provides ample information on integrating visuals with written and spoken text. Though the rules are sometimes simplistic, and you’ll break many of them as your skills grow, they’re excellent guidance for beginning speakers and won’t detract from a pro’s presentations.

A refreshing change is the book’s continuing focus on audience—both the book’s readers and those who must sit through their presentations. Wallwork explains the characteristics that determine how audiences listen and understand. He reminds us that too many speakers spend more time designing their slides than practicing the presentation, and of the value of informal review by colleagues before giving the formal presentation at a conference. Wallwork clearly distinguishes between papers and the presentations based on them, and explains how to identify and clarify the key messages long before we start creating the slides. He offers the intriguing insight that crafting a 2-minute “elevator speech” to describe your presentation ensures that you focus on the real messages; subsequently, you can elaborate on these points, but always and only in support of those key messages.

The book is full of useful tips, including a section on overcoming nervousness, and includes copious examples, including “before and after” comparisons that make the principles concrete. Much of the advice applies equally well to writing, and doubly so if you’re communicating with an ESL audience. But the book’s heart lies in its many presentation-specific gems, such as the advice to speak in your own voice. For ESL presenters, Wallwork mentions online resources such as annotated BBC news transcripts that both display the words and let you hear how they’re pronounced; for anyone, the collection of speeches at TED.com reveals the tricks of the world’s best presenters.

Starting presentations with bulleted lists of your key concepts is a great way to help the audience learn your pronunciation as you describe what they see on the screen. Although the author discourages the use of “builds” (adding one bullet at a time to the screen), he correctly notes the superiority of this technique to filling a slide with text: it primes the audience to understand what you’re about to say and accommodates the fact that most ESL audiences are better at reading than at listening to English. I’ve found this technique remarkably effective in my own presentations to diverse audiences.

The book is not without problems, such as Wallwork’s mixed message about humor. Though he notes that visuals can add humor (p. 83), he subsequently advocates caution (p. 101). Unfortunately, few people are natural comics, and the risk of cultural gaffes is particularly high with international audiences. In my experience, only mild self-deprecation successfully spans cultures, and no presenter should attempt humor without a profound understanding of their audience. The book’s index is inadequate (it’s really a concordance), exacerbated by the decision to repeat the same index with page and section numbers instead of creating a single index and doubling its size. The writing is generally clear, but several typos and other proofreading lapses slipped through (e.g., the list of editing services on “p. 164” actually appears on p. 166), and words or phrasing may sometimes be difficult for ESL audiences to parse (“adverbs of concession”, p. 134; “emotive adjectives”, p. 139). Wallwork’s suggestion that Chinese authors often get L and R reversed (p. 29) is rare in my experience (hundreds of manuscripts by Chinese authors), though it’s common for Japanese authors. And the suggestion (p. 73) that automatic spellcheckers may incorrectly and automatically change words is incorrect; he was undoubtedly thinking of Word’s AutoCorrect feature.

These quibbles notwithstanding, I can unreservedly recommend this book both for ESL presenters and for English presenters with ESL audiences, and for anyone who needs to learn or to polish presentation skills. The best thing I can say about this book is that it kindled my desire to try many of these tricks in my own presentations.


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