Presenting: From Bad to Good (1 of 2)

Attention conservation notice: Advice on how to give better academic presentations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members–anyone who has to convey academic research (especially in the social sciences) to non-hyper-specialists at conferences or other situations.

Most people are bad at presenting

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: most presentations you will see are bad. As we’ll see later on, there are many ways that we can interpret the word ‘bad’, and there are many more ways to interpret the word ‘good’, but I think there are some consensus traits to labeling a talk as ‘bad’:

  • going over the allotted time. This is a deadly sin–maybe the deadliest–because it not only affects you but the other presenters and the audience.
  • lack of clarity. By the end of the first 60 to 75 seconds of close to 99% of all talks, the audience should know
    1. your research question/puzzle,
    2. your answer,
    3. the significance of your answer, and
    4. the methods you used to discover your evidence. (In a pinch, you can omit #4.)
  • elementary failures of presentation. Is your talk monotone? Are you too shy to make eye contact (or at least pretend to, using the failsafe ‘look at their foreheads’ method)? Do your slides have more words on them than the average paragraph? Did you read your slides?
  • failure to practice. Is the first time you’ve given this talk the ‘live’ presentation?
  • reading a paper. Sorry, political theorists: this is just as much a failure as submitting a PowerPoint deck to a journal would be.
  • not recognizing an audience’s reactions. Are you so wedded to your outline/script that you can’t change even when the audience is plainly confused?
  • disrespecting yourself. Are the first words out of your mouth “I’m not really an expert in this”? If so, then please don’t waste our time anymore. If you’re really not an expert, then shut up. If you are an expert–at least in this narrow corner of human knowledge–then why would you disqualify yourself in the audience’s eyes?

In my experience, a solid majority of academic presentations, and obviously a much larger share of undergraduate presentations, fall into at least one of these categories, and often more than one.

Three Rules To Give ‘Good’ Presentations

This is not a bit of advice about how to give The Best Talk Ever. This is a simple intervention to stop me from wanting to just Twitter the entire time during bad talks. Here are the three rules:

  1. Practice with a timer until you routinely finish within 90% of the allotted time.
  2. Practice your first 60 seconds two to three times as much as the full talk.
  3. Prepare your presentation as a text distinct from the paper.

Practice with a timer

This is the first, simplest piece of advice, but it remains the most frequently violated. (I’ve violated it often enough.) My insistence on this derives from a basic philosophy. You are not special. Your paper is not special. You must finish within the time limits.

Especially when you are beginning, you must be confident that you can reach the end of your talk, routinely, with 5 to 10 percent of the time remaining while still speaking slowly, pausing, and covering everything you need to cover in your talk. That will probably mean giving practice presentations about 5 times.

A great way to time yourself is using an app like Presentation Clock on the App Store (this is a link for iOS, if you use Android find an equivalent. This is a large, full-screen countdown app that will help develop your internal time sense and keep you on time even if it doesn’t.

Practice your first 60 seconds frequently

Your speech will be made or lost in the first few seconds. These need to be the snappiest, most precise moments in your talk. This opening window should serve as an oral abstract for your entire presentation. (In my experience, if you’re presenting for economists, they need to be snappy because you may not get to finish your talk as questions start coming too quickly after the first  90-120 seconds have elapsed.)

The most important points to hit are your research question, your answer, and the importance of what you found. By the end of the first minute of any serious talk, people should know where you are going to take them. Then the rest of the talk should

This should be your time. The only way other people should show up is to show that some other people were ‘right’, ‘wrong,’ or ‘secretly in agreement.’ That’s about one sentence–maybe two–and therefore about 5 to 10 seconds of the first 60 to 75 seconds. Other people can speak on their time; you shouldn’t weaken your argument by giving time back.

How important do I think it is to get your message out at the beginning? Here’s the first slide–the first slide!–I used in a talk at the ISA conference in Baltimore:

And here are my ‘presenter notes’ (the script) for that slide–pretty close to the remarks as delivered:

Good morning! My name is Paul Musgrave. Like some folks, I’m a little frustrated with the stagnation of current popular culture studies [in international relations]. And I want to talk to you about why the best path forward for popular culture and political science is to embrace “yes and” — keep doing what we’re doing but diversify our portfolios to add new perspectives to it.

This conveyed the major points I wanted to make:

  • the subfield is stuck
  • we need to diversify theoretical approaches (in my case, by adding more ‘positivist’ approaches, or at least that’s what people tell me my approach is….)
  • we also need to diversify our empirical applications
  • cite me (that’s why my name and Twitter handle were there, after all!)–this is the subtext of every academic talk.

Everything else was detail supporting this first slide.

Note that the third point isn’t mentioned explicitly in the opening paragraph–but it is conveyed in the subtitle of my talk (“beyond the undead”). Partly, that’s because I figured my audience could read and because I made that point explicitly later on; partly, it’s because the title of the panel was ‘Death To Zombies’ and I figured folks would guess I shared that perspective. In a written paper, of course, I would have had to say all three points explicitly and in more detail–but the point is that talks are not written: they are performed. Audiences can take note of nonverbal cues and visual information as well as the verbal ‘content’ of the talk to figure out what the talk is about.

This is an extreme, even for me–usually, the first 60-75 seconds of my talks are spread over several brief slides–but it shows that you can make your points simply and forcefully.

Your presentation is not a paper

At every point in preparing your presentation, remind yourself that a presentation is not a paper. Don’t

Special Bonus: What Your Talk Is About

As Philip Guo suggests, every academic talk has the same hidden agenda. You’re selling your ideas and research, but you are really selling yourself. Set up your talk so that you are telling one of four stories:

  1. ‘Common sense’ and intellectual rigidity have killed bold new ideas
  2. Faddish new ideas have displaced common-sense or intellectual standards
  3. Ideas matter less than research design
  4. Ugly data kills beautiful theory

Note that #1 and #2 are mirror images. #3 can be told through either #1 or #2 but the star is methodological innovation/standards, not theory. And, of course, in #4, the star is new data using old (or new!) methods. Good framing is no substitute for a good argument, but it certainly helps audiences comprehend even very good arguments more easily than poorly framed arguments.

But what you are also showing is that you are a careful/imaginative researcher who is more adventuresome/more grounded than other folks in the debate.

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