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.

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