A Manifesto for Better Academic Presentations

Dr Jonathan Downie is a practising conference interpreter with a PhD in stakeholder expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University (2016).

His first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, was published by Routledge in 2016.

He is also a columnist on research issues for two industry magazines and is a regular speaker on the academic and translation & interpreting conference circuits.

He tweets at @jonathanddownie (personal / academic) and @integlangsbiz (interpreting / business).


Academic presentations are broken!

Admit it – the average academic talk is a cure for insomnia. It goes a bit like this:

  • Speaker clears their throat and begins in a hoarse whisper by reading their name and presentation title from the screen, despite the fact that those words are shown on the screen in font size 36!
  • Next comes the pointless “contents” slide. It still amazes me that when people have only 15 minutes to summarise the work that has taken four years of their life, they feel obligated to spend a quarter of that time explaining that their introduction will be followed by a literature review.
  • By the time we get to the meat of the presentation, the presenter has run out of steam. The part of the presentation that should have the biggest impact – what they did, why they did it and what they found – gets forgotten about or rushed as the speaker realises that their time has run out.

Presenter saying "That chart explained the quantum hall effect. Now, if you'll bear with me for a moment, this next graph shows rainfall over the Amazon basin. Punchline says: If you keep saying "bear with me for a moment", people take a while to figure out that you're just showing them random slides.

Slides, by Randall Munroe at xkcd.com (CC BY-NC 2.5).

But there is hope

During my PhD, Heriot-Watt University brought in a non-academic to teach us public speaking. While his job that day was to prepare us for an internal conference, his usual brief when working with universities is simpler: make academics interesting.

After a few hours with someone who was not wedded to weird academic customs (like reading from a typed manuscript!), we were changed. When the conference rolled around, the speakers he trained brought in samples of the plants they were working on, stepped away from the computer and used a presentation remote, walked up the amphitheatre into the audience, and cracked jokes (good ones, too).

It’s no wonder that, since he started that job, senior academics have always awarded the prizes for best paper to the people he coached. When we knowingly choose to present in a way that is attractive and palatable for human beings, the impact of our talks improves dramatically.

An academic talk is a performance

The rules of oral/visual media – such as conference talks – are different from the rules of written communication. As soon as you stand in front of an audience, you become a performer. At the core of all performance is presence, your presence in front of the audience and their presence in front of you.

The reason why we academics are uncomfortable with the performative aspect of presentations is that, historically, we have valued written media above oral/visual ones and accused those who learned how to use performance effectively of dumbing down. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Learning the principles of performance is just as intellectually challenging as learning how to write a paper or a grant application.

What does performance mean for academic talks?

When we understand that all academic talks are performances, the changes we need to make become clear. Of course, we must have excellent content and sharp arguments but we also need real human connection and a dash of creativity.

To get there, we need to start our talks differently. Rather than starting from the literature and working forward, we need to start with a big idea – a t-shirt message – and work out from there. What does your experiment / field study / analysis actually show? What theoretical advance have you made? If people only remember one thing that you said, what should it be? Say it up front.

Academic conferences would be much more engaging if all presenters took that simple rule to heart. Forget the traditional models – find a smart, approachable way to get people to the point where they understand what you are saying AND what it means.

But in my field, they don’t like change

I know how hard this can be. When I was learning about effective presenting, I tried delivering a very relaxed Prezi-talk to a conference where almost everyone else was reading pre-written papers. Mine went down like a lead balloon.

There, I learned that change has to come one step at a time. Maybe your field isn’t ready for jokes. Maybe your conference organisers expect you to bring PowerPoint slides. In that case, push the limits as far as you can. Create an entire presentation with no text. Begin with your conclusion and work backwards. Find one thing you can do differently in your next talk to shake things up and be memorable. You will be doing your career – and your entire field! – a great favour.

Then there is PowerPoint

I am not going to jump on the bandwagon of the PowerPoint condemners. It is not the tool that is at fault. It was never meant to function as a way of turning your talk into a thousand tiny bullet points.

But we do need to break our addiction to it. Is there a prop you could use to illustrate the main point of your talk or the experiment you carried out? Is there something you could act out or communicate with a picture? Once you’ve studied something intensely (often for four years or more), you absolutely can do a fifteen-minute talk about it with no notes and no slides. So, why not do it?

The best thing to do with PowerPoint is to ban people from using it until they can present confidently and clearly without it. Academics don’t need PowerPoint or Prezi or any other piece of software to ensure we are presenting well. In fact, we don’t even need computers. We know this stuff and we find it exciting. With a bit of work, we can discover how to communicate that to others too.

A coda

Just recently, I was addressing an industry conference and explained a theory from my field using four volunteers and a bar of hotel soap. Would I try that same stunt in an academic conference? Absolutely! When we learn to express our ideas and results clearly and creatively, those listening to us learn more effectively, too.

Perform with passion and creativity – it’s exactly what your audience and your field needs.

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3 Responses to A Manifesto for Better Academic Presentations

  1. Great advice! Being able to present key ideas from your work and engage others in it is an important skill for academics. I’d like to recommend a set of resources that a number of my colleagues and PhD students have found very useful for massively improving their presentations – the Potent Presentations Initiative of the American Evaluation Association. Developed to address concerns about the poor quality of presentations at the annual conference (and by implication evaluators’ ability to present their findings as part of their work), it has recorded webinars, checklists and templates around three important elements – messaging (start by identifying your key messages not by writing slides), design of presentation material (and why it might be best to prepare handouts that are not simply copies of your slides) and delivery. The resources are free to access http://www.eval.org/p2i

    Like

  2. Li Na says:

    good insights for academic writing!

    Like

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