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.

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Ways researchers can be better, different writers

After leaving the academy to pursue her dream of helping others achieve their writing goals, Kellye McBride started her own freelance editorial business in 2015 and has never looked back.

She is enthusiastic about helping graduate students, researchers, and scholars improve their writing and developing their skill sets when it comes to articles, book proposals, and dissertations.

Kellye lives in Portland, OR in the United States, and blogs at kellyemcbrideediting.comShe regularly posts about academic writing and scholarly publishing.


Photo by Juliette Leufke | unsplash.com

Photo by Juliette Leufke | unsplash.com

As academics, we often emphasise the importance of research, networking with others in our respective fields, and building a profile when it comes to professional opportunities. Though these are important topics worthy of consideration, the most crucial aspect of our jobs is often overlooked when we are so focused on advancing our academic careers: writing.

Not only is the average scholar is expected to have a number of professional publications in peer-reviewed journals, many disciplines also want them to publish a book to establish themselves early on in their career. Additionally, if scholars want to secure the right amount of funding, they must also become effective grant writers. The list of required written documents for early career researchers can be endless and, frankly, overwhelming.

Training and support for these kinds of writing are practically non-existent. Even if a scholar has an effective advisor and is well practiced as an academic writer, they might still run into trouble when it comes to grant writing, crafting text for a teaching portfolio, or writing for the public. This is not the fault of the academic. It’s like being a talented oil painter who is asked to learn watercolor overnight for a particular commission. Scholars are often poorly trained when it comes to being adept at the types of writing that will help ensure their success. Read more of this post

What viral means for us

This is based on a talk I gave recently to research administrators at Northwestern University in Chicago. Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made it possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Recently, we posted It Gets Worse, an article about the crisis of casualisation in universities. I wrote it in collaboration with the wonderful Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles of CASA, and it was cross-posted to the CASA blog. We thought that it was an important problem.

So, it seems, did a lot of other people.

Graph of daily views, showing a consistent pattern of 200 - 900 views, except for the latest day, which shows almost 3,000

This is what viral looks like for us

The response was amazing – heartfelt and very real. Hopefully, it adds another pebble to the avalanche that will be needed to bring reform to the sector.

While a lot of people were clearly interested in the issue, I thought some might be interested in how it played out behind the scenes, so to speak. This is how we work, and how Research Whisperer got to this point.

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How to run a shared social account

Back in October 2014, my buddy @deborahbrian asked about running a shared Twitter account. I quickly wrote up a post and dropped it into the Banana Lounge (my personal blog). This is an updated, revised version of that post, informed by another couple of years’ experience and more trial and error. 


Photo by www.flickr.com/photos/carlos_maya | Shared under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/carlos_maya | Shared under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Since getting into social media – especially Twitter – in a big way, I’ve had a fair amount of experience in running shared accounts.

  1. My research network’s Twitter (@aasrn) and Facebook group started as a shared account.
  2. Research Whisperer (@researchwhisper) and its Facebook page has always been a joint one with @jod999.
  3. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve run the La Trobe Researchers accounts (@LTUresearchers | Facebook page) with my colleague Jason Murphy (@murphy_jason).

I should present this post with the caveat that I have no formal communications qualifications or training. All my experience is on the job, and self-taught.

When I run social media and digital research profile workshops, I’m often approached about how to run institution-face accounts: research centres or institutes, specific major projects, social that’s associated with group research blogs, etc.

By institution-face, I mean the specific context of formal university units or academic groups, but this advice would apply across a range of situations.

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Why are grant applications confidential?

Photo of a large bag labeled 'Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling'.

Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling, by Dan Brickley on Flickr.

One of the first rules that I learnt when I started as a research whisperer was that grant applications are confidential documents. We should never talk about an application, other than with the applicants.

I’ve seen that rule applied with different levels of stringency at different times.

Think about these questions for a moment:

  • Should the very fact that someone is drafting an application be treated as confidential information?
  • Should you be able to talk to other people in the research office about a draft application? How widely?
  • Should you be able to send an application for internal review? Do you need to check with the applicant first?
  • Is an application still confidential after the grants have been announced? Can we put successful grant applications into a library, so that others can learn from great examples?
  • If two applicants are working on similar topics, and would gain from working together, can I introduce them to one another? How?

These questions define the borders of confidentiality. Most research offices would have different answers to some or all of these questions.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if confidentiality is the best way to go. Perhaps we have more to gain from broadcasting research ideas widely, than from keeping them close. Read more of this post

Research under attack?

We solicited this post from a veteran researcher whose work has at times been under attack in the mainstream media. They have asked to remain anonymous, but wanted to share their experience and suggest constructive actions other researchers might take if they find themselves in a similar situation.  

The actual research and researcher’s location is deliberately anonymised in this post.

We think the advice that’s offered here is insightful and very useful. Research into controversial topics needs to take place, and those who undertake it can run the risk of being targeted. It’s always good to have clarity about how much support you can count on from your institution – or networks – should something like this happen. 


Arguing | Artwork by www.flickr.com/photos/lucy-wu | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Arguing | Artwork by http://www.flickr.com/photos/lucy-wu | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As academics, we quickly become used to people disagreeing with us.

Our families might disagree with how we spend our time. Our line managers might disagree with our research priorities. And granting bodies might disagree with the claim that our research should be funded. These are all par for the course in academic life.

Different, however, is when those outside of the academy disagree with us. Typically, when this occurs, it involves an ideological conflict between our values and those of others. When this conflict is heightened by particular debates over current social issues, this can result in considerable backlash against academics.

In my experience, such a backlash tends to take the following forms:

  1. Active attempts to discredit the research (e.g. through questioning methodology or interpretation of findings)
  2. Active attempts to discredit the researcher (e.g. through questioning their personal values or personal life)
  3. Active attempts to discredit research itself (e.g. through questioning academic pursuits as having any worth)

In certain cases, speaking back to the first form of backlash can be productive. This might involve working with your university’s media team to develop a statement that can be released to clarify any misperceptions. It can also involve selectively engaging with media outlets where you are likely to be given a fair opportunity to clarify any misperceptions.

To a certain extent, cases involving the third form of backlash can be ignored, given anti-intellectualism as an ideological position is difficult to counter through recourse to the merits of research, though recent examples demonstrate that there may be something to be gained by challenging anti-intellectualism.

Speaking back to attempts at discrediting us personally is something different altogether. Read more of this post

How do we sound?

Graphic conversation (Image by Marc Mathieu on flickr; distributed under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0)

Graphic conversation (Image by Marc Mathieu on flickr; distributed under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0)

I was in Castlemaine for #MelbWriteUp last weekend and spent some of my time planning out the two presentations I’ll be doing at the INORMS conference in September.

One of them is part of a workshop organised by Tamika Heiden. The other is a paper that I’m presenting with my La Trobe colleague Jason Murphy. Both of them talk about social media and the kind of community-building that can take place through these channels, whether by design or serendipity.

One of the things that gave me pause was having to think through what it was we do to run the Research Whisperer.

Having run it for over five years now, you’d think that’d be dead easy. And some of it was: the process of soliciting and the guidelines we give potential guest post authors; our schedules for blog posting and social media channels; and, broadly, knowing what our blog’s topic territory is.

What was slightly harder to do was to talk about the blog’s (and our social channels’) voice and tone. Part of this is because Research Whisperer is run by Jonathan and I, and we appear never to have had to discuss this issue at all.

This not-talking about it has happened in a good way, though, because we were well aligned from the start. In retrospect, this surprises me a bit because we are very different personalities and – if anything – seem to represent extreme ends of the tendencies towards introversion and extroversion.

This post talks about social media voice and account ‘ownership’. I talk a lot about professional identity and boundaries when I run workshops. It’s one of the most asked questions in terms of how one represents oneself to the public, and what this might mean – what are the risks?

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