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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Think of the audience

Click through for Tseen's #ResBaz talk (3 Feb 2016)

Click through for Tseen’s #ResBaz talk (3 Feb 2016)

There are a few things that people are always surprised to find out about me.

First, I haven’t read many classic works of literature despite being awarded a doctorate in literary studies.

Second, I was the editor of the Cactus and Succulent Society of Queensland’s magazine for a decade.

Third, I have an abiding fear of public speaking.

It’s this third fact that makes people look at me most strangely. They say, “But don’t you have a job that means you’re having to do public speaking all the time?”, or “Aren’t you used to it by now?”.

These are good questions.

I do have a job that requires me to get up and talk in front of people all the time. I conduct workshops and seminars, present conference papers and facilitate panels, and give keynote addresses.

And, almost every single time, I range from being moderately anxious to white-knuckled-3am-staring-at-the-ceiling panic. Read more of this post

I only have eyes for Excel

JonathanLaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University.

He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


Data is increasingly part of our lives. This isn’t surprising when you consider that networking giant Cisco has predicted that the data centre traffic alone in 2018 will hit 8.6 Zetabytes. That’s 8.6 trillion gigabytes, or enough to cover 119 trillion hours of streaming music. Enough for 22 months for every single person on the planet in 2018!

We are increasingly exposed to data in research as well. Think about digital humanities, for example. This means that we increasingly need better ways to display, interpret, and analyse it.

Image from Jonathan Laskovsky

Image from Jonathan Laskovsky

What we are really talking about here is Data Visualisation (DataViz).

In a world of big data, the importance of good DataViz cannot be underestimated.

This applies along the entire spectrum of research, from grant applications to reports to journal articles.

Or at least it should.

In my job, I often see project descriptions of concise, tightly written prose. Succinct, well-structured arguments that outline in crisp sentences what the research is about, and clearly identify roles and responsibilities in measured, orderly terms.

Then there is often a table.

Usually, this table is outlining either data discussed within the proposal, or showing the project timeline with milestones, and staff markers and outputs, etc.

This table is almost always hideous.

Let me be clear: often, this is not always entirely the fault of the author. Microsoft Word deserves a special place in hell for its table tool. A special burning place with sharp pointy things. It deserves this because, for a product that has been around for over 30 years across three platforms, it still doesn’t include a decent table tool. That’s right, everyone – there was an Atari version of Microsoft Word (for those of use who can remember when Atari made computers…).

Really, though, Word is not what you want to fall in love with.

When it comes to data, you should only have eyes for Excel, which is Word’s smarter, slightly nerdy sibling.

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