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Friday, 20 February 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – How to win at academic presentations: top tips on what to say and how to say it.


How to win at academic presentations: top tips on what to say and how to say it.


is an essential skill for communicating research, but unfortunately it
is not a skill researchers get much guidance on. 
Sarah Knowles
pulls together some general advice on giving an engaging and
informative talk. There should be some kind of added value for your
audience coming to hear you speak, and careful consideration of the
content and the format will ensure they leave with a thought-provoking
take-home message. And always remember: You are a better speaker than
you think you are.

You really can’t escape presentations as a researcher. If you want to
submit your work to a conference, then you’ll need to be willing to
present (unless you only ever want to do posters. In which case what on
earth is wrong with you?). Most job or training interviews will ask you
to deliver a presentation. You’ll also quite often give less formal
presentations as part of project meetings. And of course lots of
researchers also ‘present’ when they’re teaching.

Despite this, how to give a good presentation is something you’re
typically left to work out for yourself. It’s similar to ‘how to write
well’ which you also just have to try to pick up as you go along. I do
wonder if perhaps this explains why lots of academics are quite poor
writers – and, yes, poor presenters. Both presenting and writing
are skills, and mastering them takes time. But I do think there’s some
general advice that can be helpful when thinking about presentations.
This is developed both from my experience of presenting and also my
experience of being in the audience, for both good and bad talks.

theatre-430552_1280Image credit: Pixabay binpage CC0 Public Domain
Before I start though, I think any advice should come with two caveats:

1. Your best presentation style will be the one you’re most comfortable with.

This might mean that some of the advice below just doesn’t work for
you. If you feel much more confident with text heavy slides and you
struggle to make slides more visual without losing the flow of your
argument, then by all means stick to this. What I would suggest is that
it’s worth at least experimenting with the tips below. Volunteer for an
internal presentation (journal or methods clubs are good for this) and
have a go at presenting in a different way to usual.

2. All advice is easier said than done, and I’m sure I don’t follow my own recommendations half the time!

This is perhaps less a caveat than a confession. I really just want
to acknowledge that presenting can be hard, that it’s not a skill we get
a lot of explicit guidance on as researchers, and that often we’re just
doing the best we can in the time available. The tips below are meant
to be helpful suggestions, and not a critique of anyone who does things

So, here’s my top tips for academic presentations:

What to say

  • There are three things you must do: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you’ve told them.
  • Do not miss any of the above steps!
  • The first part should be actually telling them something about the
    content – “I’m going to talk to you today about why we’re missing the
    potential of eHealth by ignoring user needs” for example. Not one of
    those slides that just reads “OVERVIEW: Introduction. Methods. Results.
    Conclusions.” That’s not actually telling them anything, and it’s dull
    dull dull.
  • The recap is your chance to hammer your point (or what you hope is
    your point) home. What’s the take home titbit that you want the audience
    to remember? If they were to go up to their colleagues tomorrow and say
    “I saw an interesting talk yesterday that showed ….” – what do you want
    that last part to be?
  • Talks, like research papers and essays, are not a detective novel.
    You don’t have to make the audience wait until the end to find out what
    the conclusion is. This is actually more true the shorter the
    presentation is. If you’ve only got 5 minutes, you need to give them the
    take home message really really soon.
  • Only include data and diagrams you will explain. This goes for both
    qualitative and quantitative. If you are going to present huge tables of
    analyses, then at least be nice enough to highlight the bits you expect
    the audience to look at. Sometimes I get the impression people just
    stick these in to prove they did them. If you’re going to include big
    chunks of transcripts from interview data, then again make sure you
    highlight the main points.
  • Don’t fill your talk with bits that are anticipated question
    rebuttals. I get this impression a lot in PhD student talks (though
    possibly the fault is their supervisors from over use of the “your
    reviewer will pick that up as a problem!!!” refrain). This is when
    people go into huge detail about a particular method or finding, or a
    very defensive justification of a theory or interpretation. If someone
    wants to critique you on these issues, let them do so in the Q&A
    (this doesn’t stop you preparing for them. You can still write notes for
    yourself about how to respond to possible comments, which can be very
    helpful). Don’t however mess up the flow of your talk or take time away
    from more interesting parts just because you want to nervously pre-empt
    someone picking a hole in your methodology.

How to say it

  • Within the time limit! Lots of people seem to struggle with this (if
    the number of people going over time at conferences is anything to go
    by). I think sticking to time is less about it being a good talk (though
    probably the two correlate) and more about respecting both your
    audience and the other speakers whose time you’re cutting into. This is
    another good reason to use the “state the findings first” approach
    mentioned above, as then even if you have to skip your final slides
    you’ve already made your point.
  • If you’re really fretting about the idea of skipping to your last
    slides to quickly summarise the conclusions, just think of it this way:
    you’re immediately making your Q&A part easier on yourself, as
    pretty much whatever someone asks you can say “Well actually that was
    something I was going to cover in slide 7” and then go back to that and
    discuss it. That’s kind of cheeky though, so don’t tell anyone I told
  • Visual! The slide should not be your exact talk, in text form, while
    you stand and read it out. There should be some kind of added value of
    me coming to hear you speak, or at the very least you shouldn’t bore me
    to death by just reading word-for-word from a slide that I finished
    reading in 30 secs but you’ll be reading out loud for 3 minutes.
    Similarly, put as little text on as possible – just the headlines if you
    can. It can be hard in academic talks to go easy on the text, but you
    can try at least to split up the text heavy slides with a few images,
    and white space on the slides will make what you do include much easier
    to absorb!
  • You don’t automatically have to use PowerPoint, though I’d probably
    advise caution until academic conferences catch up with the times and
    offer stable internet connections/ anything other than archaic laptops
    and projectors. I’ve seen quite a few presentations using Prezi, and my issue in most cases has been Why are you using this instead of PowerPoint? Specifically, Prezi enables non-linear presentations
    – and I can think of lots of great uses for this, such as showing a
    changing process, showing how certain things nest inside others,
    covering different spots before swooping out to the big picture and so
    on. But quite often people still do a standard linear presentation –
    they just give the audience mild motion sickness while doing so. Think
    about the platform you’re using and whether it adds anything. I’ve seen
    someone do a great presentation just using Stich It for
    example, which is a programme that stitches together different webpages
    into a slideshow. This worked because the format matched and aided the
    talk, which was going through different representations of work online.
  • Watch this. You Suck at Powerpoint: 5 Shocking Design Mistakes You Need To Avoid. It’s brilliant.
Finally, I think the most important thing I can say is “You are a better speaker than you think you are, and no-one thinks you look nervous.” Practically everyone I know has said at some point “Oh that went really badly, I bet everyone could tell I was nervous
and genuinely in not a single case has that been true. Remember you are
far more aware of your body and any slight differences in your voice
than anyone else in the audience. They are also far more interested in
the talk and the slides than wondering if you look a bit peaky. And even
if they do, if anything I think it can make them more sympathetic!
We’ve all been there after all.

The other fear I know everyone has is that someone in the audience
will make their life miserable during the Q&A. Again, most audiences
I’ve known are friendly. Most conferences now have half a dozen
parallel sessions competing for audience interest, so remember that if
they’ve turned up to yours it’s because they are genuinely interested in
what you have to present. Yes, they might ask hard questions, but
because they really want to know the answer – they think the work you do
is important and so we should ask important questions about it. There’s
also nothing wrong with saying “I hadn’t thought about that.” Maybe
follow with “That’s really useful to bring up thank you – could we
perhaps a quick chat about it after the talk?” This stops you getting
embroiled in a live debate on stage (if you’re the kind of person who
doesn’t enjoy that!), will probably flatter the person asking the
question, and best of all gives you an opportunity to have a proper
discussion with someone who might be able to help you.

I guess it’s possible that there could be a conference where your
boss’s worst enemy is there and deliberately attempting to trip you up
or humiliate you. If this ever does happen though, be assured that the
rest of the audience can spot it a mile off, and insolent people like me
are probably already making disparaging comments about them on twitter.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the
position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School
of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Sarah Knowles is a Research Fellow with the NIHR
School for Primary Care Research. She currently works in the Centre for
Primary Care at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on
mental health, and she works on a variety of randomised controlled
trials, systematic reviews and qualitative studies to evaluate mental
health treatments. Her main research interests are e-health and mental
health technologies, co-morbidity of mental and physical health
problems, user-led design and patient and public involvement in
research. She tweets @dr_know.

Impact of Social Sciences – How to win at academic presentations: top tips on what to say and how to say it.

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