Friday, March 20, 2009

On Presentations

This past three weeks, I've taken part in three research presentations: one my own, and two others'. I'm not sure how my own went -- I never am. The only indication that it went fairly well was that people had plenty of questions, and none of them were along the lines of: "Well, you have some really interesting stories there, but..." The worst thing is when there are no questions. Then I know that I either a) lost them, or b) bored them. Neither of these is a good thing.

But on to the two other presentations. One (a presenter I invited) went really well, in my opinion. The other (an instructor in our own institution) did not. So, though most of my readers are probably well-practiced in making presentations, I thought I'd offer some observations on what went well and what did not.

1. Know your time limit, and stick to it. When I asked my guest presenter how long s/he'd be speaking for (in a one-hour time slot), s/he said "about 38 minutes." And damned if it wasn't precisely that long. This left plenty of time for questions from the audience. Presenter two, on the other hand, spoke for an hour and ten minutes in a series (one that s/he'd attended before) where speakers routinely speak for 35-50 minutes, leaving the rest of the time for questions. And said speaker only finished three-fourths of the material s/he had outlined.

2. Don't try to cram in more information than you can do justice to. Both speakers were presenting materials from much larger projects (dissertations in both cases, I think). Speaker one spent a bit of time on general background for a non-specialist audience, briefly outlined the larger project and its goals, then spent the bulk of the time on one discrete part of it. Speaker two appeared to be trying to present the entire larger work in capsule form. In the former case, the audience learned one thing, and learned it well; in the latter, we got little tidbits of a lot of things, but no real depth.

3. Define your question near the beginning of the talk, so your audience knows what to focus on as they listen. We were 15 minutes into speaker two's talk before I even really understood the topic, and at the end, I still didn't know what the central question was, much less the argument.

4. Anecdotes do not a talk make. Interesting anecdotes are great -- even essential to holding your audience's attention -- but they need to clearly serve a point. Speaker one did a great job with this, moving smoothly back and forth between introducing a point for analysis, presenting the evidence (stories from the documents), and analysis; speaker two just piled on the anecdotes. Many were interesting, and they got our attention, but if they were supposed to add up to something, we had no idea what it was supposed to be.

I think I may be getting cranky in my near-middle-age, handing out unsolicited advice like this, but perhaps it's of interest. If it saves one audience from a poorly-constructed talk, I'll be happy. And perhaps I'll even revisit this post the next time I have to give a talk, just to remind myself.


Historiann said...

Good advice. I think it comes down to respecting one's future audience enough to prepare carefully and thoughtfully. And yes--shorter is better than longer. You want to leave time for questions and discussion, which will flatter your audience and allow them to make connections and to feel smart. Never underestimate the power of letting your audience feel smart--it will make them think you're a pretty clever person, too.

dance said...

The more of this type of stuff that's out there, the better.

I was just moaning with a colleague about how when everyone gives a bad jobtalk, you have to hire people in spite of it, and then it starts not to matter at all. So keep fighting the fight for good talks!

Dr. S said...

Yeah, do you ever want just to stop a speaker and take him or her out in the hall for a minute or so? I sometimes do. (Want that, I mean. I've never actually done it.) I'd add to the list, "Don't try to read a 60-minute job talk in 40 minutes." I've seen that one. It's not pretty.

Evie said...

Great advice! Thanks. I'm a relatively new post-grad student coming back to study after 20-odd years in the business world. I've sat through (and given) plenty of marketing/sales presos, but have to do my first academic (seminar) presentation in a couple of months, so this advice is very timely - especially the suggestion in point 2 to stick to giving a lot of detail about one part of my project, rather than trying to cram it all in.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Evie: Fair warning, this is for a specific type of talk. Make sure you talk to others to figure out the particular format that's right for *your* talk. Historiann is right: know your format; know your audience.

And S: Yes, indeed. I can't believe I forgot that one. There's little more painful than watching a presenter get flustered when s/he realizes that this strategy isn't going to work out, then tries to decide on the fly (and with much shuffling of papers) which parts she is going to skip, and ends up leaving out chunks that are critical to the central argument.

alarob said...

The most helpful brief advice I've had about this: "It takes two minutes to read one double-spaced page." At least. A lot of presenters must have never learned this, so they imagine they can cram 40 pages into as many minutes, with time left over for Q&A.

Digger said...

Thank you for making "stick to your alloted time" #1. If everyone followed just suggestion #1, even if their presentation is rambling and nonsensical, it won't last forever. I STILL have flashbacks to the hour-and-twenty-minute snoozefest of a paper that was scheduled for 20 minutes.

An appeal to facilitators: If one of your speakers is threatening to massively violate their time limits, please, CUT THEM OFF! MAKE THEM STOP! Invite that folks can ask questions during break or whatever, but that the program must move on!