Saturday, April 2, 2011

Your First Presentation

Recently, I agreed to chair a panel for a small graduate student conference on medieval stuff. Props to the grad organization that put it on, and pulled it off very nicely. It wasn't lavish, but as far as I could tell, everything went more or less according to plan.

I went to several panels, and thus saw a wide range of skill in paper organization and delivery. Most were quite good, but there were some places here and there where I saw room for improvement. So, here are some ideas for novice presenters for giving a polished presentation. Contrary to some of my normal blogging voice, this is not meant as snark, but rather in a mentorly spirit:
  • If your paper is a cut-down version of a longer piece, then actually cut it down before presenting it. A couple of presenters appeared to be up there with 15-20 pages, trying to skip over large passages on the fly. If you do this, you risk getting lost, or realizing five minutes too late that you've omitted some critical bit of information. Take the extra day or two to trim it down to a clean 20 minutes (or whatever the conference stipulates) that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You'll save yourself stress when you're up at the podium.
  • Ask a professor to read over your paper to avoid any basic inaccuracies that might undermine an otherwise good argument.
  • A 20-minute conference paper is about 10-11 double-spaced pages -- less, if you have visuals you need to talk the audience through. Don't try to cram more in by simply talking fast.
  • Be on time to your own panel.
  • Practice your paper, out loud. As has been pointed out by one of my commenters, in some disciplines they don't read papers. And even in our field(s), you've probably seen experienced presenters move from extemporaneous to scripted and back again with ease. But if it's your first presentation, and you're in a Humanities field, you're likely going to be reading from the page. If you haven't practiced, you'll likely give the whole thing in a monotone and lose the audience, which would make this a big, fat waste of your time and effort. If, on the other hand, you are well-rehearsed, you can modulate your delivery so that a scripted reading sounds natural (Yes, Comrade, it can).
  • Remember that your audience is a listening audience. Written papers tend to be more densely-worded than spoken presentations, so an unmodified seminar paper is generally going to be problematic. Make the structure strong, do lots of verbal signposting, and use compelling examples to illustrate your points. One of my grad school professors once told me that people tend to zone out after the first four minutes, so every four minutes you should provide something that wakes them up. Got a juicy story from the documents? A big shift from one argument to the next? Structure your paper so these come in every few minutes, if you can.
  • Make your point, but don't cram your paper too full. If you've got more than three major points in your paper, you may be trying to do too much in too little space. Remember, there will always be other conferences.
  • Make sure that your voice signals to your audience when something important is happening (see above re: rehearsal, importance of). Write stage directions to yourself if necessary. I did that for the first half-dozen papers I gave as a grad student, underlining passages where I needed to slow down to emphasize my words, noting a micro-pause right before my conclusion, reminding myself to look up and make some damn eye contact... whatever you need to do. No one will see your marked-up paper but you.
  • Dress appropriately, yea, even for a grad student conference. You don't need to wear a tie, but you should at least tuck in your shirt.
  • Don't signal defeat. If things seem to be going south in your paper, chances are that your audience won't know unless you make it clear to us that that's what's happening. Interjecting "Wow... okay, this is really messed up," or concluding with "Well, I guess that's it... ((sigh))" is not the way you want to go. Remember: your audience doesn't know what you thought your paper would be; we only know what it is. And chances are that it's fine.
And one last one for the proffies, a bit of advice that I like to think my fellow session chairs and I followed: remember that, at a student conference, your panelists are mostly novices. Shape your comments to be helpful. Don't be an ass.


Bardiac said...

Great ideas. I'd be even more strong than the "voice" emphasis. When you're getting to your thesis, look up and say, "and this is my thesis" or something, so that everyone knows.

I went to a talk by a really smart, well established scholar who read a paper once, but in a total monotone. After a few minutes, he said "and that was my thesis" and you could see all us grad students looking at each other in a panic. Set your listeners up to know what's important as it comes.

Dr. S said...

I once did the math and figured out that a 3200 word paper is exactly 20 minutes long, as I read it!

Dr. S said...

Also: YES to everything you've written here.

Historiann said...

This is excellent advice for everyone, Notorious. I especially like your first point about making sure your paper fits the timeframe of your presentation. It pi$$es me off even when very senior, established scholars do the "I'll just read some excerpts from a 50-page paper" trick. But, they're established senior scholars, and graduate students are not.

Respecting the time limits of your presentation means respecting your audience. Violating the time limits of your presentation and failing to convey the importance of your research will be understood as a sign of disrespect to the audience. We cannot emphasize that enough.

Digger said...

Yes to all of these. Especially your very last one... I was recently at a grad student symposium where they invited senior scholars to be discussants. Most offered helpful suggestions and praise; one offered, in public, that one of the papers was crap and that the writer really didn't know what he was on about.

It was horrible to watch. And didn't make the discussant look smart; it just made her look like an ass.

Janice said...

I'd add: Slow down and speak expressively. You're probably going too fast.

Make eye contact and move about, even if all you can manage to move is your upper body because your feet are frozen to the floor in sheer terror. Pause, breathe, smile briefly and otherwise be human.

If you're using technology, check to make sure it will work before you step up to the podium. Try to have a back-up plan if tech goes wrong. Maybe your presentation's in a not universally-supported filetype? Save the key elements in an rtf file or a folder of images so you can use the barebones computer function to illustrate vital material.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Historiann: disrespectful to the audience, and to other presenters, who now have less time to give their papers. And H'ann brings up a good point: the worst offenders in this category are not students, but certain senior scholars who think the rules no longer apply to them. Novices only break the rules because they don't really know them yet.

You know who I think sometimes gives the best papers? Advanced ABDs. They know their material, and they are anxious not to make fools of themselves, so they do the work.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Dr. S: It's good to know, as well, what one's own personal 20-minute paper length is. And remember kids: No academic audience every complained that a paper ran three minutes short.

Dr. S said...

Yes! short papers are better -- and if you have practiced and *know* your paper comes in a little short, then you won't need to feel (rightfully) guilty if you realize you need or want to ad lib or elaborate slightly on a point from your talk -- something that can contribute to your seeming human while you perform!

Historiann said...

I think you're right, Notorious, that senior scholars are the bigger offenders in terms of polish and time limits, but I've been shocked to see very unrehearsed job talks (including one at least of the variety of "I'll just cut this 50 page paper down to 20 pages on the fly." For all of the (justified) talk in the blogosphere about the competitiveness of the job market, I've been shocked by how crude and unrehearsed some grad student presentations are.

This may be a phenomenon of the grad student conference, which didn't exist back when I was in grad school. Do grad students give so many papers these days that they don't take the time to consider the performative aspects of their scholarship that you and the other commenters all note here? I only gave a few conference papers as a grad student, but they were at pretty big-deal conferences so I made sure that I damn well wrote a lively paper, that it could be read expressively and intelligibly in 20 minutes, and that I rehearsed my performance twice or three times before the conference. (And these are things I still do.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Dr. S: ah, yes, the ultimate goal of the academic: to seem human. ;-)

@ Historiann: I gave a lot of presentations as a grad student, but never at a grad student conference, so these gigs as a faculty discussant are my first real experience. The quality is uneven, but I still see them as a low-stakes way for novices to get experience at presenting in front of an audience. But for this experience to be beneficial, there needs to be feedback. Hence, today's post.

But yes, like you, I rehearsed my heart out, especially for my earliest presentations.

This is probably an area where faculty could do a much better job mentoring.

Anthea said...

Great tips! Thank you for these..especially the point to 'remember that your audience is a listening audience'. This point is really important since sadly some grad students in my experience didn't practice enough since they use a monotone voice when they gave their papers. Perhaps their work was interesting but I don't really remember anything other than my struggle to remain awake and alert enough not to fall asleep (and fall off my chair).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Excellent post and comments!

If you've got more than three major points in your paper, you may be trying to do too much in too little space.

The rule I preach is that a talk of twenty minutes or fewer should have a single point, twenty to forty minutes should have two points, and more than forty minutes should have three points.

Susan said...

Amen to all your points. I admit my downfall is that I extemporize far too much. So even when I should be short, I'm not. Sigh.

I figure a 20 minute conference paper is either largely evidence (here's this cool thing) with a little analysis, or largely theory/analysis with a little evidence (I.e. here is a way to think about this problem...)

I once heard someone give a seminar paper (so it could be 50 minutes) but it was a 100 page paper, and he was cutting on the fly. It lasted 1 1/2 hours. We all needed the post-seminar wine after that one!

Rachel said...

"One of my grad school professors once told me that people tend to zone out after the first four minutes, so every four minutes you should provide something that wakes them up."

I think this is awesome advice that I've never really heard put like that before. Definitely something I'll try to keep in mind!

I'm also pretty jealous that in some disciplines people give talks by reading from pre-written papers, although I'm sure it's hard in its own way... I'm a grad student in the physical sciences and had to give my first ever research talk a few weeks ago (just at a grad student colloquium within our department, kind of like what I think you're talking about here) and the part I was most stressed about was memorizing it enough to give the talk based off of some Powerpoint slides with figures...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'm also pretty jealous that in some disciplines people give talks by reading from pre-written papers

Don't be. It's a lot more fun to speak relatively extemporaneously and conversationally using slides to guide you through. And once you get good at it, you won't ever have to practice a talk for the rest of your career.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

The Comrade has a point: If you learn to do something the hard way from the beginning, then it quickly becomes second nature. I don't think twice about doing my classroom lectures from the most fragmentary of notes, and I always stay on point. But if you asked me to do a scholarly presentation of even half that length without major scripted portions, I'd have real trouble -- because I had never learned that this is how it is done.

It'll be hard at first, but you'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna give a twenty minute talk tomorrow at a symposium from a slide deck I was first given by one of my trainees yesterday. I'll page through it about five minutes before my talk and be engaging and clear. (Obviously, I am familiar with the work itself that I'll be talking about.)

Anonymous said...

That was me: CPP.

Perpetua said...

My adviser used to say: One point! Two examples! Conclusion!

Great advice that can't be repeated enough: The simpler the conference paper (or job talk! The same issues apply), the better. Simple language, clearly signaled, and short (second and third all those who said the shorter the better; I've been realizing that 10 pages is too long for me, that 8.5 is probably my own sweet spot).

As important as not speaking in a monotone: Project! Don't shout, but project your voice out. Or stand close to the microphone if you have a soft voice. The audience should never have to tell you more than once they can't hear you (in fact, they usually won't, they'll tune you out).

Kendra said...

This is great, and I'm sharing it with my students. I agree, short is good, especially when, as Dr. S says, you can ad lib a little bit on a particular point.

In addition: chairs should always have read the papers for a panel, grad or otherwise, and have some questions or comments to offer if the audience doesn't. Same reason to take notes on your fellow panelists' papers--so you can ask a good question if needed at the end.

Kathie said...

Good advice, I like the four minute guideline for structuring material.
One other suggestion:
I have just recently begun formatting my presentations with larger type, and I highly recommend it. It is so much easier to look up at the audience and not lose your place as you read, I wish I had started doing this a long time ago.

WIP said...

A really informative and helpful post - thank you!

Will Danger said...

I just wanted to pop by and let you guys know that, as an undergrad who is preparing to give his first academic presentation, I found this thread tremendously helpful. You've done a great deal to assuage my anxiety. Thank you, everyone!

Stephanie Johnson said...

Two years later, there are still students benefiting from this thread! I'm practicing in front of professors and fellow conference attendees today for our Friday conference. Many of these points were given to me by my Department Head, but it is really nice to see them repeated and expanded upon. Thank you!

Stephanie Johnson said...

Two years later, there are still students benefiting from this thread! I'm practicing in front of professors and fellow conference attendees today for our Friday conference. Many of these points were given to me by my Department Head, but it is really nice to see them repeated and expanded upon. Thank you!