One of my first academic presentations took place at AERA’s (American Educational Research Association) national conference, a large conference of over 10,000 attendees. I wish I could do it all over again – it didn’t go poorly, but it didn’t sizzle either – and it just wasn’t that strong.
Since that day, I have presented a few times and I’ve watched hundreds of other presenters (graduate students, practitioners, and tenured professors) take their research and invested subjects and work to communicate it in a memorable way. At one conference I saw a presentation that struggled along, so I began to jot down some guidelines that would help my graduate students avoid a similar experience.
- Don’t speak for more than 20-25 minutes. I’m amazed at how many in academia think 50 minutes is appropriate for their presentation since the big-named folks often do it. Truth is that some of them are shortening their work as well, choosing for more dialogue and interaction. At conferences packed to the margins with presentations, 20-25 minutes is optimal. Additionally, our culture is more collaborative and we exist in an ‘open source’ world today. Present your main points in 20-25 minutes and then invite discussion if you have more time. And, don’t say things like “I had to pare it down” or comment on the time limitations. If I can risk a bit and be honest, those type of comments often suggest the presenter thinks he/she is worth more than the limits that the rest of have to honor, or they indicate that the presenter can’t connect well with an audience in a 20 minute period.
- Use PowerPoint for visuals and key quotes. Please use something visual. And don’t see presentation software as a way to get people to read your paper as you fill the screen with text. You do not have to present every point from your paper. Treat the presentation as a way to entice people to read (and follow) your work after the seminar. So, carefully choose what your presentation looks like – use visuals, key quotes, and use it to illustrate your points. I saw one of the most sophisticated examples of this at a rigidly ‘academic’ philosophical conferences – and the effect on the follow-up discussion was profound. Using pictures of key philosophers and almost cartoon-like conversation ‘bubbles’ to make the points look like a conversation, the presenter drew people out from behind their defenses, pretenses, and conference doldrums into a lively debate. And, of course, people snatched up the papers at the back of the room as they left.
- State your theoretical perspective. Define your key terms. These are a courtesy and method to teach others the basics of your research. A quick statement that explains your vantage point on how you viewed the data, completed the reading (who did you exclude?), and guided any analysis will help your audience. What key terms are necessary for your audience to know? You may not even use them, but a quick overhead slide on 4 key terms involved in your work helps to orient your audience. Do any of them warrant an analogy or image to help your audience understand the nuances involved?
- If you employed a methodology to discover your ‘findings,’ state it clearly. My research background emerges now. Show us how you go the data, not just the data! You don’t have to take too long (and I know that’s tricky time-wise), but how did you draw these conclusions? What research did you exclude? Did you look for the negative instance, research that contradicts your view? If you attend to this for just a moment to help us understand how your process unfolded, that is helpful. But it’s not the focus, so not too much time here.
- Have an analogy or illustration. While this may not seem very academic, the opposite effect is usually true: A proper analogy shows an expert level of understanding and ability to nuance the topic – and a humor point or two will help you create warmth with most of your audience, at least the ones who laugh.
- When people respond and ask questions or make comments, thank them for their question or comment and then…
- … give concise, short answers. The Q & A time is not a chance for you to present more data. I employ the 2 minute limit here and don’t go over it. I prefer 45 second answers.
- Avoid the pompous. The days of the hyper-critical and self-centered scholar have passed. So don’t try and be like them …. or be them. Be humble. Understand you’re part a larger conversation of equally wonderful and gifted people. Again, if I could be risk and be honest, it’s better to have the the hallway conversations (the ones we never will hear about us) be about you being so gracious than to have it be about us being ungracious or uninterested in others. And those hallway conversations exist.
- Prepare in advance and practice (out loud) in advance.I would even present it to someone (or a group of someones) not familiar with your work. Try to avoid the need to say “I have so much more to say but I’m out of time.” Know how it’s going to go and feel to say it out loud with your presentation materials.
- Be sure the talk builds to a climax where you make a ‘take away’ statement or two. Answer the “so what?” questions that your listeners have and do so as if a novelist had written your presentation and crafted a dynamic ending.
I’ve got a few more thoughts (like don’t present at a conference the first time you’ve ever attended it), but I’ll hold off sharing them. I’m sure you could add some more tips to what I’ve listed here. So, I’d love to hear what you do, or tell others to do, when presenting at an academic conference.
Terry Linhart (Ph.D., Purdue) is chair of the Religion & Philosophy Department at Bethel College (Indiana) where he overseas eight degree programs. He teaches and writes in subjects related to youth, faith, and global topics. He loves to work with young teachers and leaders on their communication skills. And he’s still learning how to connect well too. Feel free to contact Terry if you’re interested in having him speak or teach. He’s booking about 9-12 months in advance.