Presentations for a faculty or disciplinary audience are subtly different to those you give at a conference, but not talked about as frequently. These ‘internal’ presentations are important because they tell your colleagues what kind of researcher you are; it helps you socially and academically to perform well to your peers.
This topic occurred to me as I sat in on a couple of examinations (vivas), completion seminars and a confirmation or two in recent weeks. I have sat through literally hundreds of assessment presentations if you count my years in
purgatory architecture school. So here’s my top five classic research presentation mistakes, but I’m going to stick with the verbal problems here because there are many great presentations about graphics, such as ‘how not to suck at powerpoint’ and ‘how to make you presentation boring’.
Too much information (TMI) is the most common mistake I see and one I have indulged in a few times myself. I see it most often in completion seminars where the student has a full draft and can no longer see the forest for the trees. You know that you are heading for TMI when you start to feel like you are drowning in facts and figures which don’t seem to relate to each other. The presentation can seem full of tangents, where the student veers off course to explain, often in painful detail, definitions, counter arguments, collection problems and the like. It’s frustrating to listen to because you feel like the student is never going to get to the point. By the time they actually do, you have lost interest and started thinking earnestly about lunch. A presentation like this is unlikely to make you look like a lightweight, but it can make you look more confused than you are.
2) All theory, no action
It’s a difficult line to walk with theory sometimes. Not enough can make your project look lightweight; too much can make it look like you spent 4 years gazing at your navel and not *doing* anything. Recently I watched a creative research viva, which involved some design work along with a theoretical ‘exegesis’. The student spent the majority of her presentation explaining the theory behind practice based research in exquisite detail; in fact she did rather a good job of this, but she didn’t leave enough time to talk about her project work.
It must have seemed like a good strategy because her examiners were not from the design research field, unfortunately these people had already read her text, which went through much of the same explanation, and the rest of the audience were designers – who already knew the arguments. Instead of reassuring the examiners that her research approach was legitimate, the second lengthy exposition gave the perverse impression that the student was defensive and unsure of herself. I think it’s best to keep explanations of theory short and precise, but tell the audience you are happy to address it during question time. It makes you look smarter if you can answer theoretical questions on your feet anyway.
3) Why are we here?
Sometimes students race through an explanation of data without enough lead in for me to understand what the problem was in the first place. Without an explanation – however cursory – of the bigger world in which the research is situated I cannot understand fully why the research matters. A more troubling manifestation of the ‘why are we here?’ problem is when the student that doesn’t tell us what the research means at the end of it – data and interpretations are offered but there’s no sense of what might come next, what use the research could be or how it changes anything in that bigger world beyond the thesis.
Maybe it’s just me, but I like to see that the researcher has some questions remaining, or that there were questions which are raised by doing the research in the first place. Perhaps people leave these out in an effort to make the research seem ‘finished’ or ‘under control’? I’m not sure – but please tell me why I am here because otherwise I could be doing my own work and I will come away from your presentation feeling cranky.
4) Undigested text
Oh boy – where do I start with this one? Reading straight from your paper or thesis is almost always a mistake. Most academic text is not, as they say in the music industry a ‘radio friendly unit shifter’. We all know that what sounds delightfully erudite on the page can come across as pompous out loud… but it’s a trap which so many of us fall into again and again. I’m as guilty as the next person of reading out chunks of written text rather than working on removing the ‘clutter’ for a clearer verbal explanation. Earlier in my career I did it because I was afraid of looking dumb, now it happens when I haven’t taken enough time to prepare my presentation. Someone estimated that a good one hour presentation takes about 30 hours to prepare – they are probably right.
5) Question time = fail
Being able to give a good performance during question time is a vital skill because it shows people what kind of academic you are when you are when you are off script. Unfortunately a lot of academics are old hands at asking tricky questions of research students – and they know all the brutal ones. The most common one in a confirmation presentations is “What is your research question?”. It’s an easy hit because usually the question (if there is one – rather than half a dozen) is so convoluted that it is easy to make fun of or rip to shreds. Sometimes it’s merely the tone in which the question is delivered – of barely concealed derision – which is unnerving, especially to beginners. I think the key is to stay calm and take your time to answer. It can help to write the question on a piece of paper.
So – what presentation mistakes would make it to your list?
The curse of the astounding abstract
The tryanny of the awesome supervisor
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