5 classic research presentation mistakes

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’.

1) TMI

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?

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The curse of the astounding abstract

The tryanny of the awesome supervisor

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45 thoughts on “5 classic research presentation mistakes

  1. Zelda (Tassie_Gal) says:

    Guilty of number two and three. Two definately at the moment. I’d LOVE to write you a blog post on how to survive unnatural hiccups in your PhD. Someone asked me the other day if I was burnt out…I replied I was burnt out on the people but not the topic – which is a very big distinction.

  2. WittyKnitter says:

    This is one of your best posts, Inger. I think that presentation skills are one of the neglected areas of PhD training/education/whatever. I’m sure we’ve all seen some truly dreadful ones that don’t reflect the quality of the student’s work at all. I’d like to see real coaching available for students (maybe in their second year?) on how to present their work – how to stand, how to speak, how to use aids like powerpoint, as well as how to select and structure the material.

    I did a unit in my undergrad degree in NZ called “Speaking: theory and practice” which has been invaluable to me. The theory covered rhetoric, structuring, choice of subject, audience, etc. We critiqued videos of pollies and other people speaking, and also discussed famous speeches from history and analysed their impact. The practice involved two presentations (25% each) on a subject of our choice to the class – one for information and one for persuasion – which were videoed and critiqued, and in the exam (50%) we had to write a 1500 word speech on the spot from a selection of titles. I think this unit was one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done, in terms of my future academic career.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks 🙂 And wow – that sounds like a great subject! I wish I could do it.

      It does help to understand the theory and I really like the distinction between ‘information’ and ‘persuasion’ (or tell and sell). They used to teach people rhetoric for good reason. I was introduced to public speaking at 14 – about the worst age to do it (puberty! who was the genius who thought that up?!). I notice my son is being trained at primary school – he started with a one minute presentation in prep when he could barely even read and now can do a 3 or 4 minute one. He’s not that keen on it, but at least he’s not afraid of it!

      • Jonathan Downie says:

        I do wonder sometimes if even the “information” talks are about persuasion too, even if just to persuade people to stay awake through to the end of the talk. I actually work with a speaking coach now who has been a great help. It always amazes me how much we still have to learn about public speaking.

      • Sandya says:

        How to prepare for presentation of PhD work for a 10 min time for Scientist position interview?

  3. Sarah jameson says:

    Definitely going over time. I had to re-do and re-do my talk to the power point when I timed myself and found out how little I could say. It took a long time to get it right – I would say your 30 hours is correct. Also getting nervous and giving asides like “this power point is not working” or “I spent too much time on the look of the powerpoint” something that puts your preparation skills down. I think thanking the examiner for an interesting question gives you time to think as you begin your reply. Jotting it down sounds like good advice. I like the bit of starting by saying what you are going to say, saying it in the body of the powerpoint and then summing up what you have said.

    • Colleen Boyle says:

      Oh! I can’t stand it when people give the ‘excuses’ thing. “This PPT isn’t working”. “I’m not feeling very well today.” No.

      I saw a prominent and popular artist pull that one at a conference in Canberra recently. As soon as she opened her mouth, out came the ‘excuse’. It doesn’t paint you prettily. The audience will immediately think that you are making an excuse for the quality of your presentation and therefore see it as poor quality. Big mistake.

  4. Geri says:

    Love this post. So much of the presentation advice out there is geared towards sales or the corporate world in general, and I find it doesn’t really translate well to academic presentations. This post plugs that gap!

    I would like to hear more about point number 5: specifically, can you give some other examples of tricky/brutal questions, and, more importantly, how to handle them. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of these and didn’t handle them very well: after giving what I thought was a good presentation, I was floored by some of the questions aimed at me and felt I didn’t respond adequately.

  5. djbtak says:

    Good points generally – in particular re: #2, a practice PhD has to gain its legitimacy from the practice, not from the theory. Of course, once we start to talk about it, the practice has to be translated. But at some level, I think if you’re a practitioner in a seminar, the most important question to have clear for yourself is “How could I explain what I am doing”, rather than “What theoretical issues are informing the work”.

    I would disagree on #4 though. It depends on how much you want to solicit an audience who have probably little investment in what you’re doing. One of my heroes – an international superstar in the humanities – reads her work all the time at conferences. The point is, it’s shit-hot work, and she generally orients her talk to what I would describe as “the plausible proportion of people potentially really interested in your work who might be at this event”. The compressing of your ideas into some generically viable form will not help your research in the longer run in my opinion, at least in the humanities and social sciences. It’s true that many postgrads read their stuff because they don’t know what else to do, and in that case yes, calibrating for the audience is important. But I am against the idea that talking off the cuff is always a more compelling presentation. If a writer knows what they are doing, their written text will pack more into a minute than any general conversation could, and it is precisely this density of communication that will attract the people who know what you’re trying to do. Those people are the ones who will be critical to your career.

    • Zelda (Tassie_Gal) says:

      I notice reading of papers is much more prevelent @ Humanaties and Social Science conferences than at science conferences. I THINK its because the arts cant distract people with pretty figures. As a drama teacher as well as an academic whose area crosses between the arts and the sciences…I find it REALLY REALLY frustrating. Eye contact is vital to keep your audience engaged, even if they do know the work.
      I have NO problem with the actually reading a paper they have written, provided its written to be spoken and they dont drop their head down and read it verbatium.
      (Sorry, one of my pet HATES that always get me ranting).

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  6. Colleen Boyle says:

    Thanks for the warning! Will be preparing my confirmation pressie over the Christmas/New Year period, so this is very timely and helpful. I hate it when people just read, but also recognize that a lot of people don’t have the actor-type flair required for verbal ‘on you feet’ presentations. I think if you must read: do it SLOWLY, because invariably, when people read, they gabble. That’s my two cents anyway.

  7. WittyKnitter says:

    I have been at presentations where people read their text – often humanities people. For my money, the presentation has to especially rivetting if you’re going to do that successfully. It comes across like an old-fashioned lecture, and there’s a reason why they aren’t used so much any more – they’re really hard to follow unless the writing is brilliant and the presenter has a really strong personal presence.

    It’s much better to have an electronic presentation with your main points, and talk around them. Have more detailed notes to follow if you need them – eg points that you need to cover – but really, try and avoid reading more than a few sentences at a time.You’re more likely to hold people’s attention and stimulate their interest in your topic if you can show your passion, and it’s hard to do that with your head down!

    • William Stewart says:

      At a recent colloquium I noticed that the presenters that were either tenured or on a clear tenure track all presented rather than read their presentation. There was a clear difference between those students who read their presentation and those that actually took the effort and risk of trying to connect with the audience via presenting. Presenting is not easy and requires much more preparation but has far greater impact.

      I found the best approach for a new presenter is to tightly script the first two to three minutes of the presentation and memorize it. If you can get through the first few minutes, you will have more confidence and can demonstrate your mastery of the material.

  8. Lorena says:

    Thanks for pointing me to this post! I can relate to everything except #4. I always read from a paper as I get nervous and worry I will forget key points, but I am conscious that this can be very boring. I also greatly dislike presentations that look unrehearsed and unprepared, and have often come away from talks given by scholars whose work I usually admire feeling disappointed and like they just spoke ‘off the top of their head’ for an hour. I think it takes great skill (and practice, and time) to be prepared and to speak well, and one of my aims is to be able to present like some of my academic heroes.

    I too have done that “Speaking: Theory and Practice” paper and used to work for radio. I write my papers as scripts so they look very different to the kind of text I would produce to be read. I rehearse them a few times to practice tempo, expression, variety in pitch, and to make sure I can have eye contact at least half of the time. I have not used powerpoint for my last couple of presentations and that has worked well. Lately I have started getting comments from the audience about how much they enjoy my delivery as well as the content, which was a lovely surprise!

    Your points about theory, questions from the research, and handling question time are very timely for my upcoming examination. I have 10 mins to present so will write it following my usual method and hope that things go well!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I think the ‘script’ thing works very well – lately I have been trying to speak to points instead. I think it depends on how well you know the material and how nervous you are likely to be. I would definitely do a script for something like a viva where the stakes are so high….

  9. Newbie says:

    Thanks for the post. I disagree a bit on #2 and maybe #1 too.. It does apply but what could a theoretical mathematical science research student present if not the theory? I always feel like omitting detailed info, but it ended up that all detailed info is necessary.

    Maybe i should explain what i was doing with the theory clear enough though, like you said. Anyway, what is the research contribution? I dunno. Don’t you also start something first and then find the suitable research aim for your work as an excuse?

  10. Helen McGowan says:

    What do people think about asking the audience questions? I am keen to reframe my style so that I give a 20 minute summary, then specifically ask my critical friends (whom I have invited to attend) what they think about specific issues I am working on. That way I get more from the experience, than a one way delivery – and nervous defense/response.

  11. Jay says:

    Wonderful piece of info. I drowned myself with TMI in order to fetch 10,000 words only to find that i ended it making it double. Also, concluding the dissertation is of vital importance, to give a good taste. Its a factual ending on what we really attempted to say in all of this.

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