At a recent conference I was impressed by one presentation by a PhD student: an observational study of learners in online environment. The theories were interesting, the method was sound and the results were interesting, so I was surprised that I was the only one asking a question at the end.

Following the Thesis Whisperer rules of Networking, I sought the presenter out at the tea table to continue the discussion. The student was more than happy to talk, in fact she seemed relieved someone in the audience had ‘got it’ and thanked me for asking a question. She was a bit depressed at the seeming lack of interest in her work and wondered if the topic was just too ‘theoretical’ for this conference crowd, who were mostly educational technology specialists.

While it’s true that not many people in the audience were professional types who did not have PhDs, they weren’t dummies. In fact the room was full of the sort of people who could do PhD if they really wanted to. In my opinion the student’s problem was not ‘theory’ or the level of sophistication of the people in front of her, but a failure to connect with the audience.

As my friend Jonathon says: “If your audience didn’t get it – it’s your fault, not theirs”.  In this case, while the student adequately explained the theories and her interpretation of the data, she failed to explain why it mattered for this particular audience. There was no clear sense of the “What’s in it For Me” (WIFM). As a consequence, some of the audience left half way through and others looked like they were taking the opportunity to nap off some of the jet lag.

When you think about it, an academic audiences are not so different; the WIFM still needs to be there. The reason academics have a higher tolerance for theory is because academic work is largely theoretical. I enjoyed the student’s presentation because the theoretical insights were interesting for my own theoretical work. Although the student’s work could have solved some practical problems for the rest of the audience, she didn’t point these out. This was the kiss of death for question time: even if some of the audience found it interesting on an abstract level, they couldn’t think of any questions to ask so the presentation fell a little flat.

I’ve been thinking about this issue of theory and the WIFM factor because I was invited by the University of Sydney Nursing school to come up and give the keynote at their 2010 research week in July. Keynote addresses are given at the start, and sometimes and the end, of academic conferences and events, usually by well known scholars who have an interesting point of view – so I was flattered they asked me.

Giving a keynote is a big responsibility because it is meant to help set the tone for the rest of the event. A good keynote gets you thinking differently. Most keynotes are what Rugg and Petre (2010) would call “consciousness raising papers”. Papers which are speculative and attempt to provide the audience with another angle on current problems. Good keynotes are interesting, provocative – even emotionally moving. The very best one I have ever seen is by JK Rowling at the commencement address at Harvard University which actually bought tears to my eyes.

I am a keynote virgin, so I immediately started to do some research on how to go about it (ok, by ‘research’ I mean typing ‘How to do a Keynote’ into Google). After reading lots of advice my hunch is, despite the differences in scale, what makes a good keynote is the same as what makes a good academic presentation of any sort. However the problem of the keynote, as a format, foregrounds certain questions of presentation style. If you plan to be provocative or interesting, researching the audience in advance is vital because you need to be able to imagine how they are likely to react to your propositions.

When we approach a normal conference or seminar presentation we tend to think we know the audience already – but do we really? This post from the Public Speaking Blog had a good list of things you should try to find out about your audience before you craft your presentation. All the suggestions are good and useful, but one in particular stood out for me: try to understand the challenges facing the audience.

It can be easy to misunderstand the nature of the challenges the audience is facing in their professional life. Our hapless student thought she could provide a theoretical explanation and that would be enough. She illustrated the theory with data, but she never told us what problems it would help with and how exactly an understanding of the theory could be applied in practice. She could have done this easily with a case study or a story, rather than just giving us her interpretation.

You can get a better grip on the challenges your audience face by asking yourself: what do my audience have to do in their daily work? If you can help them do  it, you have the WIFM. But you don’t get very far just lecturing professional people about ‘the right thing’ to do – you must convince them that you understand the nature of the problem. Most problems in professional life are complex and those who deal with them want to see that you know this. This is where empathy comes into the picture.

Empathise with your audience and their problems and you are most of the way there. Take this blog post as an example – you, dear reader, are trying to pass your PhD, not just write a thesis. I know what that’s like because I’ve done it myself. I know from my own experience that doing presentations to people outside or tangential to your discipline is something you will probably have to do at some point. The WIFM in this post is some insight into why some of your presentations might be falling flat and a couple of techniques that can help, but – because I understand the complexity of the problem – I wouldn’t dare tell you that this post has all the answers!

So I am interested in what you think. Do you think this advice is helpful? Have you encountered some presentation advice which you think would help us connect better with a wider range of audiences? Meanwhile I’m off to finish that key note (which I think will be called: “What I learned about doing a PhD by reading really trashy novels” 🙂

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