Being professional academic – does it have to mean being boring?

This post is by Ellen Spaeth (@ellenspaeth), a PhD student researching music listening in the treatment of anxiety, and a technology trainer. You can hear more from Ellen on her blog. In this post Ellen wonders whether ‘professional’ has to mean being serious.

A few weeks ago, I received feedback from my most recent conference presentation. The conference had been a relatively informal one for students at the university, although a few staff members attended too.

The emphasis was on getting experience of presenting in an academic setting, and as such all attendees were asked to complete feedback forms for each presenter. I’d already given a similar presentation at an external conference the previous week, and had been complimented on both content and delivery. I’d been really nervous before this, so I was delighted to do it again.

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 4.07.59 PMThe presentation seemed to go well. I made some jokes (which people seemed to appreciate), and the audience looked interested and engaged. I even had some thought-provoking questions.

In keeping with this, my feedback was mostly complimentary, with people praising my research, the structure of my presentation, and my energy and engagement with the audience. The jokes I’d made had been particularly welcome –  it was late in the day and people were rather tired after lunch. Of course there were points to work on, too – perhaps I could talk a bit slower, and go into more detail on certain things.

You may be wondering what the point of this post is, and here it is: Some of the feedback forms which were most complimentary about my delivery ALSO contained a warning:

I should probably be more serious and sedate in a more formal setting, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an academic.

It may seem like this post is a rather over-zealous protestation about criticism directed my way. But it’s not. I agree that my presentation was not serious. It was not sedate. I probably did talk too fast. My bugbear is with the idea that to be professional, you need to remove what might be your best assets.

The things that set you apart from the crowd.

The things that make you YOU.

And this leads me to ask…what does it really mean to be professional? I’d love to whip out Google and search for a definition, but I feel that might be missing a trick. To me, being professional means being efficient and getting the job done, while maintaining a respectful attitude. It means engaging your audience, or at least increasing the odds that they’ll stay awake (unless you work as a lullaby-creator).

The problem is not that the comment was wrong, or offensive – it was kindly, and constructively, meant. The problem is that it was probably right. I’ve always been branded as “enthusiastic”, which is both positive and negative. I do try to tone it down at times, while still being me – it’s all about keeping a balance. And obviously, it’s important to know your audience.

But the concept that trying to be LESS engaging, enthusiastic, and innovative will be good for my academic career scares me. What do you think?

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63 thoughts on “Being professional academic – does it have to mean being boring?

  1. I wonder if it depends on your area of emphasis. Mine is educaitonal technologies and one of my heroes is Punya Mishra. Highly respected in the area of research. And one of the most fun presentations you will see at an academic conference. He always includes a joke or two, as well as commical graphics on his PowerPoints. But then maybe this is something that can only happen once you have established your academic creds! I have no idea what his presentations may have been like as a lowly grad student.

    • Thanks Cynthia – I think you’re right, it definitely depends on area/subject. I’m interdisciplinary, so I’ll keep an eye out for how the different fields respond.

  2. Knowing your audience is important, and I think you do know them because you rub elbows with them every day. In my opinion, your academic audience is arrogant. While your fellow academics may want you to be successful (they might even envy you), they’re so invested in their roles, and in people paying their dues while also donning the robes/persona of dull and boring (i.e., respectful of whom? what? when? where? how?) that they warn you against taking risks. I’m disappointed in this rigid (should I say, “fear-based”) mindset among people who are privledged to have scaled the walls of acadamia. Isn’t education about growth? stretching? challenging ourselves to do the best we can be with the talents, abilities, and education that we’ve been blessed with? Isn’t education supposed to be about discovery; isn’t it the means of preparing to go out and use what we know? Or have I been misled? Educators can’t teach what they don’t understand themselves. I think you need to find a new tribe.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sharon. I agree that it’s important to find a tribe where you’re celebrated for being you. Education is indeed about growth and stretching, and it is all too easy to become defined by the unwritten rules that are set out.

  3. I’m thinking along the same lines as Cynthia and Sharon ^^. I think reception can really depend on your research area and even your department. In my experience I’ve found that presenting to an education specialist audience can be vastly different to an ancient history specialist audience. Education specialists, for me, tend to be more approving of the energetic, outgoing, enthusiastic presentations – and some witty banter or occasional jokes are generally well received/encouraged (being mindful of appropriateness, of course). But it’s education – these traits SHOULD be encouraged and well-received! With the ancient history crowd, as an example of the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve learnt that the more reserved, ‘sedate’, and fact-transmitting my presentations the better they are received. A dry, esoteric, historical joke may fly pretty well too. You’ve touched on this in your article with the idea of ‘knowing your audience’. It can be difficult to gauge at the best of times, but I like to think that walking the line between ‘overly enthusiastic’ and ‘heavily sedate’ is a nice way to navigate presentations. Don’t be discouraged, once you’re a fully fledged academic you can lecture and present any damn way you want 😉

  4. I’ll suggest that the idea of ‘being professional’ also implies that the individual has learned to be authentic. I definitely agree with everyone’s comment about the importance of knowing one’s audience. However, let’s distinguish between being a professional in one’s discipline and being a professional presenter. I’ll argue they are mutually exclusive. In the context of presenting to one’s peers, the meta-professional has learned how to design and deliver a presentation that engages the audience, features a message that reflects the norms, values and such of the discipline, yet allows the authentic nature of the person to emerge.
    Finally, and back to the experience you described, remember that feedback, whether solicited or unsolicited, is just as much about the person giving the feedback as it is about the one receiving it.

    • Yes Tim, I’m with you. Our comments really often reflect more on us than on those we seek to critique.
      Having agreed with many of the comments made so far I’d like to add that I’m very thankful for any presenter who can keep me concentrating / awake after lunch at a conference!
      As to my research? I investigate the lived experiences of bilingual five year olds – we have lots to laugh together about!

    • Interesting point. I’m going to have a think about the authenticity you describe. I’m a bit torn really, because I very much believe in adapting your presentation/approach based on your audience, but I also don’t believe in creating barriers between yourself and your audience. A difficult one.

  5. Let’s not forget that women are more likely to be branded unprofessional for being enthusiastic and informal than men are. I’ve been told that I ‘demean’ myself by making jokes and won’t be taken seriously if I do. I’ve never met a male colleague who has been told the same thing. Conversely, I’ve also been told it helps to smile more while presenting….

  6. In an academic context, I don’t expect or want any song and dance or psychological/emotional manipulations. I am not spending my time and attention with a speaker for the purposes of being entertained or sold, even if others present don’t mind doing so. There are enough actors and salesmen/women in the world; they don’t belong to reasoned enquiry of truth – though they can be of value, even immense, even in revealing truth, when employed in the public arena.

    • I can understand this, Deborah. I agree with you in that I get very uncomfortable when I feel like presenters are purposefully trying to manipulate me. I’m hoping that’s not how I come across (my humour tends to be more relaxed and ad-libbed, which comes with its own dangers), but I agree very much that it’s important not to cross the line from engaging into manipulative.

      • I have to disagree a bit with Deborah here. While manipulation is bad, creativity, or should I even dare say “gimmicks” are actually effective learning tools. It’s all about what you want to achieve: do you want to look like, sound like and act like everyone else? Or do you want to be you? Are you more into impressing or influencing? Are you more about sounding academic or actually starting a conversation and teaching people something?

        Academia is changing. We need to be more outward focussed and more aware of how people learn (little hint, people learn more when they are having fun and engaged than when they are bored). Given that, I would say that boredom and too much self-importance dressed as seriousness is a bad thing, not a good thing.

      • Thanks Jonathan – I agree that it’s incredibly important to think about how people learn best. That’s not the same for everyone, but I do think being engaged is a good start.

  7. Interesting posting Ellen. I’ve been in the academic game for a little while now and my personal view is that you should be true to your personality. If you’re bubbly and fun, go with that in a conference presentation. If you’re a more subdued person, go with that instead. Be true to yourself and don’t try to be something you’re not when you’re presenting.

    I also think that conferences are a ritual of academic life that are far less important than we often make them out to be. One conference presentation is not going to make or break your career, so cut yourself some slack, go with a presentation style that you feel comfortable with and try to enjoy the experience!

    And you don’t always have to accept peer feedback as valid. Often feedback says more about the person giving it than it does about you. The well-meaning comment you received after your presentation may be one of these instances.

    • Thanks, Benjamin. I tend to get much more positive than negative feedback about my presentation style – perhaps it’s a bit of a marmite thing. I suppose I’m more concerned about whether this is a sign of what is expected in academia in general. What do you think?

  8. I think the golden rules, as have already been highlighted, are to first know the audience you’re speaking to, and be true to yourself.

    That being said, the two may be difficult to reconcile. If the audience you’re addressing is more interested in the research you’ve done rather than how it’s being presented, they may not care for a more informal approach. They’re 100% serious, and they just want you to deliver the goods. In fact, they’d probably be happy just reading your paper (or a good executive summary of it). Unfortunately, if you’ve got a bubbly personality, and being spontaneous and “energetic” is your way of coping with nervousness, this may be a problem with such an audience.

    I suppose this tension can be felt acutely because we all want to be loved and liked by our peers. Some (myself included) suffer from acute “people pleasing syndrome”. But the reality is, you simply can’t please everyone. I’m trying to internalise this. Peer review is one of the best and worst things about academia – you can learn a lot, but it can leave you feeling like utter crap because people can be really mean when feedback is given anonymously. Personally, all I expect at a presentation is clarity in the structure of the presentation, the salient points of the research and a bit of energy from the presenter, in that order. If I’m interested in finding out more, I can read the paper or talk to the presenter one-to-one.

    I agree with the earlier poster that conferences don’t necessarily make or break your career. They provide opportunities but ultimately, what stays with you is what you produce AFTER the conference, ie. a published paper, which I assume would conform to the standards and expectations of your discipline.

    • Thanks Bob, there are some really interesting points here. There are very few people in my specific field – now I think about it, I have probably been expecting that noone will be interested in the research until *after* the presentation, hence the attempt to engage. But I feel this is more low self/research esteem on my part than an accurate appraisal.

  9. Thanks for this, Ellen! I think you will find it gets easier as you go along–I used get feedback that I was ‘too enthusiastic’ (which was a criticism, suggesting I wasn’t sufficiently serious. Now I’m no longer in my 20s and have better clothes (it’s hard to dress that perfect blend of professional but not corporate on a student budget), I get less criticism.
    It’s also worth remembering that even within audiences there will be considerable diversity, and not everyone will want to hire you–but a good presenter (and it sounds like you are!) will please most people, most of the time.

  10. Interestingly I’ve been told in the past that I’ve been very enthusiastic. In other presentations, I’ve tried to tone it down and then was told that I needed more “passion and enthusiasm”. Still trying to find this balance. I’m only halfway through my PhD so I’ve got a bit of practice yet!

    • Sounds like you’re getting there, and just need to find the perfect balance. Let me know your secret when you do! Or it may just depend on the opinions of the people you’re presenting to, and you’re just fine as you are 🙂

  11. The criticism is pathetic and you should ignore it. You might, thug, want to weave it into future presebtations you give. I know the first talks I gave were total disasters. Why? because someone had advised me it was important not to modulate my voice and not to move whilst talking. Once I discovered that I felt better, and the audience appreciated it when I walked about, waved my arms, told amusing asides and so on, I was on my way. At the same time I steadily climbed the academic ladder.

    • Thanks, Charles. Presentations are so personal that criticisms of them can feel like criticisms of you as a person. Changing your presentation style/yourself can be beneficial in some cases, but it can also remove the magic and your confidence, therefore making you a bad presenter :/

  12. The funny thing – I was discussing almost the exact same thing with my tutors in my supervision last week. I am right at the start of my PhD, so they asked me to produce a piece of writing on a few of the novels I am studying. What I gave them was really quite rough, more like extended bullet points than a real essay, but they loved it. As my work (literature in the eighteenth century) includes a lot of complicated references to philosophical ideas about identity, the literature available in my field is often cumbersome, dull and uninspiring. They loved the fact that I had stripped the language back to the basics (unintentionally, I might add) and had made it accessible! They recommended that I maintain that approach (especially if I want to publish afterwards). I think it just goes to show that there isn’t really a ‘right’ way of doing things. Different people appreciate different styles of presentation. As long as its coherent, accessible and (as you say) respectful, then surely it is professional?

  13. That’s interesting actually. When we gave our presentations for undergrad projects we were warned beforehand about making jokes. We weren’t told not to, but the general instruction was ‘careful about them, they could come across the wrong way’. That said, I made jokes and stood on a table in my presentation and still got good feedback. i have a presentation ‘workshop’ in january, in a totally different context, labelled specifically as “formal”, so it’ll be interesting to see the feedback on humour i get then.
    I at least think that that’s changing though; recently I attended a conference and the speakers who made jokes and used humour in their talks were much more successful and appreciated all around, it seemed. Hopefully that means we as academics are evolving out of the chalk dust clouds and formal tones and into an era of enthusiasm.

    • That’s interesting, Lucie. I went to great course recently on “lecturing with laughter” (by Susan Morrison from The Stand), where jokes were actively encouraged. I am loving the idea of evolving out of clouds. Perhaps we need a theme song?

  14. Humph- Am I the only one who finds academic writing and conferences are often too boring because of its rigidity and so-called professionalism? You find a lot of people just fiddling with their phones or ‘facebooking’ while a presentation is going on (I say this having recently organised two international conferences for over 300 delegates)

    At my last conference, I was presenting a paper on Data Mining in the construction industry. I recall giving the hitherto serious audience a laugh by borrowing Kevin Bacon’s line from the EE tv advert. I said, “The construction industry has got ‘data, a SHED load of data'”. My supervisor was at the back, he gave me a thumbs up and later said “You are a natural at presentations!” Mind you he didn’t know I was going to slip that line in. Later on that presentation, I made a joke about me growing bald because of PhD. I used these just to get the folks tuned in.

    I think knowing your audience helps you set the tone and balance of what might be appropriate at any giving time…I probably wouldn’t have said that at another seminar I was at just a week before.

    • You are definitely not the only one. Personally, I’m not great at staying engaged at conferences unless I’m taking notes or making a mindmap, so I really appreciate less rigid presentations.

      Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

  15. Interesting post! About the idea of ‘being professional’ and adding humor, I would like to add my experience. I am at the last week of my PhD (or a week that last longer than a week) and a couple of months before the viva presentation. In the latest conversations with one of my supervisors (professor emeritus) he mentioned to me that I should start thinking about making a small performance (including also a disguise) at the begging of the viva presentation. Surprisingly, he insists on his opinion. He strongly believes that a serious academic should be able to get out of his position and believes and be able to make humor even with himself, even being able to “ridicule” himself in public. I have no idea of what will happen in the viva presentation but if there is a performance and you are interested, I will let you know.

  16. Great post, Ellen. I often tell students to make sure they are taking the audience (not themselves) seriously. Taking the audience seriously is the highest form of professionalism in a presentation, and it means that what counts as ‘professional’ will shift according to that particular audience. Of course, learning how to calibrate tone for various audiences is tricky, and, for most of us, an ongoing process!

  17. y impression is that academia has a greater proportion of introverts than the world at large. In everyday interactions the extroverts “appear” to have more fun. So there might be a resentment towards anybody that comes across as an extrovert which in turn gets cloaked in “professionalism” comment.

    You can’t please all the people all the time. So just be authentic. Being
    true to yourself is the best gift you can give yourself.

  18. Most presentations I see in conferences in my field are outright monotone and one-way. A good presentation involves the audience, is engaged, it’s like having a conversation. Be yourself. Be engaging. Be this enthusiastic. I see nothing wrong with it.

  19. Thanks for the great post & responses. I am in my second year of PhD and have only completed my confirmation of candidature presentation even though I have done many presentations in other roles. I found presenting extremely difficult, but did not find ‘teaching’ difficult as you are required to be you; you do have a deeper insight to your audience after a while and, you are not being viewed by others who are experts in the field, in a competitive nature. Through my role as a lecturer of education, I developed skills to be able to be a performing singer/songwriter on the side, so my outlet for the less formal (although equally as professionally demanding) role, was satisfied. I do feel that academic presenting is a fairly serious area however, if you can prove you know your stuff extremely well & can present your contribution and argument well, (you have earned the credibility) you can get away with a lot more informality than if you are a novice in your area. That is what I have learned so far, however, like you, I am still learning :-). All the best with your future presentations and don’t be discouraged!

  20. Hi Cynthia,

    I’m a post-doc, and I work in, well, toilets. As well as menstrual hygiene (and drinking water, but that’s not so taboo). As you can imagine, this can lead itself to jokes, and I do refer to ‘shit’ rather than ‘faeces’ in some contexts- eg when working with developing communities. In the six years of my academic career I have only found positive things come from being humble and joking- people find you easier to approach and probably more importantly for an academic career PEOPLE WANT TO WORK WITH YOU. Unless you are of Mensa level intelligence, your best bet for succeeding in academia is COLLABORATION. So I say, be yourself, and do what feels right- especially in this day and age where you can promote your work through outlets other than ‘serious’ conferences and peer reviewed journal articles.

    • Thanks Dani,

      I think being easy to approach is a great thing to strive for. Breaking down those boundaries between you and your audience is really important, but some seem to view those boundaries as a positive thing.

  21. LOVE this post ❤

    I think your insight is not just representative of some pockets of academia, but other professions too. I too think that what some people see as professional is out-dated, out-moded and generally not very helpful. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't critically engage with the concept of what being a professional stands for and just follow suit with what is presented around them. I know there are some people who use the stage as if they were in a theatre play about them and disclose waaaaay too much information about themselves… but that doesn't seem to be you at all. You are aware of the balance and are trying to work with it. Kudos to you. Keep doing what you are doing. And take it as a compliment if you get another comment similar to that one about being taken seriously as an academic. It means that you actually challenged this person's thinking.

  22. Keep engaging your audience and being enthusiastic! It is what is missing from a lot of conferences nowadays. Nevertheless, the extent to which your presentation is “serious” or “less serious” highly depends on your audience. A presentation in an international conference does not have to be impersonal and boring, but it is expected to adhere to certain standards of academic style, especially when it is addressed to specialists in the field. That is not to say that these specialists do not appreciate jokes, but they probably prefer fewer jokes and more hard facts. On the other hand, in an unspecialised student conference or a public seminar, it is probably better to explain your research through jokes and light-hearted analogies, because the audience is not expected to possess background knowledge of the subject. If you enjoy the latter type of presentation more, perhaps you could engage in more science communication. I do not know many people who know the science but can communicate it effectively to the public at the same time.

  23. Great post! Like most of the others making comments, I don’t believe that you should modify your natural style. Unfortunately, though, I think that some (many?) academics value cynicism over enthusiasm. I’ve found in the past that people misinterpret my enthusiasm for naivete or even stupidity.

  24. Wow. 5 years into my first full time lecturing post and I’m recalling some similar comments made to me in my phd years. They made me worry about my ability to be ‘academic’. But these days, they’re a distant memory. I took a course in stand up comedy to help get the timing right for jokes in my lectures, and it gave me the right tone for the serious research presentations too. How many laughs do you need to keep people awake, and how many headlines? The right balance will keep you framed as a seriously exciting academic.

  25. It’s tricky. There’s normally room for a kind of gentle, observational humour about shared pain points and truisms, but some kind of stand-up routine is inappropriate (as I know from painful experience). Two basic rules: [1] know your audience (and bear in mind your job is to get memes from A to B, which humour can assist or hinder given the context) and if in doubt, don’t. [2] Telegraph jokes like mad with your tone and manner — make it clear that this brief humourous interlude is intentional. Many of the people you irritate will eschew humour because, simply, they don’t get it and it annoys and alienates them. In the end I suppose it’s like pepper: it’s easy to add too much, and it some cases it just doesn’t work, so be careful and test as you go. And yes, established people can get away with murder. This is not you.

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  28. Some presentations are ‘boring’ most presenters are not trained entertainers and should not ferl inadequate because of that. Being peofessional means attending to the content of a presentation, and rating it on its quality of argument, not the style.

    • I would disagree with this view for two reasons. The first is that humans process “content” and “style” together. Retention of information is always better when a little content is presented well than when lots of content is presented in a way that bores people to death.

      The second reason why I would disagree is is that it seems to represent the classical (and misleading) assumption that style is somehow both mysterious and superfluous, which is an old misreading of classical Greek rhetoric, through Enlightenment eyes.

      While feelings of personal inadequacy are always unnecessary, I do believe that academics should attend to presentation style, in the same way as they will learn writing style for articles and the like.. Why should we legitimise sloppiness in oral discourse but push for excellence in written work? Both are skills that are easy to learn.

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