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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