Project Proposals 30 April 2010

On stage...

Project/Research proposals for Masters & Doctoral students at the School of ICT at NMMU are different from many such occasions.  Some institutions see this as a defense, but not us. We try to create a safe environment, where students can feel they get support and help, rather than being attacked and criticized.  We try (unfortunately, unsuccessfully sometimes it seems) to make criticism help with the future project, rather than “breaking presenters and their projects down”. In this spirit, I will reflect on what I (generally) saw in the presentations after each session… In this blog I will focus on some “presentation” aspects – some positive, some not. Some you’ll agree with, some probably not.  Whichever way, do leave your comments below…

Hopefully this can be useful to our students, but also to other presenters out there.

Being nervous is normal, but what worries me is “why are people nervous?“.    The linked blog suggest two reasons: (i)  fear of group of strangers, and (ii) not being comfortable with the contents.  Ok, reason (a) is not really relevant in the context of this talk, but (b) very much is.  Let us ponder this a bit. Ok, so how comfortable should let’s say a masters student starting off on a project be with his/her topic.  My somewhat evasive answer is “comfortable enough”. While you may think that it is not very helpful, start by observing that I did not say that you should be an expert. For a master’s student you should be happy with the

Content is king, but the slide deck the queen. Of course we are worried about the content, in any presentation people are worried about that; more so in an academic presentation! However, people might listen to the king, but they look at the queen. And, may I add, people make some value judgement on the king based on the queen they see – however unfair that might be.  Translated: a sloppy slide appearance make people wonder whether your content is sloppy too… Unfair, I know, but that’s life. Get used to it.
From the  Some slides were great, some were OK, and, unfortunately some clearly needed some attention… But, definitely not the worst that I’ve ever seen!  Watch out for a future post dedicated to this matter.

Take due care with “supporting material”
(kings weren’t historical very monogamous, you are judged by all your queens!), which of course also includes your written proposal.  Use your tools professionally, you are in IT after all! [I of course do not like using Microsoft Word for writing papers, proposals and dissertations, because to “make it look good” is difficult; that’s why I love LaTeX — have you ever seen a LaTeX document looking really bad… anyway, I digress].  But one cannot blame the tool, I pretty much see this as a matter of taking pride in your work, showing dedication to the task at hand and the ability to pay attention to detail. All very important traits for a researcher – and we are talking research proposals here after all.

Use examples. Connect to the audience through examples. One of the presentations mentioned “Kosie’s potentially unsafe behavior” on Facebook.  This was an excellent example – being “funny” (at least for some who recognised “real” Kosie), but also right to the point, it hammered the point across. No chance of somebody misunderstanding that.  And as far as I am concerned that’s the point of presenting, not so?

Remember a homogeneous audience is scarce. In this respect you have it “easier” than some because at least everyone in the audience will have a common base which in this case is not too difficult to judge — just about everybody in the audience will have a 4-year degree with a significant portion dedicated to the study of information technology, computer science and/or information systems.  This may make it easier as you don’t have explain terminology that are commonly known by people of this background, but remember the commonality only streches that far.  Not all are experts, or even that knowledgeable, in the area which you are planning to become an expert in. So if you are in networking, user experience, information security management, or health informatics be sure to briefly explain terms/abbreviations/concepts that may not be everyday knowledge – sometimes judge a little nudge to remind the audience will be enough, sometimes one will have to give a much more elaborate explanation.

The agenda is not a table of contents! People cannot comprehend lots of information, certainly not lists of 13,14 points.  What’s the purpose of the agenda – to know what to expect.  It is not a list of headings of slides to follow… Think about what you are doing, spending 10 minutes on Background/Introduction (one bullet/numbered point) and like 2 seconds on some of the last points (e.g. Delineations & Limitations, Project plan, Proposed dissertation layout – already at least 3 points on the agenda…) Aaaaah!! It tells me nothing, as these points looks of similar importance – they are not. Clearly you saw others doing it and are following there bad example.  More than 5-7 points is looking for trouble… but maybe you should consider whether tradition is right? Be bold, be different, show that you have thought about why you are doing what you are doing.  I can see another future post here as well…

Some might say this does not sound too bad… You would be correct – well done to the presenters!  However, I believe that one should strive for excellence, not just “good enough”, not just ho-hum.

For now enough said, keep an eye open for the promised topics (they are already in my drafts, and remember to subscribe via RSS feed to learn about my latest ramblings…).

If you have questions/comments about Research Presentations, please leave a comment (if the answer is long/difficult maybe it can become the basis for a further post).

(Picture credit: hiddedevries on flickr)


4 Responses to Project Proposals 30 April 2010

  1. Norman Wei says:

    Yes …being “comfortable enough” will reduce the nervousness. If you are making a presentation on physics 101, you don’t need to be an expert on quantum mechanics. The audience will not expect that. But you have to know your 101.

    • rabotha says:

      Exactly, knowing what your audience expect is critical. As far as this post and “project proposals” from students are concerned, no professor (should/could) expect perfection! Of course there is a difference in expectations between masters and doctoral students, but its generally early in the process – they only has so much chance to read and think…

  2. Gary Jurgens says:

    I agree, as long as a presenter knows that there is nobody out there who knows your presentation / product better than you do. After all you have spent 3-5 months researching, (In my case a few years) the Idea.

    Getting challenged is part of the fun. the most that can happen is a NO. Then you try again.

    • rabotha says:

      @Gary: I like that attitude – presentations should be fun, its an opportunity to “sell” your idea/work/product whatever. If one is passionate about the topic it shows, and it add a bit of credibility to your presentation. And you are correct, worst case, you try again – one generally learn from mistakes more than from successes!

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