Three steps to getting into the right mindset for your research presentations

Presenting an academic paper at a conference?  Congratulations, but don’t think because the paper is written and accepted that your presentation is done. No, not by a long shot. If you think it’s easy, think again: you need to change your mindset. Do this by paying attention to the following three things:

1.  Think about what do you want to achieve with the presentation.
No. its not to show all the details of what you did and what you found. People who want that can go read the paper.  When last did you quote someone based on what he said? … No, didn’t think so, you read the paper, and get the exact details there, then re-use it.  So if it’s not the detail, what do I think you should be doing? You want to connect to people, get them interested in building a relationship with you, you want to entice then to read the paper. In other words, you want to show them how valuable you and your work are to them…
Remember your different outputs have different goals and levels of detail.  Your thesis/dissertation is highly detailed and very comprehensive.  Journal papers are more focused, but probably still with a lot of detail.  Conference papers generally are more limited in length and this might not have as much details, but it will still have enough to demonstrate rigor and help with validating the work. [Note that there are exceptions to all these examples, but I’m trying to generalize here!] In all three the objective is to be fairly exhaustive. On the other end is stories, completely fictional, with the objective to entertain, to grab your attention, to be dramatic.  And good stories get remembered… you want to hear more…
Your conference presentation falls somewhere in the middle.  You want to explain to the audience what you’ve done and how that might influence their research.  You need to make your presentation believable (tends to want to lean towards the thesis objective), but you also want people to actually listen (that tends towards storytelling). That way you can be sure that people will want to engage with you.
Now you’ve made the first step towards a better research presentation: realizing that the actual presentation serves a different purpose than the paper.
[Note that I got some inspiration from Nancy Duarte’s video Engage Through Story on vimeo. Well worth watching. Thanks to Jon Thomas for pointing the video out.]

2. Tell the story of the data. Don’t just present the data, that’s super-boring.  Instead make sure that you point to the interesting stuff in the data. And don’t just talk about it, show it. BUT, make sure that your message is visible in the data. Do NOT just cut and paste the graphs into Powerpoint.  Make sure that your colors, fonts, layout etc emphasize what you want the audience to see.  Remember they have access to the proceedings, if they want to see something else (unlikely) they can go and look at it in your printed paper. To quote Hans Rosling father of GapMinder: “Let the dataset change your their mindset”, but don’t expect them to see what you saw – you need to remove all doubt and show it out.

3. Spend time preparing your talk and your slides. But DO NOT equate the two.  The slides should support the talk, not be the talk. Don’t cut and paste the paper; whoever wants to read it can do so from the presentation.  Keep it simple, making sure that the message is clear. If you, for example, need a laser pointer to show trends in data, you have not designed the slide so that the message is clear… think about it. You know what you want the audience to see! If you don’t you need to have serious reservations about the conference since they then accepted a paper without a clear message…

I realise I have oversimplified the second and third tip — on each books can be written — but when you prepare, actually even before you do, make sure you have figured out:

  • that you cannot just cut and paste your paper into slides and expect it to make an impact
  • what story you have to tell
  • that you need some quality time to do this really good.

Got that? Then do it… and make sure you get enough practice!

Any other ideas how we can get from gory to great w.r.t. research presentations? Please leave a comment.

[B.t.w. did you see that you can subscribe to my blog via email? Find this interesting? Go sign up…]


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