Preparing an academic presentation and developing your own style
Earlier this year we invited SSD DPhil students to nominate academics whose presentation style they admire, so we could catch up with them and chat about how they prepare for presentations, and how their style has developed over time.
In the first of these chats, we hear from Morgan Clarke.
Does presenting come easily to you? Has it always come easily to you?
I think it's something that I enjoy doing, so it came easy in that sense, but I have worked at it. Absolutely. I definitely made mistakes at the beginning, and some of my lectures didn't go very well. But when we're talking about presenting, I think there's a difference between presenting a paper at a seminar or conference, and lecturing. I think that the biggest mistake I made at the beginning with my lecturing was treating it like making a research presentation.
And how do you now see them as different?
Now, when I'm making a research presentation, perhaps I'm more confident, but then I was concerned not to make a mistake. I guess I saw the audience as potentially hostile. You think carefully about justifying each point that you make, anticipating potential objections or criticisms. And, in a sense, a seminar presentation – while in a sort of longer format - is like presenting a paper, it allows you to do that.
But it's a mistake to approach a lecture in that way, because you shouldn't see students as a hostile audience. And, therefore, you have to worry less about every point you make being totally defensible, as it were; if the student then asks a critical question that's a success rather than a failure on your part, because it shows that you’ve provoked thought in their minds.
When you think back, right to the beginning when you were a doctoral student or a very early career researcher, how did you feel about presenting your work? I guess at that stage it would probably have been presenting your research, rather than teaching.
Absolutely, those would have been the first presentations that I did. And at that stage of your career, those are the most important. Yes, I started out at graduate conferences, and that was helpful, it was an explicitly supportive atmosphere. I have less experience of presenting at conferences than I do in seminars (conference presentations generally being shorter). At a conference, you absolutely have to concentrate on, say, one key point. You haven't got the time to do more, and I think that's a quite specialised skill that you have to develop.
But then I moved on, my first academic presentations were within the department [here in Oxford], and so that was nice, a relatively sympathetic, audience.
One thing that's important here, I think, is to take advantage of the opportunities that you have of those sympathetic environments. And that probably also means going to support your friends and peers at their presentations, so that they'll come to yours. You can also learn by watching other people's presentations, for sure. And you can start thinking about why some presentations work better than others. That's important. I do remember quite vividly my first academic presentations, because I had some quite hostile questions.
And with hindsight, how do you reflect on those questions - were they, do you think, a consequence of the presentation? Or more a sort of rite of passage?
In these particular ones I'm thinking of, they were a particular kind of criticism. But they were from professional academics, and I felt that they felt that these were questions that had to be asked [of the work] or that should have been addressed. And in that respect, I learned from them because I learned that that was something that was expected. It didn't get me down too much; I could see how it might do, but those are important learning opportunities. Yes, it is nerve-wracking putting yourself before an audience, and being asked questions, but it's an important part of the vocation, the profession: practice is an important aspect of it.
Being able to take questions and ask them is its own kind of skill. So it's maybe distinct from the presentation, but it's a very important part of the process. So maybe we’ll talk about that later.
You’ve talked about learning to take comment and criticism as opportunities for further development and to better tune-in to expectations. Are there other aspects of presenting that you've had to consciously work on? And how did you go about it?
I think I don't work very hard on my presenting; it's not something that I've laboured at. I guess I see presenting as an extension of my writing and thinking, generally so that when I write, I imagine myself communicating, or imagine myself reading it out loud.
Early on in my education I was at Oxford, and we read out our essays. That's something that students don't think they'll like doing, but it was exceptionally good training. Because you learn to hear your own words, as though you were speaking. And by doing presentations, similarly, you will gain practice at that.
That said, I am somebody that likes to write out what I'm going to say. Even if, when I actually present it, I depart from it. People have different practices, people in different disciplines have different practices. My wife is more of a scientist. She is very good at presenting to a set of slides. She'll have like a hundred slides or something, and get through them!
I tend to have few slides, and it's more that I've written out what I'm going to say in advance.
I find the process of writing it out is very helpful, but it doesn't mean that I then necessarily read out the paper. That's a common criticism that people make of some presenters, that they just read out a paper. There's no doubt that that's not the most successful technique, unless you succeed in engaging with your audience, establishing a relationship with them, which means looking at them and talking to them.
However, you can read it, and I think maybe it can be a good way to start. For me, it gives me confidence - I know if I was going to freeze (which doesn't happen that often now, but maybe did happen before sometimes) that I would be alright. I would have my paper there. And in the worst-case scenario, I could read it out.
In graduate writing groups, we emphasise the idea of writing as a way of thinking things through, and I wonder whether that plays any part in why you prefer to write things out. Is the writing part of your thinking or is it more that you’ve already done your thinking, and just want to make sure the presentation is tailored for that specific audience?
You're right, it is part of my thinking. Every time I do a presentation, even if I'm presenting something that I've presented before, more or less, or it’s very similar but it's another occasion, I'll probably write it out again. But, as I say, when I'm writing it, I'm imagining that I'm telling it to people. A presentation is one of those unique opportunities where people have to sit and listen to you. It's wonderful! You can talk away for 20 minutes, or whatever it is, and they're going to listen to you.
So I imagine myself talking to them, talking to someone. But of course, very good practice when you're doing that preparation, especially if you get stuck, is to talk to somebody about what you're going to present. Try it out on people. You can, of course, capture a friend and give them your entire presentation, but it could also just be about talking to them about the ideas and so on.
This process of talking and explaining your thinking to people is one that can take place in many ways, and the presentation is just one aspect of that - perhaps a culmination at a certain stage of your thinking - but it's built on conversations you can and should be having more widely.
Sometimes, especially if you're in the social sciences, you might not have many opportunities to talk to people about your work, so when you get a presentation, it's great. Something to enjoy, even if one gets nervous about it. It's a nice opportunity, rather than necessarily an ordeal.
Now, when I'm writing it out, I have a good sense of how long something needs to be, because I think that sticking to time is very important. It is, in fact, perhaps the most important part of it. So you need to develop a good sense of how long it's going to take to give you a presentation; that comes with experience of course, but by writing it out, I know that a page of Times New Roman, single-spaced, 12-point font, takes me takes me five minutes to get through.
So, if I've written out an academic presentation of 10 pages, I know it's going to take about 50 minutes, which is about right for a full-length seminar. When I do lectures, as I said before, it needs to be less dense, to be less than that. Writing everything out gives me confidence my thoughts are organised and a good sense of how long it is.
Quite a lot of work goes into doing a presentation: I do take them seriously, I want them to go well. A good maxim that I was told early on is ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. And that’s jolly embarrassing when it's an in-person presentation.
So now I come to think about it, what I said at the beginning about how I think I don’t work very hard at my presenting – that’s not true at all!
[Even when it feels like a very new experience], doctoral students already have had related earlier experiences: even in a tutorial you present your argument, or in a seminar somebody's supposed to summarise a reading each week. Students take that more or less seriously, so there have already been opportunities to practice presenting things clearly, to an audience, to time. Those are the most important skills.
When I was younger, I would also take quite a lot of care to prepare. Now, it may come across that I have an easy, or relaxed, manner when I’m presenting, but a lot of work goes still into that. Preparation is important, and the more you practice, the better you get.
Can we come back to where you stand on slides, please? You’ve mentioned that you lean towards fewer slides, but how important are these?
I think that I’ve become a bit lazy in my approach actually - I don't think that my presentation style is at the leading edge of what's possible. I’ve seen colleagues who do much better in terms of how they use the possibilities of having a presentation, using video and audio materials. But I don't know if it's worth spending a lot of time on the fonts on your PowerPoint slide or whatever, although I know that there are more or less professional ways of doing it. I feel like I'm not somebody that takes great advantage of those possibilities.
From my perspective, anyway, I don't think it's either necessary or indeed the most important thing. The most important thing is the clarity of what you want to say. So having written it out, by the time I come to give the talk, usually I don't actually look at my notes that much. Now I've become more relaxed and confident, and probably present in a more fluid way, but it's probably less good!
Could we pick up your earlier observation about the question-and-answer element of presentations?
Confidence comes into this: if you know you've done the presentation successfully it's helpful, but the question and answer session is an opportunity for you to clarify things, and you never quite know how it's going to have been received.
So you can do all this preparation in advance, but they may completely get the wrong end of the stick, or they may not listen properly - you can't always expect a good audience! And I’ve found that sometimes when people ask questions, it's clear to me that haven't listened to what I said.
And how would you respond to that?
The most important thing with your questions is not to forget the question you’ve been asked, and so I write it down. Write down the question and think seriously about the answer, because it's easy to just go off on one. It's easy to relax, once you've done the presentation, and then you can get caught out by what might seem a hostile question, but often it isn't. So you shouldn't be too defensive, and remember it's an opportunity to talk more!
One of the general questions we've had is how to gauge the length and detail of an answer in that kind of a context?
I think it’s certainly possible to go on too long. It's also possible not to answer the question. And those are very commonly done even by professional academics.
Writing down the question, and thinking before starting to speak, are key. If you know what the answer is before you start talking, you're less likely just to keep talking until you either find your way to the answer, or run out of energy, or the chair cuts you off. It’s important to take seriously that process, and think about what your answer is before you start off, and not go on for ages and ages. Easier said than done, but it's worth doing.
Are there other common mistakes that doctoral students and early career researchers make when they're presenting, and do you have any tips for avoiding them?
One potential problem with academic work more generally, which a presentation can bring out, is where it's too hermetic, where it's too self-referential, where the issues and the audience have been lost sight of.
A presentation will almost invariably involve speaking to people who work on things that aren't exactly the tiny thing that you work on, and so I think almost every presentation should be able to explain the relevance of your work to a wider audience.
Sometimes we haven't got a sense of why we're doing our work, except that we have to do it to get our PhD! But I think it's always important to keep in mind ‘what is the point of doing this’.
When you have a clear idea of that, then you'll be able to communicate it more easily. Students sometimes seem to feel that the important thing is gesturing to citation, to making sure that the audience knows that they, the student, is part of the club, by saying all the ‘right sorts of things’. Personally, I find that not as effective or as interesting as somebody that has a clear sense of what the point of their research is. If they do, that will usually come through.
For me, the most common downfalls are not keeping to time and not being clear and focused. I think they may be obvious things, but they’re not necessarily always followed.
What I like about presentations is also there in the Q&A, although it's harder to remember: you're in control. You get to manage what the audience thinks of you, and thinks of your work because you're telling them. And similarly when you're answering the Q&A, you know that if you really don't like a question or you don't think it's a fair question or, you want to answer a different question then you can always do that because you’re in control, they aren't. Although they might not like it!
In terms of things that can go wrong: when you feel that the presenter’s not in control of what's happening, that's when it becomes rather embarrassing and awkward, because you're sitting there and you know we've got to go through this together, the audience as well as the speaker. So, you want a sense that the speaker knows what they're doing.
I don't mind a nervous speaker, I really feel for them. I’ve never approached listening to a paper with the idea that I really want to rip into this person, although I certainly can ask some difficult questions (which I enjoy, too). I think most audiences are well-disposed, and especially a student audience when it comes to lecturing.
And on lecturing or other teaching, I often hear from doctoral students and early career researchers that it’s a difficult line to tread, between adding personality and life to a presentation, and the risk of appearing to diminish either the academic content or the professional impression that they might be seeking to make in that context. How has that process worked for you?
I don't think I've worked on it consciously. I don't think I ever felt ‘gosh, I'm being too dry, I want to try and relax, how would I go about that?’ I've had a few embarrassments in my more recent career though as well, because I haven't been prepared. And that sense that it is not going very well. And then it all sort of falls away and then that's not so good. But in terms of being relaxed, or being yourself…
Sometimes I worry that I'm a bit too ironic - seriousness is important, yes, but you can still be being yourself. It might be a very serious topic and you're engaged with it, and so you are being yourself.
Again, it’s about communicating what it is that you're up to. This is something that you're engaged with. You won't seem so distant from your material If you have a clear sense of what you're trying to achieve and what you're trying to say. Maybe it's just practice, maybe I'm naturally quite confident. I was relatively old when I came to postgraduate work in my late 20s, I was older than almost everybody else. And maybe that helps, having more life experience.
I was probably already quite confident in that way, but something that I did change dramatically was my physical appearance. I used to have a ponytail, wear a hoodie, very old trainers and combat trousers or whatever, and it just didn't work for me. I think you have to have really very strong confidence to be able to pull off standing up in front of an audience and saying ‘take me seriously’ without attending a little bit to how you look. If you want the audience to take you seriously, changing the way you dress can be a very effective way of doing that. It's the very essence of superficial. But, especially when I started teaching, I needed to make a separation between me and the students. So I started wearing a shirt and a jacket.
Was that part of developing a broader professional persona?
Yes, I do have a professional persona, which developed gradually, it wasn't straightaway. There was a transition between when I was still doing my D Phil here, and then when I went for a postdoc and I went somewhere else where people didn't know me. At Cambridge there were a lot of postdocs, and I changed quite dramatically the way I presented myself. I think that was important for me. I don't know whether it's something I want to advise people to do, because maybe it sounds anti progressive, but I do think in practical terms, it can be very helpful.
My last and general catch-all question is the classic ‘is there anything else I should have asked you about presentations and presenting that you'd like to share, or anything you'd like to add to your previous comments’?
I'd only reinforce what I’ve said: having the conversation is a helpful way to think about things. Presentations are an important aspect of academic projects, because they’re about communication, and at the end of the day, it’s all really about communicating your ideas to others. Whether that's through writing, which is the ultimate form that's validated, or through presenting your ideas in a formal context which is what we're talking about.
In conversations and presentation, we're just talking about our ideas with people. Talking about what you work on. ‘I work on X’, you know, it’s fundamental to the academic vocation, that these ideas are communicated.
I find presenting is bound up with my writing, as I've said, so it's very very valuable to have the opportunity to tell people about what you do, and it's also very valuable in helping you write better.
And as I said, when I'm writing, I imagine myself telling somebody this. And then, when I'm presenting I'm literally telling them. It's all part of the same process, so in a sense, I don't see it as a different skill. I see them as bound up together.
But it's also something that it has its own craft, something you need to be prepared for, to take it seriously so you take advantage of the opportunities. I guess it's a bit of an ordeal at times, and you’ve got to practice, but I think you just have to get over that.
Morgan, thank you very much indeed for being so generous with your time and experiences!