Friday, September 13, 2013

A Guide to Making Academic Conference Presentations More Effective

Boston. American Sociological Association conf...
Conference Presentation (Wikipedia)
by Nick Hopwood:

Turn your conference paper upside down. State your argument, expand on it, and state it again.

That is what I am modelling in this blog post, by the way!

I’ve been more than a bit bitchy and critical of conference presenters, slides, and audiences in some recent blogs.

I was challenged on Twitter to offer something a bit more positive and, yes, helpful. So here goes.

What do you want?

In decreasing order of priority, I expect the outcomes you might want from your presentation might be:

1. The audience to have a clear sense of your key take-home message, and to take it home (ie. remember it distinctively amid all the fuzz and crap of however many sessions)
2. The audience to value your message: to come away with a good answer to the question ‘so what?’
3. The audience to have an impression of you as a diligent, competent and professional scholar
4. The audience to think you’ve done your homework and read lots

I wonder how many readers structure their presentations as if the ranking were the opposite: that the gold medal goes to point 4?

Turn it upside down

I reckon a good way to make sure you hit the most important targets first, is to turn the conventional presentation on its head (conventional in the sense of the structure I’ve seen hundreds of times over the years, and done myself often enough). I mean, start with the end.

Good morning/afternoon, the argument I’d like to make today is … that way, if an earthquake strikes or there’s a power cut, or you faint, it doesn’t matter: the key message has been broadcast loud and clear.

Note by doing this you radically reduce the chances of the audience falling asleep, and you keep a competitive edge in the attention economics that are wooing your audience away from listening to you (see my post about conference audiences).

Then you might expand on this key argument, say what you mean, outline it’s different features. In a way, you move backwards from conclusions to key findings.

Then you might say: to all you doubters out there who think I’ve made this up, here is my highly robust, well considered methodology that means you really can trust what I’ve said.

Then you might get into some of the literature and policy or other context. Instead of being boring background that is merely you reporting what others have done or said, this becomes weaponry in your quest to address the ‘so what?’ question.

You show how your argument is new, fills a gap, steps into new knowledge territory. You show how your argument has something to say about an important issue. You show how your argument matters now, to xxx people, for xxx reasons. And then, just for fun, you remind everyone of your argument.

Say what you will say, say it, and say what you have said

This maxim unfortunately leads many people to start their talk with an outline of their talk. Boring and unnecessary unless you’re going to talk for an hour. Even then I’d avoid it.

What I mean is: state your argument, expand and justify it, and state your argument again. See how this approach makes the most of what you have to say and worries less about what others have done? See how it serves the ranking of outcomes I listed above?

It’s not a spoken paper, it’s an advert for a paper

Okay, there are some conference formats, particularly in the humanities, where people sit and read out full papers from a pre-written text.

Even in this (in my view rather dull and unfortunate practice) I would spice things up by putting the conclusion or a quick version of it first. But for most of us, we have 10-15, maybe 20 minutes. I say bin the structure of the paper.

Trying to get through the whole thing just leads to being rushed and doing no parts justice, or being slower but using up your time on the lit review. Consider the presentation an elevator pitch for your paper.

If you are using slides, here’s a trick to have up your sleeve

Following my approach (I’ll self-aggrandise for a moment and call it the Hopwood upside-down talk), you are prioritising what you have to say over some other things, perhaps background literature, context, nitty gritty of methods.

You will finish reinforcing your key argument, so no-one is in any doubt as to what it is. But you might have skipped a few things on the way. Your audience might have noticed. No worries.

After your final slide (which isn’t ‘thank you’ or an unreadable list of references, but which is a clear statement of your argument), you might have a few extra ones that anticipate audience questions, like: can you say more about the theory? Or what definition of xxx are you using? Or what were your sample demographics?

I saw this done by a keynote speaker. Finished talk. Audience asks ‘what about xxx?’. Present skips to next slide and bingo! An answer. It makes you look super-smart and well-prepared.

And it gives you a chance to give an even better answer because you’ve got the visuals to match it, not just a pointless ‘thank you’ slide, or, worse, a black screen.

In conclusion

Turn your presentation upside down. Start with the conclusion. Expand on and justify it. End with your conclusion (and have a few extra bits up your sleeve). Go on. Try it. Dare you!
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