Presenting at seminars and conferences

An important aspect of doctoral and academic work is presenting at seminars and conferences. The Research Skills Toolkit site offers you a variety of ways of developing your ability to present your work well. Classified by Researcher Development Framework domains, this site lists courses, web sites, events and resources available to suit different areas of skill development. Follow the link and click on the appropriate section of the diagram, e.g. Communication and Dissemination.

Issues

There is very little point in choosing a very good topic, figuring out what other people have done, deciding that you’re going to take a novel tack, going off and doing it, if you cannot then communicate what you do. So a final part of it, to me, is [to develop] the ability to articulate, at different levels, whether it’s to a …a group of people who work in a very, very closely related subject where you can talk technology, versus the ability to stand back and explain, if not to readers of the Daily Mail, at least to an intelligent conference, a general audience. (Experienced supervisor, MPLS)

This supervisor comment captures really well the notion that presenting as a scholarly activity involves communicating in a meaningful way to a range of different audiences. He makes it clear that while the focus of doctoral presentations is largely to scholarly audiences, this may not always be the case, and communicating with non-academic audiences is increasingly an expectation of academic work. Nevertheless, it can often be challenging as this researcher notes:

I was very much in a minority of business and policy people [at this conference]. I was able to stand back somewhat from decisions and take a broad, long view, while they were faced with big …decisions. But it is quite a challenge to frame my presentations in ways that are accurate and also relevant to this type of audience …they are very much wanting certainty. …so …it’s always challenging trying to say things in a way ... that it doesn’t get misinterpreted …because the evidence comes in from different sources and different types of trials that are carried out, with different methodologies, different circumstances, and you have to try and put this together and understand what the data are telling us. It’s often quite complicated, and it’s quite easy to misinterpret …I suppose what I’m saying is I’m feeling much more the…the weight of the expectations of different stakeholders. (Experienced researcher, STEM)

Lastly, even amongst scholars there will be vast differences in the ways individuals make sense of a presentation. So imagining the variability in any particular audience is also important as this supervisor notes:

[Students] have to realise that there are people out there, in the audience, who’ve got 50 different cognitive structures …so they can engage people who are interested, say, in …image analysis but not in the [student’s] specific bit, and actually tell them ... the importance of what they were doing, even though the person won’t understand a …thing about their technical detail. So an effective communicator is not one who actually has pretty PowerPoint slides …though of course they help; it’s the ability to engage, to think about what the audience are trying to take away from your message, and actually helping them to perceive the meaning, the structure, the relevance in what you’re saying. (Experienced supervisor, STEM)

Ideas

Planning for conference attendance

Discuss conferences it would be desirable to attend and clarify potential funding arrangements early in the candidature, to provide motivational milestones.

Supervisors and research group leaders (PIs) might also consider the contribution research students could make to the wider impact of the group when they present their work in progress.

Another impact activity which students might enjoy and which would provide excellent presentation practice and experience with different audiences is playing a part in open days and events for school students interested in studying at university. The Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network is a network whose members include DPhil students and postdoctoral researchers. It aims to give its members opportunities to do university outreach in Oxford and further afield, as well as to provide them with appropriate training.

As well, students who are considering a non-academic career may find it useful to present at professional conferences to learn to communicate with a different kind of audience (as well as to network). 

Rehearsing a paper

For students who are anxious, doing a rehearsal, even with just one or two peers or the supervisor, can be helpful. Use the Seminar skills feedback form to give the student specific points to reflect on and improve. It can be particularly helpful if part of the rehearsal involves taking questions from the floor.

Keeping track of audience comments

When presenting at seminars and conferences, students are often so busy thinking about how to respond to questions that audience comments become a blur. Arranging that the supervisor or a student peer keep detailed notes of comments and suggestions made during the discussion can be very helpful for reflecting on afterwards.

Considering that questions arising from a doctoral student’s conference presentation are likely to relate to the questions that will be asked by examiners in the viva, see Trafford and Leshem’s (2002) list of Twelve predictable questions which exemplify common themes. These questions could be used in preparing for the kinds of questions that may emerge. In fact, fielding questions from presentations may be an effective way to prepare for the viva, especially in dealing with criticism of one's work.

Collecting feedback on presentations

It is not unusual for students to feel that they have gained little useful feedback on their presentation skills from seminars and conference papers. Gathering written feedback on the effectiveness of the presentation can provide students with substantially more information, especially for within-Department seminars. The supervisor can take the lead (with the student's permission) in asking that the audience to take five minutes at the end of the presentation to write some comments. These should be collected by the supervisor, who can then help the student in interpreting them, or even vet them for non-constructive comments if desired. The same approach could be used to collect feedback on the content of a research proposal presentation. These examples of feedback forms may be used or adapted:

Using a presentation as a route to publication

In many fields where journal publications are the norm of academic communication and time from acceptance to publication is lengthy, a useful strategy is to consider a presentation as a preliminary step towards a publication, as this newly graduated student describes:

I’ve set myself a schedule …the papers that I’m presenting at conferences are the ones that I’m going to turnaround [into publications]. I have some previous conference submissions that I can work on so I’m going to always try and have—and I was told to do this—always have three articles on the go at any one time. (New lecturer, Social Sciences)

Presenting orally has an additional advantage that it provides the opportunity to obtain scholarly feedback which can then be used in re-working the final version.

Being a panellist

Being invited to be a panellist… it’s about getting things clear in my mind. Like when you’re given a few minutes, you sort of need some sound bites - you can’t just go rambling on - so trying to condense it. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Being a panellist involves different preparation from giving a paper since the purpose is different; see How to prepare as a panellist.

Student-led conferences

Student-led conferences within Departments or Divisions offer useful practice in a supportive environment, and also provide opportunities for students to learn about the organization and management of conferences.

Learning to communicate your ideas and findings is an essential part of research. Assisting students with their first presentations is a critical aspect of the Different support roles of the supervisor. Students generally require assistance in preparing a presentation and such assistance can include talking through:

  • Who the audience is and what their background knowledge and interests are likely to be;
  • What is significant about the topic (the take home message);
  • How one might prepare slides in a way that makes them interesting and legible;
  • The number of slides per presentation: e.g. trying to get through 40 slides in a 40 minute presentation is likely to leave the presenter and the audience in a daze!
  • How to structure the presentation: introduction, middle, conclusion; aim for 3-5 main points;
  • How to time a presentation: e.g. bringing together the significant aspects of the topic with the structure and the time allocation;
  • How to manage effectively the different situations that characterise question time.

Audience considerations are critical in both the planning and delivery stages of a presentation. In the planning stage, audience impacts on how the topic is presented, including the language used. Audience is again vitally important at different stages of delivery. Students can benefit from discussion of strategies for engaging an audience, grabbing their attention, the pros and cons of different orientation strategies at the start of a presentation, and how to maintain interest during the presentation. Students also need to be reminded that while repetition is frowned on in writing, building in redundancy is a useful device in verbal presentations to help audience members to follow, or reconnect if their attention has wandered!

Although the use of PowerPoint for presentations is often seen as the norm, there are common pitfalls associated with this technology:

PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has [all too often] become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: respect your audience. (Tufte, 2003)

The above text was based on:

Alley, M. (2003). The craft of scientific presentations: Critical steps to succeed and critical errors to avoid. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Craswell. G. (2005). Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide. London: Sage.

Tufte, E. PowerPoint is evil: Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. Wired Magazine, September 2003.