Presentations for academics (and other hard core experts!)

Einstein - presentation genius :)I’ve just spent some time working with some ‘early years’ researchers. Given that a research career last for a very long time (mine was quite short at 24 years!) in part because it takes a looooong time to get going (ten years in and you’re still just starting!). We were working on presentations to get funding. The researchers in question had been successful in the first round, based on a paper submission, so now it was all about the presentation. If they were successful they’d get quarter of a million pounds funding each for their research idea: if not, not.

Quite big stakes then ?

Long term readers will know I used to be a researcher. I spent two and a half decades fighting with data and trying to explain it to people (and politicians)… so what I’m going to say here isn’t just based in today, but today certainly brought things to the for in my mind.

No one cares about ‘how’ in your presentations (at least at the start)

Well of course that’s not true, people do care about how you do things, but not – generally speaking – until after they’ve bought into what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. No one cares that you’re going to to do a massive “Principle Components Analysis using non-orthogonal rotation” unless and until they know that you’re doing so to try and find the answer to (say) the causes of childhood cancer (to take a not-very random example of the kind of research I did.)

The problem here is typical of so many subject-matter experts: being inside the problem. Having buried themselves inside an issue for so very long, it never crosses the expert’s mind that someone might somehow not already know why something is so very, very important. To the expert, this is self-evident because after all, if it wasn’t a problem worth solving they’d not have dedicated months/years/decades of their life to it… would they?!?  All that matters to them (and to their audience as far as they’re concerned!) is how the problem is solved. The result is a pretty technical presentation which really sinks its teeth into the technicalities. Very impressive.

But judging by some of the presentations I’ve sat through it can get so bad that not only don’t I know why someone is doing something, I genuinely don’t know what it is the expert is actually doing – although I could copy their methodology! It’s a bit like being able to follow a recipe without knowing what it is you’re cooking!  A better approach would be to start off with “Today we’re going to bake a cake” before you tell people what ingredients then need to assemble. Otherwise it’s not until it comes out of the oven they can possibly know if they should eat it before the main course or after it!

Presentations that are down and dirty in the weeds

There’s a lot of evidence that lectures in particular (and by extension presentations) aren’t a very efficient medium for passing over details and data.

With that in mind, the most effective use for a presentation could be to:

  • give people the bigger picture so they have the context in which to handle data
  • engage (and even excite!) audiences so that they want to details (if they’re relevant to them)
  • signpost better ways of getting more details if necessary in a more effective way.

Like a lot of things in presentations, the idea isn’t difficult – but the application can be very challenging. If you realise that you’re too far into the weeds, it’s relatively easy to pull out. The hard part is remembering to not go there in the first place.  (That’s in the design process of course, not delivery – by then it’s often too late! ? ).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have the details in your head in case of questions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have the details in a slide, even – just that you shouldn’t show it unless/until someone asks. Why not have the detailed slides ready, but hidden – so you can pull them out on demand?

It’s like tea. You’ve got the mug, the kettle, the milk and the tea – so if someone wants a cuppa, you’re all set. But you’d not force someone to down a mug of tea if they didn’t want it. To mis-appropriate the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” – but don’t force it!

Being boring

Look, it’s not hard. People don’t pay attention, don’t bother and don’t remember our content if you’re boring. Just because the topic is ‘serious’ doesn’t mean you have to be boring. I’m not saying you should do a song and dance act in the nude with a clown routine, just don’t have your default ‘entertainment setting’ at “I can’t be witty because this is a serious topic”… or at least don’t have it stuck there!


Take a moment to catch the idea of the PIE model.

Briefly put, a presentation should communicate in three levels – the physical, the intellectual and the emotional – if it’s to change something. All too often my experience of any presenters (but academic presenters in particular!) is that they:
1. screw up the first level by crowding a zillion pieces of information on a slide with nested (NESTED!) bullet points etc and an understated, boring personal delivery
2. hit the intellectual level hard, assuming that all that matters is the logical arguments based on data… give people information and they’ll do the logical thing (really? What about smoking? Drinking too much? Not exercising?)
3. miss out on the emotional, perhaps even abhorring it as the antithesis of logical debate.

The result is that at the end of an academic presentation nothing changes. No one cares, so nothing gets acted on. You might have found the cure for the common cold, but if no one acts on your discovery you’ve wasted your time.

I’m going to risk a tortured analogy here… an idea that no one acts on is like a book on the wrong shelf in a big library. It’s there, but no one can read it because no one can find it. Imagine you presentation is the Dewey Decimal system that makes your ideas findable by the ‘reader’.

Okay – I admit it… a tortured analogy! 😉

So what’s a poor academic to do?

Take your time… step back…. and ask yourself why you’re making your presentation. That’s your goal. Obvious, I know but all too often as experts we get caught up in the heat of the moment, excited by the prospect of talking about our personal reason-for-waking-up-in-the-mornings. If you’re making a presentation just to tick the box

  • made presentation without anyone die-ing

then by all means, stay with your bullet points and don’t get anyone excited. But if the reason for your presentation is

  • any other damned reason at all!

then think about it. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and design your presentation from their point of view. Do they know your jargon? Are they familiar with that obscure reference you’ve got but that the citation index suggests no one in the world has ever read? Are you trying to change your audience’s opinion about a well-know, so-called ‘fact’? Do you want them to apply your findings? Are you looking to get feedback on your ideas? Get funding? Find collaborators?

Then create your presentation.

Then do something else to clear your head of it and come back to it fresh. Come back with a friend if you can – someone who doesn’t know you or your work – and let them give you brutally honest feedback. What do you need to change to hit the target that you’ve created for your presentation?

Then repeat that last point! 😉

Then find a smart 15 year old and do the same again.

But Simon, they expect the details! They’re scientists!

Cool. Have your details ready and bring ’em out in the questions. Here’s the deal… questions are good!  If they’re asking questions about your technique that’s a good thing because it means you’ve got them interested. You’ve already won!  Instead of complaining to yourself that you should have included all this extra detail in your presentations, do a little happy-dance (inside your head!) about that fact that you’ve got your audience to want the details.

Oh… and by the way, just ‘cos that’s what they expect doesn’t mean it’s automatically a good idea.  I expect to have a hangover if I drink too much, but it doesn’t mean it’s a smart idea to dive into a bottle of whisky every night!

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