Some thoughts on presentations to an academic audience

After attending several presentations this week and what felt like a bazillion at GW – plus giving presentations at professional conferences and job interviews myself – I have a few words of advice for those unavoidable times when you find yourself giving a talk to an academic audience.  Please heed these words of advice, or consider yourself forewarned that someone in the audience will be snickering at your mistakes.  It happens.  And it ain’t pretty.

1.  Practice your talk.  And then practice again.  And then maybe run it through a third time, maybe for an audience, just to be sure.

2. While you’re at it, practice your TECH.  Invariably something will go wrong, like the projector won’t work or your file will get corrupted or you will forget your dongle or you’ll be on an unfamiliar machine.  So make sure to control whatever variables you can, and have a back up plan for those you can’t.

3. Don’t read your slides.  If you’re reading your slides, then the audience doesn’t need to read your slides, so then you don’t really need slides, now do you?  The point of the slides is to complement your talk, not to BE your talk.  And for god’s sake, don’t have OTHER PEOPLE read your slides.  I mean, it’s their job to quietly read the slide content to themselves while paying attention to your talk – not to stand up and read portions of the slide to the rest of the audience.  That’s just laziness on your part.

4. Maybe you should think about practicing your talk again now that you’ve rethought your slides.  Make sure those slides are in the right order.  And then generate a PDF of the final copy in case your slide program of choice breaks or the version on your presentation computer isn’t compatible with the new/old one on your machine.  Also maybe you should email yourself a copy or post it on Slideshare or your home institution’s repository.  Maybe you should do all of these things.  And then practice again.

Let’s talk about presentation content for a moment now, shall we?

5. Don’t rely on or even show videos unless they are central to the point of your talk.  Yes, I did just make that both bold and underlined.  This includes funny soundbites intended to make people laugh.  Really unnecessary.  Especially when the videos don’t work.

6. No handouts.  Handouts should only be distributed during your session if they are going to be used during the session.  Handouts should only be made available period if they contain materials that supplement your talk – and then you shouldn’t require anyone to take them who doesn’t want them.  Save the trees, man.

7. If you’re doing activities during your session and will be directing participants to online materials, make those links available online as well, NOT in a handout (see #6).  Don’t make your poor participants type in a bunch of mile-long URLs.  That’s just asking for trouble.

8.  And while we’re talking about mile-long URLs, please, for the love of god, check your links BEFORE your session.  Not during your session.  I guess during the session is better than not checking at all, though.

9. And on the topic of activities?  Don’t include them just to kill time.  A well-conceived activity can make a huge difference in the quality and relevance of a presentation.  A lousy one just makes you look like you don’t have enough material to fill your time slot.  If that’s the case, create more material or end early.  No one ever minds ending early.

10. The following things do not need to be explained in the context of an academic presentation:

  • what a keyword search is and how to conduct it
  • how to conduct any search where the search box is clearly labeled
  • how to click on a link
  • how your site works.  Explaining where things are or what your site contains are OK, though.
  • that something is “online on the internet” or “online on a website”

And finally:

11.  Don’t wear tight-fitting slacks made of any soft fabric.  Trust me on this one.  Have someone whose fashion sense and honesty you trust give you a once over before you leave the house.

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