Somehow I Enjoy Giving Academic Talks. Here’s Why.
I’ve never liked public speaking. Even into college, I identified with – or passively accepted – labels like quiet, shy, and introverted. Public speaking was uncomfortable, awkward, and something to be dreaded. Which is why in graduate school, finding out that I enjoy giving academic talks or presentations, has been super bizarre.
Even more bizarre is the feedback I’ve received. I’ve been told I am a “good speaker,” “poised,” and my favorite so far, “authoritative but not bitchy” (by another woman but yes, there’s a lot we could unpack here).
I suspect two years of teaching high school English helps you become better at public speaking. But when I give academic presentations, I also do a lot of mental preparation. I think about presentations differently than I did as an undergraduate, approach them differently, and as a result, feel differently about them (for the better).
So this post isn’t a “5 Steps to Giving an Effective Presentation” sort of deal. There are plenty of those out there, and they give suggestions about making more eye-contact or using fewer words on your PowerPoint slides. I’m not talking about anything that concrete. Instead, the point of this post is more like: “This is what’s going on in my brain behind the scenes before a talk because it seems to be helpful.” Then I’ll share some stories about each point that are hopefully interesting and help clarify the message.
In a nutshell, I remind myself of three things before giving a presentation or talk:
- The goal of a presentation is to communicate.
- Presenting is an opportunity. Or even a pleasure.
- A presentation should serve me too.
The goal of a presentation is to communicate.
At its core, the purpose of a presentation is to communicate a message. That’s it. When I organize and craft my presentations keeping this in mind, I worry less about how a presentation is “supposed to” go and more about what my audience would find interesting.
My first time approaching a presentation this way was at the end of my first semester of graduate school.
Escape from Faculty Feedback
One of my first presentations in graduate school was for my research methods class. In this class, the final paper was a research proposal, which we were required to also present to the class. We’d had multiple drafts of the paper due throughout the semester, so when presentation week rolled around, the professor already had a clear idea of what each student was doing.
While I was still passionate about my research idea, I was SO tired of working on this paper. The professor’s feedback seemed to indicate that nothing I’d done was very good, that there were gaping holes in everything, and that I just wasn’t rising to their standard. (A grain of salt: I was also rushing through most of these assignments the night before they were due.) So as my presentation date drew closer and I started preparing, I happily put the paper aside and decided I wouldn’t touch it until my presentation was over.
Initially, I organized my presentation just like my proposal. But soon I realized how awkward this would be. I didn’t need to stand in front of a classroom and talk about IRB approval and my intended timeline for data analysis. I needed to share the “so what?” of my project in a clear, conversational way (which was not the way I’d written about it in my proposal).
I could share what motivated me to do this project and use direct interview quotes to demonstrate that the concept I wanted to study really was present in my data. (This wasn’t in my proposal either, because it wasn’t required.)
And finally, I could ignore all the critical feedback I’d received on my proposal so far and just share what the class, my peers, needed to know to understand my project. With less than 10 minutes to speak, I narrowed in on what was most important, and most interesting.
On presentation day, I stood in front of the class, no PowerPoint, and mostly talked about my data. I read a few compelling quotes, made frequent eye contact with my audience – because I was communicating with them – and overall enjoyed the experience. I’d like to think my classmates found it interesting too. I almost never looked at my professor because, well, this presentation wasn’t for them.
Viewing my presentation as a chance to communicate with my peers was freeing. It also allowed me to abandon a structure more suited to paper than voice, cut away unnecessary and uninteresting information, connect with my audience, and even enjoy the experience.
2) Opportunity Not Obligation
Presenting is an opportunity. Or even a pleasure.
This second point involves some optimism. You’ve been warned. When I say presenting is an “opportunity,” I’m drawing on all the positives associated with the word. Set your skeptical academic mind aside for a minute and humor me.
When you give an academic talk, you get to present the work you’re passionate about to an audience who cares at least a little! Maybe even a lot! You might have found that for some strange reason, your friends and family aren’t necessarily interested in hearing you ramble on and on about your work. Weird, but true. They might even interrupt and start talking about themselves. Jeez. But in a presentation, you won’t have to deal with this until Q&A.
Even if you don’t fit into the rambling academic archetype I’ve painted above, viewing your presentation as an opportunity can help. Personally, focusing on the positive aspects of a presentation helps me get my head into the game and reduce feelings of dread or nervousness. In fact, a faculty member shared that this is a scientifically-grounded approach to reducing nerves – we can reframe or redirect nervous energy into excitement.
Fortunately, I’ve found it far easier to get excited about academic presentations than say, a 6th grade book report. As scholars, established or in training, we’re fortunate to do work on the topics that fascinate us and that we’re already excited to share with others.
I don’t have a long story on this point, but in November 2019, I wrote about attending and presenting at Researching the Margins, a new interdisciplinary conference on qualitative research. I think that in reading the post you can sense my excitement.
3) How Does This Presentation Serve Me?
A presentation should serve me too.
There are many potential reasons to give an academic talk. As a new student, adding a line to your CV often feels like reason enough. But gradually, you’re no longer able to sign up for every conference, workshop, or event you’re aware of, because there are simply too many. Presentations are also a time suck and the demands on your time only continue to grow. So now, I look for a reason why a presentation is helpful to me before agreeing or applying.
So this final point is useful for thinking about whether you’ll say yes to a presentation in the first place, but can also act as a guide for how you decide to approach your talk.
Publish Present or Perish
In my first two years of graduate school, I did a lot of presentations just for the sake of building my CV. I felt both encouraged and pressured to do this, primarily by my peers. And the response from faculty – to hear for example, that a first-year graduate student was already presenting at regional conferences – was always positive. I can only remember one person – a faculty member who attended my panel session at my first regional conference – who ever implied that I was doing a lot.
Unsurprisingly, I soon wore myself out. I questioned whether it was really necessary to present at every single thing (thank goodness, because it’s not). Some venues were exciting, like the qualitative conference I mentioned above, others didn’t seem worth it. And I was beginning to feel disillusioned with academic talks.
When you present your research, a basic assumption is that you’ll receive feedback from the audience. Or in a worst-case scenario, scathing critique. But I began to see that the presenter was just as likely to get nothing much at all. The audience might not have many questions, the questions may be irrelevant or beyond the scope of the project, or the Q&A might get eaten up by lengthy, self-indulgent “more of a comment than a question” questions.
Good, usable feedback is not guaranteed. But I wanted to see if I could increase my chances.
Seeking Feedback (for real)
In January 2020, I agreed to present at my department’s weekly brown bag workshop. (“Brown bag” just means it’s a talk where you’re welcome to bring your own lunch, but they feel like a pre-pandemic phenomenon to me now.)
I had up to an hour for my talk and Q&A, so this was different from the 10–15-minute talks I’d given so far. Cue “opportunity” thinking: planning to speak for 30 minutes instead of 10 was a luxury. I didn’t have to cram everything into a few slides and simplify; I could breathe, spread my work out, sit in conversation with people. This format also allowed a lot of time for feedback. So I decided to curate this time.
First, I created handouts. I’d seen some workshop presenters provide handouts with supplemental information for the audience, like some charts and tables. I did this too, providing a table of demographic information and my interview guide, but I also included a section soliciting written feedback. These are the questions I asked:
- What worked well? (Powerful points? Interesting themes? What stands out? What do you want to hear more about?)
- What could use improvement? (Confusing spots? When are you not convinced? Anything that brings up doubts – data, methods, rigor, other? What did you think of the Findings structure?)
- I’m currently working on analysis and framing, including tying this work into broader questions and gaps. Are there literatures, themes, or topics you suggest I look into?
If I were to do this again, I’d probably ask one question related to whatever I was struggling with at the time of the presentation and leave one as a completely open-ended question for general feedback – keep it simple. But I liked soliciting written feedback because 1) it’s difficult to write down feedback (legibly!) while simultaneously answering questions, and 2) I could hear from people who didn’t speak up during Q&A.
Second, after my talk, I required five minutes to take a breather and give the audience time to process. I encouraged people to either write down their thoughts or talk with a neighbor. I’m never the type of the person who immediately has a question ready as soon as the speaker is done, and often I wish I had some time to collect my thoughts first. So I hoped that there were others like me who might have appreciated discussing their first impressions with a neighbor (or writing thoughts down their thoughts).
And I actually did appreciate having the 5-minute breather for myself. I was fortunate to have a lot of agency with how I ran this talk, plenty of time, and a facilitator who was happy to allow me to do I wanted.
In this example, I wanted my presentation to serve me by producing feedback, because I was in the process of revising the paper I presented. So I took some additional steps to encourage feedback.
Other Reasons I’ve Given Presentations:
- To practice giving presentations
- To work on articulating my ideas more clearly
- To be in community with a particular group of people
- To provide a service to people I’d like to support
- To create a deadline for my work
Currently, I’m preparing for a panel where I’ll present my in-progress dissertation research. This presentation is part of my university’s line-up of events for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (we celebrate a month early here) and so it’s a contribution to my AAPI university community. This event also places me in conversation with other panelists whose research engages with arts and activism, an intellectual community that’s exciting and important to me, and not always easy to find.
Finally, as someone in the unstructured dissertation stage of my PhD program, this presentation gives me some much-needed structure and pressure: a hard deadline that requires me to not only have done enough data analysis to present findings but be able to articulate those findings to an audience.
After spending weeks buried in data analysis, it’s going to be a welcome relief to get out of my head and talk to some people.
Image credit: Patrick Sommer from Pixabay