Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Pots: Last Year Presentation

Last week, I performed one of the rituals of a University of Southampton archaeology student for the last time- as it's an everyday kind of ritual, I've decided to whack it in as a "Pots" post. At the end of each academic year, all doctoral students are required to present their work to the research community at large- which usually means a mixture of keen MA students dreaming of doing this very thing next year, staff being supportive (and hiding from their exam marking for a sweet hour), and of course other PhD students, anxiously waiting to bring their research out to play. In the first year of PhD study presenting at this conference is dressed up as your "First Year Presentation" and is made to look quite scary- cue a huddle of nervous first year PhDs worrying that all they can present is a plan and a literature review because that's as far as they've got. If you're reading this, first year presenters, let me tell you now that that is just fine- nobody is expecting you to have done any more- it's just about being able to stand up, face the room and set out your stall. At the other end of the scale, you have the old farts like me- been around the department for so long (8 years of my life, from 18 to 26) that the staff are already rolling eyes at each other when you meander up to the podium.

Now, I love presentations. I suspect this is mostly because, deep down, I love an opportunity to show off a little bit. However, this wasn't always true- in my undergraduate degree I hated presenting. It made me nervous, slightly sick to the stomach. I made all the classic cockups- too much text on slides, talking too fast, not making eye contact with anyone, like a very guilty puppy who's left a present under the dining room table. So I thought I'd blog a bit about presenting- what I've learned over the four years of PhD about what makes a good presentation. Normally I don't try to be an "academic skills" type of blogger, but hey- I may well have something to add to this problem, in amongst all the bittersweet nostalgia of winding down to finishing my doctorate. No point being soppy if you aren't going to be useful. So, here are my top tips for a good presentation (that you might not have heard before):

1) Don't take yourself or your work too seriously. This is my secret. Of course your research is super important to you. Of course you don't want anyone to think you're a chump up there. If you are presenting to a superstar audience who really know their stuff, it can be intimidating. If you are presenting to any audience at all, it can be nervewracking. You need to nip this in the bud, fast- or you will give in to the temptation to drain all personality out of your presentation, playing it so safe you might as well be wearing a lifejacket and blowing a whistle. If you drone on until the allotted time is done, not smiling, not looking up, grim and relentless in your dissemination of knowledge, all your audience will take away from your presentation is how bored they were. Look around the room- the death grip on your notes won't save you if you haven't done the work. You're here- all these people are interested in you- because you're bloody interesting. Now show it. Give the crowd what they want- fantastic archaeology (or whatever) presented with a smile. If you stuff up, who cares? Everyone's been there. Better to be engaging and accidentally skip two slides on than bore the pants off everyone and stick relentlessly to the plan.

2) Write as you speak. While this is probably true for most short forms of academic work, it is vital in a presentation. I know fantastic speakers who can do a 15-20 minute paper without a script. Good for them. For me, scriptless presenting is for 30 minutes plus- anything less and I need a plan to get everything I want to say out there in the time limit. When writing up a presentation paper, I think of around 150 words per minute I'm speaking. So, for 20 minutes that works out at about 3000 words. Every one of those words should be phrased and styled as if the script does not exist at all. Sentence construction is key here- when I'm writing I can get bogged down in sub-clauses- when I'm speaking that does not happen. The little one-liners I like to throw in in conferences are written in my script, as are the more serious moments when the tone changes. It's all there- like a play, you should be able to write your audience's general reaction. Of course, an academic presentation can't all be fun and games, but it should feel natural, warm and enthusiastic- exactly how you sound when yackking about your research to your colleagues, friends and long suffering partner. Note- this ruthless word-planning should also stop you committing the cardinal sin of presentations- going over your allotted time.

3) Posh slide presentations are all very well, but it's what you say that counts. I have seen some beautiful slide shows in my time- gorgeously put together treats of powerpoint, swirling and whirling around the screen as they zoom in and out of view. These presentations (even if they don't make you feel sick from all the movement- honestly, it's like being in one of those flight simulators sometimes), no matter how lovely they are, are less important than the words the presenter is speaking. They can even be distracting. If everyone is absorbed in watching your text spring onto the slide in a super flashy font, they aren't listening to you divulge your wonderfully original re-interpretation of Levi Strauss/Maiden Castle/Garibaldi's March on Rome.

4) Enshrined in the previous three hints- keep it simple. Don't try and do too much. A little bit of text, mostly pictures in terms of your slide show. Personality and warmth, minimal jargon in your spoken paper. The images, especially charts of results, do a lot of the work for you- all you have to do is bring them to life. These rules apply whoever your audience are- bigwigs, fellow students, the raggle taggle of the research community. They'll be eating out of your hand if your research is good and you can present it simply and clearly, like a human being, not a robot.

I hope these rough and ready tips are of some use to somebody- do you have any other thoughts on what makes a good presentation? Has anyone got any horror stories to tell? I realise that I don't deal too much with nerves here- basically, I think they can be useful as long as they are under control. The only way (in my book) to get nerves under control is to practice, and have faith in the four previous principles to carry you through. Does anyone have any more constructive advice? I'm off to work, incorporating my advisor's comments into my PhD draft. Wish me luck!

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