Academic Presentations: Debussy’s Take
In a nutshell, most of what is to be learned about making a presentation can be found listening to Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (best if you don't look at the images while listening). In less than ten minutes, Debussy says one thing and evokes in us powerful images, without words. Say one thing, build up to it using silence and pace, colours and emotions.
The purpose of this piece is to provide some suggestions on how to think of and organize a presentation targeted at an academic audience, though most of the comments also can be applied to other audiences.
To paraphrase Bourdieu, science is whatever scientists say it is. To be considered a scientist, you need other scientists to say you are one. You need to convince them. This is important to keep in mind. There is a format to things. Expectations. Wander a bit, and you’re considered creative. Wander too much, and you’re dismissed.
Also, and I hate the idea, yet, the truth is that academia has but a spoonful of dollars for a truckful of people. You’re not just seeking legitimacy, you’re also seeking recognition.
All this boils down to two things: respect the format used in your area, but not completely. Your presentation has to stand out, but the right way. The best way I can think of to explain what this means concretely is to have something to say, and to be clear and concise saying it.
Build An Argument
Do you have something to say? A presentation should have an argument, a claim. Data are not arguments. Statistical significance is not an argument. Evidence is not an argument. The argument is what you make of the data. A great argument brings the field to new places. It looks at the old and says something new. It shows how previous researchers have missed something important, yes, but it also shows what the piece is and tells its meaning.
Having an argument means you become exposed. This is the scary part, and probably why I slow down when I'm figuring out what my argument is. I get cautious because I have no longer a net underneath me. It's no longer the words of others. They're my words now. While presenting your framework and your methodologies, you’re smooth-sailing, because they are based on recognized theories, conceptualizations, and methods. But when you interpret your results, when you tie them back to your problem, when you have them say new things, that’s when someone can come in and say you did it wrong. You're exposed. But what exposes you is really where you're making your unique contribution to the field. This is why people came to your presentation. Not to hear where the field is. They know that, but to hear where it is going (at least where you want it to go). The normal reflex is to reduce the risk. Impostor syndrome, perhaps. Yet, this is the core of your presentation. Nothing matters without it. Put it in the spotlight. Give it prime time.
Build Up to Your Argument by Being Human
This is a hard thing to explain using only words on a screen. Presentations are about emotions. You can't have an impact by droning monotonously, nor by agitating in front of a frenetic 24 slides per second presentation. Use low moments, use silence, use pace, use crescendos, use inflexions. Slow down. Use what makes us humans.
There should be ahah! moments, but few of them, and they should be linked, one leading to the next. To create those moments, you need contrast, meaning lower moments. These are often questions, musings, silences.
Your body also participates in creating this. By moving backwards, forwards, by pointing, by allowing your body to move freely, you allow the audience to read your movement as well as hear your voice and see your facial expressions. That being said, most room arrangements limit your mobility, either by forcing you to stay in one place in order to change slides, or worse, by blocking your path with a great big table. Buy a remote and move around. Do it for your argument, do it for yourself, and do it for your audience.
Place yourself in the shoes of the audience. They have phones, laptops, ways of losing track, of phasing out. Don’t lose them. Don’t ever lose them.
Say you have fifteen minutes. And say you can drone on for (at least) 45 minutes just discussing methods. So, what do you do then? You leave space for the argument, and whatever is left will be for the other slides. It’s hard to work this way, starting with the argument. I build my presentation as they come and often start with the beginning. But when I feel like I have a good draft, then I start cutting through it, until I cry. Keynote and PowerPoint allow you to skip or hide slides. That way, you can play with what you show without going through millions of versions. Just remove as many slides as you can. Really. Beckwith’s suggestion is to cut in half, then to cut it again. It's a great suggestion. It’s good for you and better for your audience.
Presenters are too tied to their content. Everything is important. Yet, for the audience, what should be important is to listen to your contribution and get a sense of how you got there. You don’t need to defend your choice of methods if those are often used. You might not even have to say anything about them if they’ve been around long enough.
Concision also extends to the structure of individual slides. Avoid long sentences. Avoid lists of long sentences. Avoid long quotes or, if you have to, highlight the few words that really matter in each quote. I know how I react to lists of long quotes. That's why I tend not to use them in presentations.
Some presenters have a way to make everything clear. Problem, framework, methods, results, findings, discussion, conclusion, they all align and tell the argument. It’s limpid. Study those presentations closely when you’re lucky enough to see them. There are not so many of them out there.
What makes them stand out is their alignment. As with most things, making it looks simple and easy requires hard work, practice, and a lot of thinking. The trick is to have the right foundational, personal, theoretical, and conceptual frameworks to make sense of your data. The complete framework should be the cornerstone of your research decisions (even though you might be selecting it after data is collected; those things happen). Your depiction of the problem should point to the framework. Your research questions and methods should be aligned and aligned to your framework. Your discussion should tie your findings to your framework. And finally, your argument should be about your framework. It sounds simple, but it is not. I’ve written some thoughts on this somewhere else.
This is the nitty-gritty part of slide-making. Basics should always be done right.
- Simple structure and bread crumbs: let your audience know where they are.
- Few or no sentences: don't make the audience read; chances are, they won't.
- Clean slides, unless this is THE slide: keep your message clear and easy to follow.
- Simple diagrams instead of words when possible: use diagrams to convey relations.
- Slide numbers: allow people to refer to specific slides to discuss or ask questions.
- Consistency: review your slides to see if you’re using caps, bullets, periods, colons, and semi-colons in a consistent manner.
- Easy colours: be mindful of bad projectors turning everything a lovely shade of mustard.
I choose black on white for my slides. They are always easy to read, even when it is soooo sunny and the projector is soooo close to retirement. And when I use colour, it draws attention immediately.
Leave Room for Yourself
You’re making a case for your argument, yes, but you’re also making a case for yourself as a researcher. Accordingly, try to leave some space for yourself in your presentation. Your voice, your movement, your face, all convey something important that your slides alone do not. They convey who you are. That matters about as much as all the rest combined, so don’t shy away from it. And don’t put every little thing on your slides, lest that’s all your audience will watch. Make the audience watch you instead.
Finally, you don’t have to be a good presenter to give presentations. You’re becoming one. Learn from your presentations by writing down what worked and did not work. Learn also from the presentations you attend; the good ones, but perhaps more importantly the bad ones. When you’re phasing out, take a moment to write down what you think could have been done differently.