By Cally Guerin

I’ve been fortunate to attend several Higher Education conferences lately and have been thinking about the research writing in the papers I’ve listened to. There have been a broad range of presentation styles, giving me contact with norms outside my usual disciplinary connections. Most of the presentations have been fabulously stimulating, and it has been wonderful to spend time with people who are passionate about their research, socially engaged and working to make the world a better place. I have also been reminded of just how important it is to think about communicating with the live audience in the room.

It has been particularly interesting to listen to some more reflective, less data-driven papers than has been common at most of the conferences I attend. In doctoral education, it is common to follow the science IMRAD model of presenting an introductory background explaining the context and motivation for the study; an outline of the methods; results and analysis; and finally, a discussion about the implications for the findings. I like the opportunity to hear scholars stepping back and theorising about the big picture meanings of their broad research concerns.

BUT – and it’s a big but – it’s necessary to retain a focus on the audience who has given up their own time to come along to the presentation.

It has been somewhat perplexing to me that experienced researchers and educators sometimes still seem to make exactly the same mistakes as rookie presenters. What’s going on? I know that everyone has been in situations where they’ve run out of preparation time – it seemed like such a good idea to submit an abstract to the conference months ago, but suddenly it’s due tomorrow [see our related post on running out of time for preparing conference papers]. I’ve certainly delivered conference presentations that have fallen far short of my initial intentions. Nevertheless, this is a plea for presenters to consider the needs of their audiences.

Talking about slides

What lies behind a presenter’s decision against using PowerPoint, even when that is the norm for the particular group? Are they consciously choosing to make a particular point, did they run out of preparation time, or is there some other motivation? I know that it is fashionable in some quarters to deride the use of PowerPoint, but slides have become ubiquitous for good reason. I like the visuals in conference presentations; even simple slides help me keep track of the argument and how the different parts of the story fit together. Visual clues are also useful for both speakers and listeners from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD); it can take a while for members of an international audience to tune into new accents.

Prezi can be a good alternative for those who want something different from what might be regarded as the cliché of PowerPoint. I think it is particularly useful if the presentation is less linear in its approach, focused instead on the relationships between a number of concepts or needing to drill down into the stories behind topics (almost like a footnote lying behind the text). But there are some who find the on-screen zooming in and out quite dizzying and distracting, so it needs to be managed carefully.

I also sometimes see slides of solid text with barely a scrap of white space – why? It doesn’t cost any more to have a slide with the main topics or headings, and then a fresh slide to focus on each topic with the necessary text as the presenter works through the nuances of each subheading. There’s no advantage in cramming the maximum words onto a single slide.

On a related topic, why put up a long quotation on the slide, tell the audience they can read it, but then not allow reading time? The effect is either 1. No one reads the text, and therefore it’s not worth bothering to include it, or 2. People read the text and therefore stop listening to the speaker – and they get annoyed if it is whipped away from them before they have finished. Either way, the communication is broken and the speaker confuses the audience.

Sitting vs standing

Another choice at conferences can be whether to sit or stand while speaking. In some rooms there is no option but to stand, which can be awkward if there is nowhere to put your papers. However, sitting at a table in a flat room with rows of desks can mean that the speaker disappears to all but the front couple of rows of the audience. In a small, informal group it can work well to sit, especially if the presentation is actually designed to encourage conversation between those present. On the whole, I believe that standing for formal presentations allows for a far more engaging audience experience – the audience can see who is speaking and the speaker can make eye contact with the audience.

Full text vs dot points

And finally, the conventions around reading from the text or talking to dot points is one that is partly dependent on discipline and partly on the speaker’s confidence and experience. Engaging presenters display an awareness of the differences between writing an academic essay and writing a spoken version of the same content. Presenters need to consider lexical density when reading from a prepared speech, not least if it leads the audience to think that they could have just as easily stayed home and read the ‘paper’ for themselves. I completely understand that nervous presenters can find it hard to remember the details if they are not written out in full, and for some disciplines the precise wording of the argument is crucial to making the key points. But a less academic/writerly, more informal style can be scripted in full so that the listeners have time to absorb the content. Make it sound like the presenter is actually in the room with the audience, speaking directly to the real people sitting there, focused on communicating.

This is a plea to all researcher developers working with doctoral writers – please encourage new researchers to remember their audience when presenting. Tell them to discuss the conference norms and expectations with supervisors and others who have attended that conference. Make spaces so they can have a practice run with a critical friend. Remind them that the activity is all about communicating research to peers. These seem like obvious points, but it is surprisingly common for presenters to skip these crucial preparations.

What’s your experience of conference presentations that work or don’t work? I’m particularly interested to know how different the expectations might be in different disciplines.