firststep

I have attended the ICA conference in Prague this year. Actually my experience was not very good: I was sick and I overburdened myself with pressure. I couldn’t have a lot of time do networking because I didn’t want to drink outside and wanted to stay in my accommodation to rest. I am old. (Admit that Hong, you are antisocial. Don’t make excuses!)

The ICA conference undoubtedly is the most prestigious conference in my field, but were all presentations this year in the top notch? Not so much. As a researcher, it is super difficult to secure a spot to present your paper at the ICA. If you deliver your paper poorly, it loses your audience and wastes the opportunity to let the other recognise your work. Some prime examples of these poor presentations are reading the slides in monotonic voice and super poor time management.

Public speaking is an art. I was super bad at public speaking during my PhD. No one likes my presentation. Your supervisor will probably not teach you that also. People assume you know it because it looks like common sense. In the later stage of my PhD, I got the hang of it. It boiled down to only three points:

Be prepared

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” (Antoine de Saint Exupéry)

The first point is trivial but is the most important, so this paragraph is going to be very long. You must gather information about your audience, the format, the venue, the time allowed etc. Then, you need to design your visual aid (your PowerPoint). Before I step into how to design your visual aid, I must stress one point: unless your paper is super simple, it is impossible to deliver your entire paper in a typical 15 minutes session. My suggestion is to select only one important message from your paper and build your presentation to drive home just that one message. Not all, not two, just one. When you say your H7a is supported, most likely I don’t remember what your H7a is. There is no need to present every finding from your paper, because people can read your paper after your (interesting) presentation. The hidden rule of the game is: you need to use your presentation to attract your audience to read your paper (and your other research so that your audience can connect with you academically). So, a conference presentation functions similarly as a trailer of a movie. A poorly executed trailer can traumatise the box office. Of course there are exceptions such as Michael Bay.

Using this “one message rule”, you can then plan how to deliver that single message.

About creating the PowerPoint, there are different styles of good PowerPoint slides. All are great. I think the consensus from these good styles is that, don’t use your PowerPoint as your script. Using your PowerPoint as a script of course is okay if you want to deliver a mediocre to catastrophic presentation. On one hand, I don’t need you as a presenter to read out your script. It is faster for me to read your script on the screen, so you can now go. On the other hand, doing that can certainly ensure you a monotonic voice to drive your audience’s attention away (unless your voice is as vivid as the one from a news anchor). The fundamental problem of it is that, it encourages lousy planning. Lousy planning is the origin of poor time management and poor quality presentation. For example, if you are presenting at the ICA, do you need to use 3 minutes of your 15 minutes presentation to tell your audience what social media is? I mean, you can do that but not in 3 minutes right? These poor decisions can certainly be weeded out with good planning. As an exercise, I encourage you to try the “n minutes n slides” rule (i.e. if your presentation is 15 minutes, use 15 slides at most). Unless you are Steve Jobs, skipping slides too fast can distract your audience and yourself. Also, try to restrict the words on a slide to less than 25. It encourages you to think more clearly about what you want to present and design a good narrative around your “one message”. It forces you also to practice your presentation rather than using your script on the slides as a safe raft. And this brings us to the second point.

Be eloquent

“Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen.”

You must rehearse. I repeat, your must do your rehearsals, multiple times. I am not a native English speaker and my English is hopeless (as you can judge by the writing of this blog post). So, I have the natural disadvantage as a researcher in a English-centric research world. That’s make it even more important to do multiple rehearsals before your actual presentation. You can just staring at your slides and speak (with your mouth, rather than “speak in your head”) what you want to say. Keep the time. It can give you a sense of how much time do you need to present your stuff. It can also make you think again these questions: what kind of stuff is essential? Which concept is difficult to explain and needs more time? With these informations you can fine-tune your plan and go back to the planning phase. Also, reading out loud can find out errors and inconsistencies easily.

Apart from these, rehearsals can train your eloquence and make you more confident with yourself. It also forces you to experience your own presentation as an audience. It trains your empathy so that you know how it feels to endure a poor presentation and drives your motivation to prepare a better presentation. And it brings us to the final point.

Be versatile

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” (Bruce Lee)

Don’t make your presentation setup depends on 10 other external conditions (e.g. your computer is working, the Beamer is working, you have the VGA dongle, the connection is perfect, the internet is flawless, etc) Make sure you have a backup plan which depends on less assumptions. I have seen a lot of presentations destroyed by either dead laptop or dead beamer. Remember: fiddling with these technical issues counts towards your presentation time. It also loses your audience when you are not presenting in your time slot. So, be versatile. If there is one computer setup successfully, ask if you can load also your slides into that computer.

The above points are mostly common sense. For more specific knowledge on how to present on the day, there is not much. I will say a correctly designed and adequately rehearsed presentation can almost guarantee you a better presentation on the day. You can just act naturally, as if you are doing your rehearsal. You intuition is there, which is grounded by your time investment in good design and multiple rehearsals.

In the next piece, I will talk about my impression of presentations from different ICA divisions and some common conceptual problems in recent communication research.