Like many academics, I’ve given dozens of academic presentations and dozens more audio and video interviews in the past few years. After a series of subpar presentations, plenty of feedback, and lots of practice, I now get remarkably positive feedback on these presentations. For example, some professors have advised their graduate students to model their job talks after some of the talks that I have given about reasoning, morality, and religion. In this post, I’ll share the best advice for academic presentations that I have received so far, focusing only on what I have found to be most helpful.
1. Imagine An Inclusive Audience
Prepare as if everyone in the audience is a smart freshman or sophomore in college. That way everyone can follow your argument (if you communicate clearly) even if they are not yet aware of all the jargon, theories, or methods in your field.
Even if you are giving a talk to highly educated people, they may have very different specializations—e.g., Molecular Biology vs. Medieval Studies. So you probably cannot appeal to any one of these specialist’s knowledge without abandoning the rest of your audience.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
Use visual aides such as data visualizations, diagrams, GIFs that represent the ideas or claims that you are making. Avoid putting text on your visual aides unless you must (e.g., to label an axis on a graph, to refer to crucial passage of text wording in a key ).
Confession: I have yet to fully achieve this ideal. Nonetheless, the closer I get to text-minimalism, then the better my presentations become. Moreover, the best talks I’ve ever attended are the ones that—among other things—deliver text verbally rather than visually, supplemented with well-designed or well-selected visual aides.
3. Frame It With A Story
Start and end your presentation with a short story that captures the main point of your talk. Stories not only entertain, but they help people remember details. So pick (or fabricate) a story that captures your main point.
Tell the story at the beginning of the talk. Either reference it or elaborate on it at the end.
4. Memorize For Clarity & Concision
Practice giving the presentation until you can do it 3 times at a comfortable pace without notes, each time using only 90% of the time allotted for the presentation—not counting time for Q&A.
So if you have 15 minutes for the talk and 10 minutes for Q&A, then practice the talk until you can give it from memory in just 13.5 minutes three times. That way if you end up with less time to present than expected, you can still fit in a polished (as opposed to rushed) presentation with time for discussion.
5. Turn Bad Questions Into Good Ones
Prepare answers to at least three questions that seem likely to come up. If someone asks a silly question, think of a related good question and answer that (without telling the audience that this is what you are doing). For example, “This is an important line of inquiry because it raises questions like, ‘[insert good question here]?’. To that I would say…”
Another way to handle some bad questions is to reply with a question for clarification. For instance, “I am not sure if you are asking about [X], [Y], or [Z]. Did you have one of these in mind or all of them?” Of course, one cannot field most questions this way without seeming defensive or even unprepared. So use this question-questioning response sparingly.
6. Admit What You Don’t Know
Academics hate overstated conclusions. So don’t draw conclusions that don’t follow from your presentation. And if you get a question that cannot be answered by your presentation, then just admit that.
Relatedly, when you engage in speculation, hypotheticals, or some other form of going beyond the scope of what is known, admit that that is what you are doing.