Twenty-six years ago–in April 1989–I attended and presented at my first professional conference. I was finishing my second year of graduate school. Much of my second year in graduate school was invested in working the project that I presented with my advisor, mentor, and friend Larry Dodd. In my first year at Colorado Larry was gracious to involve me in a project that he began a few years earlier looking at the presentational styles of state legislators in California and Indiana. The heart of the argument in the paper is that presentational style is influenced by the professionalization of the legislative institution, and the state’s political development.
Working on the project with Larry was a formative learning, and professional experience.
“Legislators’ Home Style in Traditional and Modern Systems” was my first exposure to research. Sure, as an undergraduate I scoured the library for literature related to research projects assigned by professors. I even produced a 30 page research paper about political conflict in Northern Ireland during my senior year. Searching the secondary literature and synthesizing competing theoretical approaches is certainly part of the research process; but these activities do not encompass the research process. Research, in my view, is about creating new knowledge, or new ways of understanding politics (in my case, the world you are studying in your case). Traditional undergraduate research does not achieve this goal.
Working with Larry I learned about data collection, data management, and data analysis. For the first time I used statistical tools in service to a project that really interested me, rather than using them to complete projects with “canned” data. For the first time I struggled with how to interpret statistical results in service of understanding a larger theoretical question. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
In short, research allowed me (forced me?) to pull all the elements of my learning together. I learned at least as much doing research as I did reading research. Among the things I learned is that research is hard. It is full of stops and starts; more failures and dead ends than successes. It forced me to rethink many assumptions I made about myself, and about the political world. It simultaneously satisfied and stimulated my curiosity.
Larry Dodd is one of the world’s greatest mentors. His skill is as much in what he does not do and was he does do. He pressed me to produce my best work with his data, then stepped in to gently demonstrate how to write a (masterful) conference paper. Rather than insist on presenting or co-presenting, he left the job to me. Flying solo at my first conference taught me a series of valuable lessons.
It is your research. Chances are that you know the material better than anyone who is listening to your presentation. This means two things: 1) be confident, you are the expert; 2) explain your research in sufficient detail that the audience can understand your research, even though they have never read your work.
Develop the ability to be self-critical. Know where the weaknesses are in your work. This will help you to anticipate the questions audience members are likely to ask; and be prepared with answers to anticipated questions. This exercise will help to strengthen your research as you incorporate responses into your written work, making it more difficult for reviewers to criticize you (though no matter how hard you work, you will still be subject to criticism).
Be prepared to talk about the applicability of your research. The most common question to be asked is how your research is important in an applied setting. If your research centers on “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,” be ready to answer the question “who cares?” If you cannot answer that question, you may want to reconsider your research. If you cannot answer the question in front of an audience, you may experience considerable public discomfort.
Guide the audience through your research. For my first presentation (and for many that came after) we did not have the luxury of PowerPoint. Paper handouts were the technology of the day. Audience members became distracted by the material they were handed, and did not listen to the presentation. PowerPoint provides more control over the flow of information to the audience. Use it to your advantage.
- Do not distract your audience with word-filled PowerPoint slides. Use bullet points to emphasize your talking points, but do not “script out” your talk on the slide and end up reading it to your audience. If they can read, why do they need you?
- When it is appropriate, you can display an extended quote on a slide; but be sure you plan to read it. Human nature is such that the audience will be caught up reading the quote (thereby missing your explanation). Reading it, and explaining why it is there, will bring your audience back to the reality you are creating for them.
- Do use PowerPoint slides to display pictures, figures, tables and graphs that are important to your presentation. A picture is worth a thousand words–that is true–but do not expect every person in the audience to understand your picture, figure, graph, or table. It is still your job to explain the display and relate it to your larger research project.
- Engage with your PowerPoint slides. Point to important information. Your presentation and your slides should be completely, and physically integrated.
- Use multi-media resources sparingly, if at all. Embedding video, relying on connections to the internet, and the like, is risky business. Failed technology can throw you off your game and, if your presentation revolves around the technology, your presentation may fail completely. Keep it simple, or make sure it is 100 percent guaranteed to work.
Over the years I have come to realize that there is not a fundamental difference between delivering a professional talk, and teaching a room full of undergraduates. In both cases we are striving to get people to understand something important to us. A professional presentation is a teaching exercise. Yes, you are usually presenting at a slightly higher intellectual level, and you can assume more foreknowledge of your topic, but not by much.
Like my first foray into research, presenting research is about developing a presentational style. Professionalism is paramount. Your written work, and your PowerPoint slides, should be properly formatted, and free of common spelling and syntax errors. Professional does not need to equate to being stuffy. Be excited and enthusiastic about your work. Avoid jargon and excessively baroque language; it is off-putting. If you are comfortable with it, try to employ humor–it is a great way to relieve any tension you have, or any tension in the room. Finally, accept the fact that, from time to time, a presentation will fail. Failure is an opportunity to learn how to become a better presenter. Take the time to reflect on your presentations, both successful and unsuccessful, and learn from the experience.