It is that time in the semester when “honors option” papers come due. And every year I ask students to present their research to the class. Maybe it is because I teach speech, and they are presenting their papers in speech class, but every semester students grapple about whether their presentation is a speech or if they are just ‘giving their paper.’ They aren’t the only confused scholars. I can still remember my disappointment more than a decade ago when I attended my first professional conference and found many of my colleagues in speech communication especially lacking in eloquence as they shared their research. I love irony. So today, I thought I’d distill some of the ways thoughtful writers could present their research findings to audiences. This article previously appeared in the North Dakota Journal of Speech and Theatre, September, 2005, pp 44-48.
TEACHING STUDENTS TO GIVE SUCCESSFUL PAPER PRESENTATIONS
The world of work requires effective communicators. Careers are sidetracked and messages are bungled by the inability of professionals to deliver written work in a compelling way. Some of the confusion may be caused by the differences between public speaking and paper presentations. Public speaking is reserved for more formal events, such as political speeches, keynote business addresses and even toasts at a wedding. Paper presentations should make points in an oral context, not a written one, and to do so with precision. By following the guidelines in this article, business professionals and scholars who present their work at conferences, will gain insight into striking the right balance between oral communication that compels the audience to listen and making sure that the audience receives the full message.
Paper presentations, talks, signposts
A search of many basic public speaking textbooks, organizational communication textbooks and even professional speaking books geared to businesspeople will find that the authors use the terms “presentation” and “speech” interchangeably. In most basic public speaking textbooks, techniques for delivering a paper at a professional conference or in a classroom, are not even considered. While Presentations in Everyday Life promises, by its title, to include practical public speaking advice, nowhere in the text are paper presentation techniques offered. The best selling basic public speaking textbook in the country, Stephen Lucas’ The Art of Public Speaking completely ignores the subject of paper presentations. In Fundamentals of Organizational Communication; Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills and Values, the term “presentational speaking” is used to describe both public speeches and technical report delivery (Shockley-Zalabak, 296). In the late 1990s Penn State University made a university-wide change in the name of the basic speech course from “Effective Speech” to “Effective Presentations,” yet the course content remained the same.
When we or our colleagues present scholarly work at a conference or in a meeting, the purpose and presentation style differs from a traditional public speech in several important ways. It is common for conference presentations to include word for word recitation of complete paragraphs from papers, definitions need to be offered precisely, and statistics are often cited. Business professionals are frequently asked to share reports with staff, and still there is a lack of advice available to help the authors of those reports turn their written pages in effective oral presentations.
In this article I offer suggestions for giving successful scholarly or business presentations. I refer to them as “talks” or presentations instead of the more theatrical form of public speech that we are likely to encounter in other public settings, such as politics, graduation ceremonies, weddings and during business dinner speeches.
A good talk will not conceal poor scholarship, but a poor one could negate even a very good research effort. A scholarly presentation consists of two parts: the information that the author wishes to tell the audience and the information that the author wants to show the audience. Authors may wish to show graphs, charts, photos or even objects to more clearly make a point about their scholarship.
To “speak” a paper, authors should define a few critical messages that they want the audience to take away from the presentation. In many cases, this requires significant editing, since scholarly papers usually have a significant amount of detail that is not easily reduced to a few points. For this reason, scholars should always provide copies of their paper for the audience to read after the presentation. It is important to remind authors that they should not read their paper. Written language use and oral language use are different, and audiences become bored when being read a scholarly paper. This means that the author cannot cover everything written in the typical amount of time granted a speaker. Therefore, the author will focus a talk differently than the paper is focused.
FOCUSING LISTENERS’ ATTENTION
Authors should “signpost,” that is, use verbal markers to indicate important points in the presentation or argument. “Signposts” include such verbal indicators as transitions, internal summaries and previews. A transition is also known as a connective, since it literally connects one point in the presentation to another. Underlined are common transitions in the following sentences:
In addition to being an excellent singer, Joni Mitchell has gained acclaim as an artist.
Pundits say that the spouse of a candidate doesn’t have an impact in the polls, yet popular first ladies are used excessively on the campaign trail.
Of equal importance is following up with a phone call when you want to stress your interest in a position.
On the other hand, those students who work and attend classes are more mature than those who simply attend school.
Finally, when selecting a job candidate, remember manners matter!
Internal previews reveal or suggest salient points in an author’s presentation. They tell the audience what the author is going to cover and in what order. For example:
What is Robert Kennedy’s legacy? Some say he is a martyr like his brother, John, and others say he was just another case of nepotism. Either or both perceptions of his life shape his legacy. Internal summaries are similar to internal previews, except that a summaryends a section, whereas a preview begins one. Here’s how the presentation on Robert Kennedy would benefit from an internal summary:
Remember that the legacy of Robert Kennedy is influenced by two schools of thought: one that he was a martyr who died advocating his beliefs and another that he was an overrated politician whose quick rise was due to one factor: family influence.
The academic paper on Robert Kennedy would contain many more details,however for an oral presentation, simplicity is key. Being redundant is encouraged when delivering a scholarly paper, since oral language is usuallymuch more redundant than written language.
What follows is an outline for presenting a research paper. Depending on the discipline, some information will change, however, this offers an author a guide to follow that will ensure a thorough and engaging presentation that meets the needs of the author and the audience.
1. The thesis clearly stated in a method that provokes thinking.
Some ways to begin that will create listener interest include a question, short story, quotation or striking statement.
There are several questions that the author should consider answering at this beginning phase. What is the thesis? Why should the author or the audience care about it?
2. The contributions of this paper
Having clearly described the thesis in a way that creates audience interest in the subject, the author must describe the specific study and approach of the paper. If it is theoretical, the author should offer an overview of the techniques, setting and model; and the main results. If it is empirical or experimental, the author should describe the model or hypotheses to be tested, the data set or experimental design and the methodology used to analyze the data. Clarity and brevity are important, even if the audience is well schooled in the subject, because a talk is meant to be less detailed than the written document.
3. Relation to the literature
The author should put the contribution of the paper in perspective by describing how the results of the paper fit with what is already known.
4. Definitions and descriptions of data
Convey the basic insights and intuitions of the paper
5. Main results
Remember to focus on information that will help the audience understand your research and its most salient features.
Implications for future research, as well as the limitations of the results. Just as in the beginning of the talk, the author needs to sum up dramatically and with attention to the needs of the audience.
Authors should encourage discussion, since it is the main function of most scholarly presentations. Once discussion ensues, how to handle audience questions is also an important feature of scholarly paper presentations. Authors should welcome questions and patiently listen to the question without stepping on the questioner’s words. Pausing and not rushing the answer is also important, since it shows that the presenter is listening carefully to the question. Repeat the question in the microphone, if there is one, so that everyone in the room knows what it is and answer only the question that has been asked—no more and no less. Presenters should make eye contact with the entire audience, not only the person who has asked the question. If you have been asked to present your paper for twenty minutes, ask how much total time you will have, since you will want to save at least twenty percent of your talk for questions and audience interaction and discussion.
Even more precisely, here is a four step set of features for presenting scholarly work to an audience:
- Engage the listeners with the thesis of the study
- Explain your methodology or why you researched this topic
- Share your findings
- Concisely offer conclusions and opportunities for future research in a way that sums up your topic and creates audience interest.
If the author wishes to include visuals in a presentation, there are a few rules to follow. First, keep them simple! PowerPoint is a great tool, but the focus of the presentation should still be on the author, not fancy computer graphics. Overheads are just as effective as PowerPoint and tend to distract less from the speaker. Overheads or PowerPoint can serve the purpose of helping the author by keeping him “on point.” They will allow the author move around a bit and create a more natural affect than if the speaker is glued to the podium.
Also, overheads or PowerPoint slides that contain graphs or tables help the audience to see what the author means without a complicated oral explanation. Text on overheads or on PowerPoint should be large enough so that the entire audience could read it without straining (at least 24 points). Limiting text on overheads or PowerPoint to bulleted items will further simplify and clarify the message.
The main goal of a good research presentation is to present your research in an engaging and relevant manner. It is likely that your audience will contain a world expert on your topic, as well as people who have never even heard of your topic. Your challenge is to make the material equally understandable and interesting to both audiences. Remember always to speak up and speak well!
Daly, J. and Engleberg, I. (2001). Presentations in Everyday Life. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.
Lucas, S. (2004). The Art of Public Speaking. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Shockley-Zalabak, P. (2002). Fundamentals of Organizational Communication; Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills and Values. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.