Once a year in PhDland we are summoned to appear in the public domain. Actually that sounds bad. We’re not locked away from the outside world like Quasimodo. What I should have said is we have the ‘opportunity’ to present our work. We present mostly to a friendly audience and really it’s about developing some skills that are a part of the postgraduate experience – presentations.
Now presentations have got a mention in these electronic pages before with the aid of Kevin Bacon and a trip via the sweaty opulence of Singapore. There is something particular about these PhD presentations though. Our research school gives us eight minutes talk time and four minutes of questions. I’ve had feedback from others who get as little as ten or even eight minutes. That’s not much time but the brief is pretty specific.
The total guidance is that you should present something related to the project that is under way. Setting up this particular PhD project has taken enough time that for the two prior years I had to get up to say “here’s this thing that we reckon might be a thing and I have zero actual data of any sort” while running distraction techniques in the form of helicopter photos.
The first time I had to do a short presentation I figured it would be easier than preparing stuff to fill the time of a longer one. I was wrong. It can be pretty easy to fill a larger presentation because there’s less imperative to edit. Of course this comes with a different but equally unique set of challenges. After three rounds of feedback on these talks the process has become easier to set out in my head when I start.
1. Just Enough Concepts for a Cliché Goldfish
You might have heard that a goldfish has a memory that lasts about four seconds. While this is a horrible slur on the passable intelligence of ornamental aquatic life (as amply demonstrated with a red Lego block by a school kid), it is important to figure out what the one message of the presentation is. This time around it was “we actually started and can do this”. Everything else in the presentation should underline the one message.2. The Questions to Explain
How do you get there simply? I break the whole presentation into a few key things to cover:
* What’s the problem (with a bit of why should we all care)?
* What’s the solution (meaning what is it that we’re looking at that might help address this problem)?
* How will we test it (the nuts and bolts bit, which necessarily involves a little on methodology)?
* Where are we up to?
*Where to next?
That scheme may not work for every project but it does a couple of key things. The first is that it anchors the project in the world of reality. It shows up front why we should care about this project. That’s followed by offering hope in the form of a solution. Offering problems without offering any form of solution is what maths teachers who hate people because they spend their life wearing long socks with thongs do. Don’t be the evil maths teacher. The ‘how’ component always ends up being a little longer because you can’t avoid some discussion of the methods. You get to speed up after that with the “yay” bit (the ‘Where are we up to?’ – I’m going with the glass half full results) and end on a hopeful note where you describe where you’re going with it.
3. Know your Audience
The pitch for these presentations is aimed at an audience who knows stuff about research, who can grasp a new idea pretty quickly but who have no idea about any of the other stuff you’ll mention. The lesson there is don’t assume knowledge.
4. Anticipate the Questions
Someone will ask a question. That’s how these sorts of meetings go. You also can’t put absolutely everything into this length of talk, so you have to be prepared to answer a few questions, particularly on methodology. A supervisor or colleague can be very useful in letting you work on likely questions.
5. Practice, practice, practice
OK I say this every time, but practice the talk in real time. Going overtime is not an option. People who have practiced declare themselves immediately.
So you do all that and you’re ready for another year’s presentation. And next year when the research school throw out the red Lego brick, you’ll know what to do.