How To: Give an Academic Presentation

As referenced in the topic on how to write a paper, the last phase of the usual process is actually presenting the work! But since the presentation is a required component for this class, I’m describing it now.

Why a presentation?

For conference papers, you submit the paper, have it accepted (hopefully), then show up to present it. But the paper is more comprehensive than the presentation. Why, then, have the presentation?

The answer to this question is actually very important to how you structure your presentation. The most common mistake I see people make in real academic presenting is that their presentation is basically just a section-by-section summary of the paper itself. That is not what a presentation of the paper needs to be.

To understand why we have a presentation, both in academia and in this class, it’s important to consider what the goal of the presentation is.

What is the goal of a presentation?

There are actually three potential goals of an academic presentation. Which goal you select for yourself will dictate how you structure your presentation.

The goals I generally notice are:

  1. Make the listener want to read the paper. A presentation is typically ~10 minutes (conferences can be longer, but 10 minutes is usually plenty), and the engagement from the audience is more passive: they just sit back and listen. Reading the paper probably takes closer to ~30 minutes, and it’s more active, deliberate engagement. In the 10 minutes in which you have a captive audience, you’re not going to cover everything that the paper covers. Instead, focus on covering enough so that the listener wants to go and read the full paper. Think of the presentation like a trailer: it advertises the full paper. Focus on the story and the results, and if they want to know more about the related work and methodology, they can go read about them.
  2. Help the listener decide if they want to read the paper. This is the slightly more honest version of the above. Instead of treating the presentation like a trailer, treat it like an abstract. There are people in the audience who won’t be interested in your work simply because it doesn’t align clearly with theirs. That’s fine. The focus of your presentation is on giving them the information they need to decide if they want to read more. Here, you’d focus more on the related work and the results: related work to help them connect their interests to yours (if such connections are present), and results to help them know if they care how you achieved those results.
  3. Seed the conversation. The other major difference with the presentation is that you have everyone in the room with you. They’re going to be there when you’re done. You’re going to chat over coffee and lunch. Your goal with your presentation is to give y’all something to talk about after the talk is done. If this is your focus, then you’ll emphasize more the kinds of feedback you want: you’ll ask direct questions about what you should do next, or what might explain the results that you have. Under this goal, you know that you already got the paper accepted: you don’t need to defend it anymore. Instead, here, you’re using the time to make your future work even better.

You’re welcome to choose any of these goals for how you orient your presentation in this class, of course. The main thing is: consider your listener. You’re not just checking off boxes on a rubric (we don’t have a rubric for assessing your presentation). Your goal is for the presentation to be interesting to the viewer.

What are some common mistakes?

So, what are the common mistakes people make? Here are five I’ve seen most often:

  • Restate the paper. I referenced this above, but it’s worth repeating. You have only 10 minutes to talk about your work. Focus on your work. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on the related work section, or even the methodology unless it’s particularly novel. Those are the pieces of your work that get the paper accepted, but they’re not particularly crucial for the presentation itself.
  • Stick to the original content exclusively. This one doesn’t really apply to this class’s papers, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. In academic publishing, there’s typically a long (5-10 month) lag time between when you submit a paper and when you present it. You do a lot of work in that time. I’ve seen a lot of presentations where the presenter will mention off-handedly, “Oh yes, since we submitted the paper, these things have changed.” If they’ve changed, include that in your presentation. Some of the best presentations I’ve seen have said, “The paper covers the Fall 2016 data, but I’m going to talk about the Spring 2017 data that wasn’t available at the time.” That keeps the presentation current.
  • Under-rehearse. Few things are more painful than watching someone get up and present who isn’t familiar with what they’re presenting. Make an outline, make a loose script, run through it a couple times. You have even less excuse for this in this class because you get to record it: if your first version is under-rehearsed, then make that your rehearsal and record it again.
  • Over-rehearse. This one is riskier in this class. Few things are more boring than listening to someone just read a script. If you’re just reading a script, you may as well just be sending the paper and putting it into a text-to-speech machine. The presentation ought to be a little more spontaneous and natural. The viewer wants to hear your excitement, your confusion, your frustration. This sort of context is what makes a presentation more dynamic than a paper: we see the human behind the work, not just the work. That’s a liability in the peer review process, but you’ve already passed that: now it’s an asset.
  • Interpret questions/critiques as challenges. Again, less relevant in this class, but highly relevant in real presentations. One thing we see a lot, especially among first-time presenters, is a tendency to view questions as challenges. The natural response tends to be to defend the work. Most questions, however, are just that: questions. “Why dd you use methodology A instead of B?”, for example, can be interpreted as suggesting, “B is better”, but it more likely means, “There are probably interesting details of this work that led you to choose A, and I’m curious what they are.” Your audience knows your work is never done, and it’s totally fine to say “I don’t know” or “That’s next!”

For this Class

A lot of those details are for real academic publishing, which ideally we’re preparing you for. However, this presentation is also first and foremost a class assignment. So, more specifically, what function does it serve inĀ this class?

The final video is a chance to present your work in a more accessible, easily-consumable way. Papers can be hard to read, especially when they include a lot of detail (as papers in this class likely will). Presentations lends themselves to the more informal dialog and presentation style. So, in your presentations, you’re looking at about 5-10 minutes (for your mentor’s sanity, keep it under 10 minutes) to relatively quickly cover the motivation behind your work, what you decided to do, and how it turned out. The goal of this is to give an easier anchor for your classmates to be able to browse and consume what went on in this class this semester. The main focus of this is community-building.

The presentation should be organized, but it doesn’t have to be super-formal. You’re welcome to include a video demo, for example, and you don’t have to worry about editing in super-clean transitions — it’s fine, for example, to start off in a PowerPoint presentation and switch to a demo without editing out closing PowerPoint. Imagine you’re standing at a podium: we’d expect you to close PowerPoint and switch over to a browser, so that can be in your video as well.

Most importantly, the goals stated above still apply to this class. Maybe your goal is to get the viewer to read the paper. Maybe it’s just to give them the information necessary to decide if they should read the paper. Maybe it’s to spark good discussion and reviews, and to get you feedback for future work in this area. Selecting a goal will make your presentation far more engaging.

Remember, many of last semester’s presentations in the Files folder on Canvas. Check them out!