Sunday, April 22, 2012

Accustomed as I am...

To York last week for the always enjoyable Housing Studies Association conference, at which as usual I gave a paper, this year co-presented with a colleague.

My job involves two types of presentation: the 20-minute conference slot and the 50-minute lecture. It’s important not to confuse the two, although trying to cram 50 minutes worth of information into a 20-minute conference presentation, which stretches to 30 and makes your session chair hate you for ever, is commonplace. I couldn’t possible comment on the frequency with which some lecturers make 20 minutes of material last for longer.

So I was thinking about the process of structuring and delivering a talk. There’s the old saying ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them’, which is very useful. But as I was winding up The governance of change: the procurement of social housing in Northern Ireland, I had a flash of inspiration for a different approach, based on a flight plan. Accordingly, here’s a new five-point model for you to follow.

Taking off: Introductions. Who you are, summary of what you’re going to talk about, brief stories about what happened to you on the way to the venue, at the conference dinner or on Twitter – all best kept to a minimum. And absolutely no football references, please.

Rising above the clouds (may include turbulence): This is when you introduce the background to your material. The turbulence comes from two issues. First, it’s easy to spend too long on this section – in my case I’d be talking about the context of my study, usually including some kind of introduction to Northern Ireland, which can definitely run on. After all, you’re starting to get comfortable. The energy burst from taking off has subsided, and you’re settling in. A particular problem if you’ve only got 20 minutes. The second issue might be that this is when you begin to see that either your audience is not with you (boredom, hangovers, response to obscure material) or you see the flaws in your own presentation and start to panic. Or both. In any case, do absolutely anything you have to do to make the presentation work - except jokes.

In the cruise: Here, you make your most substantial and original contribution, for example in my case research findings. Leave enough time to do it properly – you should get to it at the very latest halfway through your time allocation – and do your very best to engage with the audience. Try to imagine what it’s like to be hearing about your work for the first time. Do not recite from slides, and if confident enough depart as far as possible from the Powerpoint. This is the section for (relevant) anecdotes, if you have time, which you probably won’t because again it’s common to have too much to say in this section.

Commencing descent: Start to wrap up by summarising your factual material and setting out a short analysis, for example in my case I would link the findings to theory here. Keep up your listeners’ interest and indicate in a subtle way that you’re nearly done. This is when you’re most likely to be prompted if you have run over time, in which case be prepared to move quickly on to....

Coming in to land: I find it can be quite difficult to conclude a presentation. Of course most of us will have Powerpoint to rely on, but by the time you get here you may very well want to add a few comments and even get a bit rhetorical about your subject. But bear in mind that this is the last thing your audience want. Either they want you to shut up because they have questions, or they want their lunch, or they are really looking forward to the next speaker, or for some other reason they just couldn’t care less. Wrap it up concisely and within your time limit. Don’t say ‘thank you for listening’ – it’s faux humble. And your contribution is not over until the end of any questions - stay alert long enough to give reasonably coherent answers.

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