If you are currently engaged in PhD research, you will have realized by now that developing your project so that it proceeds smoothly from beginning to end can be a really complex task. It is easy to digress and to lose your way. Somehow, you need to find a means of keeping on track. Others may tell you that one of the ways in which you can help yourself, help others and be helped (sometimes by the most unlikely people) is by presenting your research in progress.
Resist the temptation to wait until you think you have all the answers. The whole point of presenting research in progress is to show work at different stages of development. You will discover, to your surprise, that your audience is interested in hearing what you have to say even though you have many doubts and uncertainties. This will be true even at the very beginning when you feel that you haven’t even begun to work out the questions that you need to ask and have very little to say.
For practical advice on planning and delivering oral presentations, go to Research in progress presentations where you will find some useful tips based on the experience of past PhD students in the UK. However, practical tips are never enough on their own. You may still feel that giving a presentation is at best a distraction and at worst can lead to total humiliation as your lack of knowledge is cruelly and publicly exposed. This is how I felt when I was first asked to present my own PhD research after only 3 months of full-time work.
The scene was a large lecture room – not a huge auditorium, but one with plenty of spaces for an audience of 40-60 people. I managed to attract half of this number with a mix of other PhD students and academic staff members. The staff all sat together in the front row: I noticed that their arms were folded. They seemed to be thinking: “Let’s get today’s entertainment started”.
But it could have been worse. I’ve had the experience of talking to large conference audiences looking down at a sea of faces from a lectern (just like the one pictured above on the right). In that type of situation, there is often a gulf between presenter and audience. Possibly the worst piece of advice I ever received was to remove my glasses (I am very short-sighted) in such a situation. I did this once and talked quite happily to myself for almost an hour. I had no idea who I was talking to – all the faces were a complete blur. Those on the receiving end were mystified by the fact that I seemed to stare into space with what looked like a half-crazed expression. It was not a success.
So, on this occasion, I decided that I had to engage with my audience as much as I possibly could. My talk wasn’t great but at least the audience members seemed interested. I was sufficiently nervous to confuse the names of authors that I would never normally forget. These things happen – accept any corrections offered by your audience with good grace.
What speakers often fail to realize is that the most interesting part of a talk is very often what happens at the end. If you leave no time for questions or discussion, you will frustrate many members of your audience. Sometimes, it may happen that they come to your talk just to ask a question that has been bothering them. When this happens, there are usually warning signs. The person with ‘the question’ often sits in the front row and looks impatient. Try to see it from their point of view: they may have travelled a long way to ask their question and the fact that you are talking is preventing them from doing so.
At the end of my ‘research in progress’ presentation, there were quite a few questions. For convenience, you can divide such questions into clear categories:
- Clarification: when audience members didn’t catch what you said or have misunderstood something.
- Requests for further information: resist the temptation to promise to email the answer the very next day. You will forget to do it and will annoy the questioner.
- Questions hiding suggestions: usually involving source materials that you haven’t read. Make a note of them as they might be useful.
- Irrelevant questions: listen politely and give a non-committal reply.
On this occasion I had to field a range of questions from categories 1-3. Then one of the eminent professors suddenly took me surprise by leaping into category 4. I thought to myself: “This question is totally irrelevant: how can I be polite without being drawn in this direction?”. I have no clear memory of my reply.
The next day, a strange thing happened. I began to think about the rogue question and it suddenly occurred to me that the suggestion that it contained might be worth pursuing. You will already have guessed what happened next. The seemingly innocent and irrelevant question gave me a new line of inquiry in my research that turned out to be significant.
The moral of the story: while listeners can gain new ideas from research in progress presentations, speakers can gain even more. If it is your lucky day, someone may ask a question that is pure gold dust. It is worth bearing this in mind when you are struggling to cope with all the other questions and critical comments that come your way.
28th Nov 2016