Academic presentations: how to get them right!

Can you recall the last time you listened to a presentation or lecture for two and a half hours, and still wished it could last longer? Honestly… I cannot either. After Albert Einstein’s two-and-a-half-hour presentation during his tour in Japan, the audience did something uncommon, especially in Japanese culture…. they complained. For Einstein, this was received as a complement rather than a complaint – the people in the audience asked for the longer version of his presentation! This is a rare occurrence. In addition to the intellectual brilliance of Einstein, he was humble and soft spoken in his delivery, and this is thought to have enhanced the impact of this particular presentation.

Unfortunately, many brilliant academics fail to adequately communicate their message during presentations, due to failure to address a number of considerations. Using various sources of information and guidance from my supervisors, I have gained skills that have enabled me to present my work effectively, and as a result, I have won numerous awards in research presentation competitions across the country. In this blog, I share some considerations that one should take into account in the pursuit of delivering effective academic presentations.

Myself after presenting at a local conference in 2018.

Professionalism, especially during the current era of virtual presentations

Similar to the concept of ‘love at first sight’ in romantic relationships, the initial perception the audience has of you as a presenter affects the level of attention they will pay throughout your presentation. Perhaps, the first and most important thing to consider prior to a first encounter with your audience is ensuring maximum levels of professionalism. Simple things like arriving on time and dressing up properly can go a long way in achieving this.

In the era of COVID, where we have shifted to virtual presentations, technical glitches are bound to happen, and this can negatively affect the professional outlook of your presentation. Some of these technical glitches can be avoided. Firstly, being ‘punctual’ for your online presentations helps you to identify and rectify any potential glitches and try to rectify them before the audience joins the platform.

Secondly, connectivity issues can really spoil your presentation and indeed your entire day. Unpredictable as these issues are, one way to avoid them is to have at least one alternative internet source, should your original one fail. I have found that my computer is much slower in terms of performance and connectivity when it is updating. So, to avoid connectivity issues, I usually check for updates the previous day and pause updates on the day that I am presenting. Finally, it is quite daunting to lose connectivity in the middle of your presentation due to load shedding, which we are currently facing in South Africa. Therefore, to avoid such, you should check the load shedding schedule for your area, and plan to be in a region with power during the time of your presentation.

Knowing and capturing your audience

In addition to professional etiquette, one other factor to keep your listeners engaged in your presentations is ensuring that you tailor your message for the specific audience you are presenting to. Professionals within your field of specialty can quickly get bored when you explain technical terms that are common within the field, and they are more likely to be interested in hearing your specific findings and what new and exciting information you bring to the field.  On the other hand, when presenting to a broad and unfamiliar audience, using technical terms without further explanation can confuse the audience as they would consider it all jargon. Such an audience would be more interested in how your findings affect their lives personally, and would likely not be very concerned about the bit of new information you are bringing to the field.

In addition to tailoring the presentation for a specific audience, it is also important to capture listeners from the beginning of your presentation. The first few seconds of a presentation are critical, as they determine the level of interest and attention that an audience would pay to your presentation. Here, it would be good to start off with a shocking fact, or statistic that your audience immediately relates to and want to hear more about. Once you have captured your audience, you then need to keep them interested until the end of the presentation. The enthusiasm and energy you put into explaining your work plays a huge role here, people tend to pay attention to an enthusiastic, energetic speaker, and the opposite is true.

Clear and concise slides

Finally, one thing that can make or break your presentations is the clarity of your slides. A common mistake that people make is to try to add a lot of information on slides so that they can convey the volume of work which they did in their respective studies. This usually clutters the slide and forces the audience to read slides rather than listen to what you have to say. My general rule is: if I can represent the information in a picture, rather have a picture on the slide rather than having text (see example below). In addition to avoiding cluttering the slides with too much information, it is important that each slide is centered around a single key point, as this allows for better emphasis.

I could go on for the entire day providing tips and tricks on how to effectively communicate via online presentations, as they are many other points to consider. Fortunately, there are various sources out there that one can use to obtain more information on how to present effectively. One particular book that has enhanced my presentation skills is “The Craft of Scientific Presentations” by Michael Alley, and I highly recommend for individuals aiming to effectively communicate their work through scientific presentations.

An extract from one of my presentations, where a concept is explained through an annotated picture, rather than text.

Overcoming toxic culture at tertiary institutions and the servitude required to combat it

The furore over Professor Gray and the role of academics in the response by the South African government to the novel coronavirus pandemic reminded me that in late 2019 I was asked to speak on the institutionalized culture of discrimination at the University of Pretoria by the UP Head of Department: Political Sciences.  My reflection then as now is in line with the South African Human Rights Commission 2018 ‘Transformation at Public Universities Report’ that the perpetuation of exclusionary academia, be it by language, funding models or lack of sufficient curriculum and  faculty transformation continues to be a challenge. Embedded in the ivory towers of higher education is the missing link to communities that they should serve. The more I mull over academia without a community constituency, the more I realize that it’s symptomatic of a societal failure – to serve.

How many academics have significant work experience outside of consulting, writing and lecturing? How many lecturing on public policy have worked in government or developed an actual public policy besides critiquing it? How many PhDs are successful outside academia and beyond research roles? How many universities insist on practical experience hours, volunteered or compensated, be undertaken to continue academic work? Why are we not asking whether it’s in students and broader public interest to be taught by those out of practice with workplace skills and a holistic education that modernizes quicker than books? When tertiary institutions fail to transform and modernize to an ever adapting world, it does not simply fail as an institution. It fails the graduates, the faculty staff development, the organizations that take on board our graduates and most importantly the communities it’s intended to serve. 

In South Africa, higher education hallways remain by and large a remnant of the colonial and Apartheid institutional constructs, which were not fully dismantled post-democracy. Literally like colonialism it mines knowledge to transport via journals, conferences and secure consultancy work; churns out graduates like a factory mill, not taking into account whether South Africa or Africa actually requires those type of graduates and linked whether the graduates leave with skills that work places require. Academia generates a lot of paper, entrenches silos, talks a lot about how much the system works by championing particular collaborators but at the end of the day, how much has it positively changed the issues it champions? In the crisis of COVID19, South African academics have a meaningful opportunity to practically contribute to a new norm where horizontal governance is a standard because sector trust is strengthened by goodwill partnership. From the side of academics, it will mean a move from lecturing those with practical experience that they often lack, an approach that teaching is a two-way process that promotes active citizenry and where students potential to contribute is developed not unearthed for a lecturer’s research ratings. Such a path is hindered by the 250 academics who signed to support Professor Gray, in essence continuing this practice of the sector not being held to the same scrutiny as most professions by virtue of academic freedom.

To address the challenges, we need to stop making parts of the discussion taboo. Why are our African academics not as prominent in discourse? The look towards the female in the room to take minutes irrespective of her standing. The basically indentured labour of the PhD and post doctorate students to keep the numbers ticking overThe ‘mature’ student, no matter how much work experience, who has no opportunities because everything is 35 under. The individualism that is advocated but not applied when it comes to the tertiary institution you graduate from –irrespective of personal circumstance and effort, we prefer to look at the name of the printer of the degree. 

If we start to honestly reflect on these biases – conscious or unconscious – we can start to understand that there is indeed an individual within the broad strokes of academia and some of them, student and staff are bearing the brunt of academic gatekeeping. Continuous exclusion or being forced to conform to a standard not reflective of local realities can lead to stress, anxiety and major depression. These in turn can manifest in physical burnout, chronic illness leading to regular sick leave or absence to treat the symptom but not the cause. It can lead to poor performance and a defeatism that sees individuals just do the minimum, not realizing full potential. The irony is that it reinforces in those who actively sustain this patriarchal and traditional culture, the notion that the sick are actually just lazy and were not committed or capable from the onset – tokenism if you will. The vicious and toxic cycle of discrimination continues not only by those perpetuating it but by those who prefer to not actionably overcome it for fear of further ostracization. 

The substantially debated science of COVID19 is showing us that there are alternatives in a time where information changes at a faster pace than can be taught or published. Early insight indicates that a changed approach and culture within institutions of higher education is feasible.  One which is more inclusive, where expertise is understood as a fraction of a collective framework, acknowledgement of a team approach being more solution orientated and not mistaking advisory capacity with that of policy or decision making.  Ultimately that science must serve humanity and be flexible to respond to the public good as opposed to the individual interest. 

The in progress momentum for structural change to overcome the grossly inequitable divide that is the South African reality should be seized by Vice-Chancellors to change institutional culture beyond paper and impose it if need be.  Universities like the public service need to urgently incubate a culture of Batho Pele in actionable service delivery. Faculties across the sciences must understand that their curriculum, research, lecturers & student mentoring including supervision must serve the needs of what South Africa requires, not their academic interest. Choice, yes, but when you sit with crippling unemployment, we cannot justify the economics of not aligning choices to community necessity. Now sooner than later, those in this space need to iteratively ask how they are going to serve South Africa as opposed to merely joining a long queue of educated extractors.