20 minutes of pain: Dealing with a time constrained conference presentation

The joint GABC – ABC conference was fun. Especially for someone who majored in strategic communication and has been working solely in the field of journalism studies for the past year. Not to discredit my current project, but getting back in touch with concepts like corporate identity and theories such as Information Richness, was refreshing. I rediscovered the dynamics that lie at the core of communication processes. On a side note, its dynamic nature makes ‘credibility’ by far my favorite communication concept.

T minus 20

I also rediscovered that a good scientist does not necessarily make a good practitioner. I’m not talking about my own nervous, near-fainting interventions during question time. For a young man living in the Shire of Flanders, an army of American scientists can be quite intimidating. What struck me though, was the internal panic which no presenter was able to hide, when his 20 minutes of fame were coming to an end. It is a huge shame when a presenter is asked to wrap things up, when his story has not reached a climax yet. The fast, improvised conclusions tend to lose the audience’s focus in favor of the presenter’s body language, which of course will undergo a thorough analysis. After all, this is a conference packed with communication scientists. But even when the presentation is well-timed and the presenter is able to cover every slide, a sense of urgency can be detected through searching eyes, uncontrolled arm gestures and a sudden lapse in English-speaking competency. Even native speakers succumb to the stress and start making longer and more complex sentences than one would expect from a natural-born presenter (read: American).

Lessons from journalism

Bold as I am (typing this blog in my safe Hobbit home), I would like to address these presenters: it’s your own damn fault! I can’t help but notice most presenters stay true to the structure of an academic paper: literature (accompanied by the theoretical frame), research questions, methodology, results and finally the conclusions (added by a large implications section of course, to please dr. Jo Mackiewicz). The one and only change I often witnessed, was pushing the research questions up front. Results and conclusions stay in the danger zone of the 20 minute deadline. No wonder presenters are stressing out! Therefore, I suggest business communication scientists draw a few lessons from their counterparts at journalism studies, by implementing the inverted pyramid. A print journalist starts out with the most crucial information and then works his way down adding more and more background information. A hasty reader will get the news he wants, whereas the less time-constrained reader (whether he’d be commuting or unemployed) can work his way through the context. Similarly, a presenter could rethink the structure of a presentation. For example, but not assuming this could be a general prototype, I would structure a presentation as follows:

  • What do we know, based on this study? (research questions, followed swiftly by conclusions);
  • How do we know this? (methodology, results);
  • Why did we want to know this? / Why did we expect to know this? (theoretical frame and possibly literature).

Does this by any chance ring a bell? Personally, I would stay clear of the literature altogether. Point is that I start out with the more essential elements of my study. These elements are necessary for a relevant debate, in which more contextual elements can be clarified that did not make the 20 minute cut. The presenter can calm down a bit, because he is not working his way up to a big climax, which he possibly won’t even reach. Automatically, the audience will not be distracted by ‘stress cues’ of all sorts and stay attentive throughout the entire presentation, searching for answers to their questions. If a particular (contextual) element did not come up, then question time is there to fill all the gaps. In my experience, the format of an academic paper does not suit the 20 minute conference presentation very well. I have no data what so ever to back this up, though. If someone however wants to finance a research, which will inevitably take place in a great number of conferences, don’t hesitate to contact me. I am willing to make the effort.

I almost typed ‘sacrifice’ there instead of ‘effort’, but I guess that would be pushing the envelope.


2 thoughts on “20 minutes of pain: Dealing with a time constrained conference presentation

  1. Pingback: Hoe com.wetenschappers presenteren « Maarten is benieuwd

  2. Pingback: Hoe com.wetenschappers presenteren | Maarten is benieuwd

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