Consider the Typical Research Presentation:
You’re sitting in an uncomfortable room, crowded and hot. The presenter is visibly nervous, the equipment isn’t working properly. The presenter finally clicks on their PowerPoint (likely after well over ten minutes to get the projector to work) and the title slide is displayed. It says something about aging but mysteriously, the background is of a snowflake. As the presentation begins, the presenter begins talking about the published literature on adult aging, click, a new slide rolls on the screen. One after another: click, click. But you have yet to piece together what this presentation is really about. What’s the research question? You don’t know. Each slide is diligently read for you, as though you cannot read for yourself.
“Adult senescence is a problem in our culture.”
Really? Why is aging a problem?
Bored, you try to discretely check the clock on your phone.
Fifteen minutes left of the presentation.
The hypotheses are discussed and then the accompanying slide is clicked through, too fast to read. The clicker and the infrared lose their connection, the presenter stops talking to tinker with the clicker. Again, they read the procedure slide. But it’s not entirely clear how this procedure relates to a research question. The results are projected, but the graph is illegible, taken directly from SPSS with 12-point font. Did they conduct a t-test or an ANOVA? The slide just reads, “there was a sex difference between perceptions of aging and likability.” There are no analyses to identify what the p-values were, no effect size estimates, no sample size information. You start writing down your questions, you want to show you were paying attention. But the questions begin piling up and you don’t want to be rude or self-righteous in asking all of your questions.
The discussion slide is projected, the results are summarized in order of the null results first, then the limitations slide appears – why didn’t they mention the limitations when the results were projected? What are the implications of this research? Wait, what was the research question again?
A “References” slide projects on the screen but before you can write anything down, the presenter has run out of time and have clicked to a “Questions?” slide. Why do they need a slide to ask if there are questions?
The Problem with Typical Research Presentations
Regardless of how much education presenters have, the above scenario is the norm, not the exception. The problem with the above scenario is that it’s painfully BORING, both to watch and to present.
Somewhere in the evolution of presenting, we’ve forgotten how to be storytellers. Think of your elementary school education. It’s your kindergarten teacher who should really be delivering your research presentation. Why? Because they know how to tell a story. The big picture book comes out during story-time, they read – animated, engaged, and with the goal of conveying a story, with the goal not simply to share a story but to entertain. The illustrations are turned around. brightly colored pictures visible after each page is read. The book with its illustrations are a prop, just like the PowerPoint should be a prop, not your presentation, not your story.
TedTalks at only 15 minutes are without PowerPoint. TedTalks require their presenters to be storytellers first. Their audience voluntarily chooses to sit, wherever they are, to enjoy a show, to be entertained and to learn. Remember the presenters are telling a story. For you as researchers, the research story should be your presentation, what you have to say, not the PowerPoint slides.
How to Be Both a Good Storyteller and a Good Researcher
Before you even open a PowerPoint slide, write your story into a Word document, the whole thing.
The first thing you write should be the below statement or some variant of it, “This project hopes to address the empirical question of….”
This is your research question and it should not be saved until the end. Unlike fiction, you’re not trying to keep your readers guessing, hooking them with unexpected plot twists. In nonfiction, tell your audience where you’re taking them. Think of the results as unveiling a surprise. Do not unveil the purpose or the research question as your surprise.
The justification for your research question should be threaded in the existing problem. If you’re conducting a study that hopes to uncover underlying attitudes about marriage, outline through statistics why this is relevant. What are the divorce rates among the population of interest? Does this affect the marriage rate? How? It might be meaningful to show the historic trends of marriage and divorce across the last several decades.
After you’ve presented your empirical question and provided a picture of the
problem discuss the existing literature that attempts to address the question. Where
are the holes? How does your project build on this literature?
Your methods should clearly outline the population and sample, as well as the
materials you used. If you used surveys, cite them. If you used equipment to
manipulate your treatment conditions, explain what they were. If you use a new
methodology this too will need to be explained.
Identify your design, was it experimental? If so, was it a between-subject design? A within-subject design? If descriptive, how was it descriptive?
For your results, reiterate your research question as well as any predictions you made. These are the questions your data is hoping to elucidate, so remind your audience of what they were and how the analyses address these questions.
Whenever possible, show your data. What are the t-values for significant results?
What are the p-values? Did you conduct effect size estimates for your t-tests and
analysis of variance? Your effect size estimates tell you how large the mean
differences are between or within your groups. If you used questionnaires, what are the reliability estimates of your sample? Remember that reliability is a product of the sample, not a measure.
As they say in creative writing, “show don’t tell” whenever possible. Show your results using meaningful, clear graphs with fonts that can be read from the back of the room. I recommend using charts from Excel rather than SPSS for this.
Don’t rush through this section of your presentation, this is the hook of your
presentation. It’s what your audience will be most interested in.
If you have null results, don’t wait to explain why you think your methodology or your research question failed to yield significant results. Your audience will be thinking about the limitations or confounds during the results section, not the discussion.
Your discussion is the take-home summary of the project. Reiterate what was
meaningfully learned from your analyses. Again restate what your predictions were or at the very least the empirical question for the project.
What might you do differently to tighten up the methodology?
What populations might benefit from the results of this project?
How might your results be meaningful in informing policy?
If you received any funding for the research project, those supporters should be acknowledged.
If you received support through participation, revision suggestions, advice, etcetera, these people, either individually or as a group, should also be acknowledged.
Provide your select references cited during the presentation as the last thing you
show. You can do this with a references slide at the end of your presentation or better yet, provide a one-page handout with these references listed. The title and abstract on one page and the references on the back.
In your written story, the one in your Word document, make it conversational. You aren’t submitting the narrative for a grade, you’re using it as a guide for your story. One way to make a written piece feel more conversational is to use contractions (e.g., don’t, won’t, etc) and real-world examples. Also, get rid of unnecessary jargon (E.g., say “people” instead of “individuals,” “wo/men” instead of “fe/males,” etc).
It is okay to use humor, I say this with caution, as your audience will be grateful for it IF it’s appropriate. That said, if humor is inappropriate, you’ll repel your audience.
Avoid reading your narrative. Use it only as a guide for preparing your presentation. If you
read from it directly, without rehearsing it, your presentation will sound stilted, uninteresting,
and academic. Further, any humor you’ve written into the narrative will fail to amuse.
Finally, you’ll likely feel nervous, so be prepared. Preparation is the best inoculation from anxiety, forgetting your “lines” and struggling with fluency (E.g., “ums”) during the presentation.
Here are some links to online resources that might help you in both writing your story but also in presenting your research: