Explaining and presenting your PhD

Presenting your research, ideas and work is of ultimate importance, not only in academia, but in any field you might be working in. It is actually what it is all about when working with others. You need to exchange your ideas accurately and be able to understand other’s ideas, feedback or proposals. However, as much as communication is important, bad communication is probably the number one reason why people sometimes cannot work well together.

Why is it difficult to exchange ideas?

Imagine a concept as a complicated set of neurons connected somehow together in your brain. What you want to achieve through communication is to transmit this set of connections from your brain to your audience’s brain. That is the most basic form of communication and exchange of ideas. To achieve this you have in your disposal several tools: your voice, your body, written text, visual aids etc, which aim at transferring a concept as accurately as possible.

However, transferring a concept correctly is not the only thing that matters. The way this set of connections is interpreted by your consciousness has to do with multiple other connections that already exist in your brain (i.e. your previous experiences). To speak in slightly more engineering terms, a concept in your mind is filtered by your experiences and therefore the way that this concept is interpreted by your mind is directly depended upon your experiences. The fact that interpreting and understanding concepts is related to experiences and filters should not come as a surprise. This is one of the reasons why it is easier to explain our ideas to other people working in our field: they have related experiences and knowledge, therefore it is easier to process such concepts and understand them.

A concept that is transferred to a set of audience will also not get the same interpretation by different receivers, due to differences in filtering. Therefore one needs to not only transmit concepts, but also the experiences that are related to these concepts to act as filters upon them. There are two obstacles to overcome though: 1) the related experiences might be enormously numerous and therefore impossible to transmit them all and 2) the brains of your audience are already filled in with their own experiences and therefore their filters will interact with yours affecting interpretation.

How can we then transmit ideas to people with different set of experience than ours? To our friends, family or the audience of a more general conference or the members of another laboratory? One approach to transmitting concepts would be to transmit them in their more pure format. Ideally, if the concept is transmitted in a totally pure format, filtering would not be necessary to make it immediately understood by everybody. However, it is rarely possible to transmit pure concepts, and therefore a combination of transmitting pure concepts and providing the appropriate filters is what we will try to explore in the next two sections.

Purifying your concepts

One very important aspect when preparing your presentations is purifying your concepts and preparing them for transmission to your audience. The first step you need to take is to identify what exactly is that you are trying to transmit. Usually it is one, or (more commonly) a set of complex ideas. Therefore it is important to identify them and brake them down to the elements that comprise them. You can follow a similar approach as the one explained in the planning your PhD chapter.

Let’s give an example and say that you would like to make a presentation in a conference. The very first question that you need to answer is what is the goal of your presentation and what is it that you want your audience to know after it. In case there are more than just one thing you wish to talk about, make a list of all of them. The second step is to see how are these ideas connected to each other and if there is any overlap between them. Remember, that what we want to do is to purify these concepts therefore separating them and removing any overlap is very important. Furthermore, you might notice that there are some concepts that are not strictly necessary or that some more are needed.

Remember that the fewer concepts you are presenting, the easier will be for your audience to understand what you are trying to say. Ideally you will only have one main key concept that is the center of your presentation, and all the rest are just the supporting material that will surround it. Each of these concepts that you would like your audience to understand, should be purified and brought to the level of understanding that corresponds to your audience. For example, all heavy technical jargon should be either removed (if not strictly necessary) or should be very specifically defined (if they will be needed through your presentation).

It is also very important to make clear how are the key concepts connected to each other and introduce them one by one. This way you will be able to use them as building blocks of your presentation.

Providing filters

As mentioned above, your presentation would be ideally built around one key concept and everything else should be seen as supporting material that will help your audience understand the one single concept that you chose to talk about. This supporting material is the filters that you are providing to help your audience interpret your key concept.

Different persons have different levels of experience and therefore have different pre-defined filters in their brains. What you are trying to do when giving a presentation is to bring as many different filters for your key concept as possible, that your audience will use to understand you. These filters should be different in form to satisfy the needs of your audience.

In your attempt to satisfy the hunger of a greater percentage of your audience, you should try to answer four basic questions with your presentation. The Why, the What, the How and the What if? This questions are related to the 4MAT methodology, which you can read more about at http://www.aboutlearning.com/

  • The why The why of your presentation corresponds to the background information that makes your key concept relevant to talk about. It is the reason why you did the specific research and it is strongly connected to the overal goal that you have defined when planning your phd. If you have put enough effort in that phase of the planning, this part of the presentation will be very easy to compose and it will be something that you can use in multiple presentations. It is something that can be called ‘your story’.

This is the part of the presentation that is most important from many aspects. For starters it is usually in the beginning of your presentation, therefore a clear explanation of your motive is likely to keep the audience’s attention with you. It is also the part of the presentation that you can connect the most with them by activating filters that already exist in their minds. A simple way to do this is by giving examples they can related to in their daily life/experiences.

  • The what This part of the presentation goes more into the specifics. This is where you will introduce your key concept(s) and explain how it is related to ‘the why’ that you have already presented. A good connection between the background and your work is very important for your audience to make the connection. Explain in detail what is the specific goal of the work you are presenting.

  • The how That is usually the most straightforward part of the presentation for researchers. This is the part where you can brag about your awesome achievements and show off to the world how cool you and your teammates are. Explain the methodology you followed, keeping in mind to keep things as clear as possible and to omit unecessary details that don’t aid in understanding. Finally present your outcomes or results.

  • The what if This is the part where you put your work into perspective and connect it to ‘the why’ part of your presentation. You show again the connection of your work with the background you presented and you also explore potential uses of your results (therefore called ‘what if’). It is also the part of your presentation that you make your conclusions and finish the presentation.

What is important to know is that these elements are essential for your presentation regardless of its length. There will be times that you will have to present your work in 6 minutes and others that you have more than 30 minutes at your disposal. These elements can always be adapted in length accordingly and having them will greatly aid you in transmitting your concepts in a way that a bigger percentage of your audience connects with them and builds the necessary filters for interpreting them. Finally, these four parts do not have to be strictly sequentially. They can reappear in different parts of your presentation and blend one into the other. Take care though with not overdoing it and make sure you keep a clean structure.

Extras tips

In the fast times that we live, noone has time to prepare presentations. Things happen on the last moment and very often we tend to recycle big chunks of our presentation. Some times this is reasonable: we do need to present similar things very often, therefore why start from scratch all the time? While this is true, it also often leads to confusion in our presentation. Slides might not have the same flow or they might be related to slightly different concepts which can be very clear for you that have made the slides, but might be very confusing for your audience. Therefore, it is strongly advised to start from a blank presentation each time and create the structure before adding any slides. Think of it as an honour towards your audience. They are willing to listen to you, therefore it is your moral obligation to prepare something new, something good and clear for them, right? Once the basic structure is there, you can add some of the slides that you have used in previous presentations, but starting from a blank state decreases the chances of confusion and of a nice looking mess.

A very good way of determining whether your presentation is sound and clear is by practising. It has been numerous times that after preparing a presentation and while scrolling through the slides everything seemed crystal clear. Only to realise that things were not clear even to myself when presenting it. The power of rehersing your presentation is priceless, even if it is about you speaking to yourself and noone is there. It can help you detect many of the logical gaps that you might be making.

Even better than presenting to yourself you could present to others too. Depending on whether you will give your presentation to a audience of experts or laymans, you can rehearse your presentation with your colleagues or friends respectively. Or even better both. Take their feedback very seriously and put it above your own opinion. It matters more things to be clear for them than for you. Always remember that you are the one honoured by having people attending your presentation, not the other way around. Therefore, it is you who needs to make the efford of providing clear and high quality presentation to those that honour you with their presense.

Tassos Natsakis
Lecturer on Robotics and Biomechanics


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