My Thoughts on Presenting Preliminary Research

A few weeks ago I presented a new research project to a few faculty members. I was looking for feedback on the appropriate structural model that can be used to explain commuting and residential choice patterns in a household survey. The following is what I learned from the presentation.

  1. Be clear about what feedback you are looking for. Say it right at the beginning. When your work is in preliminary stage, there are usually concerns from all aspects — data, identification, theoretical framework, context, etc. Try to focus on the aspect that matters the most to you for now. This will make your presentation more structured and enable your audience to give more useful feedback.
  2. Know what you have to cover in your presentation and what you can skip. For example, if your purpose is to identify the right theoretical model for your research question, do not dwell on the data for too long. Address questions that are relevant, and leave the questions that stray too far from your theme “to future discussions”.
  3. When you are presenting a model, be clear about the assumptions. Which assumptions are fundamental to the workings of your model and the interpretation of your results? Which assumptions are necessary due to data limitations? Which assumptions are an abstraction and can be refined? Thinking over these questions also helps you to understand different models better.
  4. Do not put unnecessary information on your presentation slides. Slides are a form of visual aid — they make your speech more effective instead of replacing you the speaker. If you find yourself staring at a slide with too many equations thinking “it’s probably gonna be fine, I’ll just use it as reference”, then you probably should make it more concise.
  5. Anticipate your questions as much as you can. I usually make draft slides a couple days before the actual presentation, and go over the slides from an outsider’s perspective (or whoever will be at your presentation, if you know them well). If a particular line seems confusing, I revise the wording on the slide or think of alternative ways to present the same idea.

Hope this is useful.

What I have learned from my first academic presentation

Yesterday I presented my work on parental migration and health outcomes of children in Indonesia in the development lunch at Duke. It was my first time to present my own research in front of a (relatively) large academic audience. The presentation did not progress as planned (similar with most research initiatives), but I learned a great deal from it. Here’s a few.

  1. Talk about key facts instead of broad histories when you are introducing the context of your study. Providing a description of broad histories is easy for you as a presenter but usually makes the audience more confused about your main argument.
  2. Related to the first point, structure your presentation to focus on the key questions you are interested in answering, the strategies you use to address these questions, and where you have experienced difficulty and need advice on.
  3. In a short presentation, avoid doing a detailed literature review. You are almost guaranteed to miss some papers in the literature, and it is easy to spend a long time answering tangential questions.
  4. Know your question really, really well. Present it to different people and see if anything confuses them. If they are confused, try to diagnose the problem and clarify your question. If there are broad terms in your main question, try to narrow them down to clear-cut, specific definitions that people can directly relate to.
  5. Know when to answer questions, when to delay them, and when to politely turn them down. Always answer clarification questions, but delay questions which you are going to address later in your presentation.
  6. Practice. Practice. Practice. You cannot anticipate everything, but if you do not practice, there will be too many awkward moments.

I encourage other students to present their work early on in the PhD program to practice thinking deeply about a question and explaining it to other people. It will be painful at first, but you will get better at it over time.

A few notes on academic presentations

For our writing and presentation class we are asked to explain a standard concept in intermediate microeconomics in a ten-minute presentation. Here are a few good practices I concluded from my own and others’ presentations.

1. Practice your script and appear confident on the stage.

2. Make sure your graphs are legible. Fonts should be large enough. Use contrasting colors that will show up clear given your background.

3. If your graphs are not legible, explain the key messages in the graph verbally or draw the graphs on the board (if they are simple).

4. Stay consistent with your notations.

5. Cite the sources to your materials, even if they come from widely used textbooks or online resources.

6. Don’t include information that you are not going to talk about in your slides.

7. It helps if you stick with the same examples and go through facts->explanation->solution for each of them in the same order throughout your presentation.

8. When you are explaining a model, start from the infrastructure (agents/players, relationships, basic assumptions, etc) and continue to the superstructure.

9. Don’t include too much information in your slides! This will make the audience overwhelmed and eventually bored.

10. Don’t read off the slides. Treasure the dynamic nature of presentations and interact with you audience.