Writing for a Presentation

Regular readers of this blog know that it has an unsurprising tendency to reflect my current teaching or research interests. So today, after my first week of teaching, you will have to bear with me while I reflect on writing for oral presentations. This post is about the aspect of writing that is currently most on my mind: the creation of a written text designed to be read aloud. Even if oral presentations aren’t your favourite thing to think about (and most people like presenting even less than they like writing), they are an area in which most of us can improve. In fact, oral presentations are a topic that most people choose not to think about too much. Instead, most people just try to survive them. And most of us know firsthand what it is like to sit through a presentation when the presenter has no higher ambition than to survive. The challenge of oral presentations is obvious: oral presentations are a complex blend of intellectual command, organizational skills, technological expertise, and performance ability. So there is a lot to be said, but today—since this is still a blog about academic writing—I will focus on the creation of a text written explicitly for a presentation.

I will begin with an important clarification. Writing a text that is designed to be read isn’t something that all of you will do. In many fields, the expectation will be a presentation that revolves around speaking and not reading. But those of you who do need to read a presentation have a uniquely difficult task. Faced with this task, some presenters seem to feel that reading is in fact all that is required. However, the experience of having a standard academic paper read to us is not one that most of us wish to repeat. There is, of course, a range in people’s listening abilities; some listeners can manage a degree of attention and comprehension that others—me, for instance—cannot. But as a presenter, it is probably best to target average listeners, rather than the superstars of academic listening. And the average listener has needs that reading alone can’t meet.

So once you’ve learned that a read presentation is standard in your field and acknowledged that simply reading a paper may fail to engage your audience, what to do? The key is to identify what is so valuable about the read presentation. A read paper allows for a complexity and density that might not be achieved without a written text. The benefit of reading is that you can offer deliberately structured prose of the sort that most of us can’t create on the fly. This is what you will be able to maintain in your written paper: sophisticated sentences that convey complex relationships among concepts. Beyond that, you need to think how your presentation text needs to be different. Here are three key areas for alteration: one, the degree of elaboration; two, the extent of structural explanation; and, three, the use of actual annotations of your presentation text.

In the first place, your complex sentences will need elaboration; what can be said once for a reader should be reiterated for a listener. Complex ideas will likely need to be unpacked further in the designed-to-be-read version. Ask yourself if a sentence in your writing might require a reader to read it more than once or even just pause to think about it. If so, you must work that repetition or time for reflection into your read version; strategic repetition is your friend here. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of presentations during which I wished that the speaker had spent less time clarifying the key idea.

Second, you need to think of your paper as a one-way street for the listener. When readers read you, they have the luxury of flipping back to something, of reminding themselves of where they are within your argument. Listeners, on the other hand, are completely at your mercy. Once they lose the thread, their only way to regain it is through the structural signposts you have provided.

Third, the physical text that you read from needs to be distinctly different from a normal paper. The difference will come through the annotations that you make to direct your reading process. Some sentences need to be read in their entirety; some sentences can be a way to get you started with some room for improvisation at the end; some aspects of your paper should probably be left completely unwritten. I usually suggest that some proportion of the examples or anecdotes or elaborations be left open. I also suggest noting for yourself basic things like where you will pause, where you will look up, where you will put the emphasis. If you don’t need this degree of guidance, you will naturally disregard it, but many will find it helpful. For most of us, the appearance of spontaneity is much better than actual spontaneity.

One final note: a more dynamic read presentation requires careful attention to time management. When practicing ‘reading’ in this way, you have to make sure you know how long everything will take you during the actual presentation. It can be helpful to know whether it generally takes you longer to give a presentation than you anticipate or whether you are one of a smaller number of people who actually end up being quicker during the real thing. If you are in the former group, time yourself approximating the presentation as closely as possible, and then give yourself a few minutes leeway. If you are in the latter group, try slowing down!

This topic was well handled by ProfHacker last winter. Their blogger talks about creating a dedicated reading copy, a term which does a good job conveying how it must be different from the original version of the paper. If you have other questions about oral presentations, here are a few recent links that might prove helpful or might lead you to other helpful resources. Here is something from Dave Paradi’s blog about a technical issue: preparing to make a presentation on a computer that is not your own. Here is something from the Presentation Advisors blog on simple ways a presentation can go wrong. Here is something from The Guardian on deciding strategically how many conferences to attend. Finally, here is something from The Professor is In blog on making conferences work for you as a graduate student or junior academic.

9 responses to “Writing for a Presentation

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  2. As an outsider, I find it simply impossible to understand why any scholarly field would prefer to have people read written texts, even if they are made to be read. I do not see how such a talk could be better or clearer than an extemporaneous (but not impromptu) talk with visual aids of some sort (slides, pictures,whatever works). Can you explain this on other than purely “That’s just the way we do it” grounds?

    • It’s an excellent question, given how many dull and/or difficult read presentations we have all experienced. But I do see the value; as I say in the post, I think that there is a real benefit to expressing our ideas with the sophistication that can only come through written prose. I do think, however, that the written text has to be altered in significant ways in order to give the listener a positive experience. Those alterations might involves visual aids, but might not. Even when visuals aren’t possible, a speaker can still prepare a speaking text that takes into account the needs of the listener.

  3. This is an invaluable document that will guide those who suffer from glossophobia.

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