Interviews, Part Three: Presentations and Q&A Sessions

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This is the only photograph of me giving a presentation that I have. Unfortunately, it is at my wedding. You’ll have to imagine that I am wearing more professional attire and looking less tipsy. Credit: Ben Robins Photography.

Much of what I outlined in my post on Junior Research Fellowship interviews holds true for the other interviews I have had this year as well. Interviewers don’t always ask good questions; you need to work out what you want to convey in the interview beforehand, and try your best to get that information across; often the result of the interview has very little to do with your performance. However, giving presentations is one aspect of the interview experience that I didn’t touch on in as much depth, and so I’ll talk a bit about this in this wrap-up post.

Presentations

I suggested that for JRF interviews, the quality of your presentation is not make or break. This is less likely to be true for interviews for teaching posts, for obvious reasons. However, this is one instance when my personal experience actually comes into conflict with what I believe to be good and sensible advice. For virtually all the interviews where I gave a presentation (excluding one interview for an Oxford college-based teaching post, where I’m happy to admit that I under-prepared and messed up!) the feedback on the presentation itself was extremely positive. Nevertheless, I was only given one of these jobs. Therefore, I have some grounds for believing that, while you can shoot yourself in the foot by presenting very badly or not thinking through your research properly, the presentation itself is likely to be less important than the Q&A session that may follow it, or indeed the interview. If you can meet the minimum requirements, it will probably be in one of these two areas that you distinguish yourself from the other candidates. As with all my advice, however, this is based on personal experience only.

So, how to prepare a good presentation?

The presentations I have been asked to give range from a five-minute presentation on my research to the interview panel alone to a twenty-minute presentation to the department and its postgraduate students. I have also been asked to give presentations on an aspect of one of the modules I would be expected to teach if offered the job, which are more like mini-lectures. Developing a presentation style that works for you is a very personal job; I can only tell you what’s worked for me.

  • 1. Minimal notes. When I first started speaking in public as an academic – by giving conference papers – I used to read from a script. While I have seen some historians pull this off beautifully, it wrecked my presentations. Once I started speaking from a set of bullet-points instead, often referring very little to my script at all, everything became much easier. Problems that had seemed insurmountable, like speaking too fast, were not instantly solved but became much less difficult to handle. In general, I think that this style of speaking is much more engaging once you have the confidence to handle it, although there are always exceptions to the rule.
  • 2. A certain amount of practice, and no more. In my first few interviews, during last academic year, I practiced my presentations intensely. Unfortunately, even though I was speaking from bullet-points, this re-introduced some of the problems I’d had when I was using a script, as I inadvertently memorised most of my presentation. One interviewer even criticised me in the feedback after the interview for using a script, when I’d only had very scrappy notes! Due to this problem, I don’t do too many run-throughs of my presentation once I have what I have to say sorted out. This is TERRIFYING – but has led to much better results. (It also works for lectures.)
  • 3. Telling a story. Having had some experience with traditional storytelling, I was amazed by how much better people focus when you tell them something in story-form rather than as a more theoretical discourse. While I’m not advocating beginning your presentations with ‘Once upon a time’, I’ve found that thinking about the different narratives that historians tell about a period can work very well for teaching presentations. Tell a story, then challenge it; why has newer work found this explanation insufficient? Similarly, in my research presentations, there was a certain moment when I used this technique and could feel the audience’s attentiveness suddenly increase. Not enough space here to fully explain what I mean – but go see some traditional storytelling and/or spoken word performances for inspiration!
  • 4. Remember that it’s a performance. Following on from the previous point, the way you use your voice (as demonstrated fantastically by Catherine Hall in her keynote at the Rethinking Modern British Studies conference at Birmingham) is crucial in making your presentation come alive. I would think especially carefully about this if you’ve been asked to give a presentation ‘as if to a group of 1st/2nd/3rd year undergraduates’, but it certainly isn’t unimportant when presenting on your research to colleagues as well. Similarly, gesture should be used thoughtfully, not distractingly (though it is impossible to eliminate all your bad habits!)
  • 5. Think carefully about using a Powerpoint. I tend to ditch the Powerpoint entirely for presentations that are ten minutes or less, and use a small number of slides for longer presentations, with the minimal amount of text. This is a matter of opinion, but I find that Powerpoint can be distracting for both the audience and the speaker, especially if it is overused. If you are presenting in a context where you feel that Powerpoint will be expected, however, ignore this advice.

Q&A Sessions

These are very difficult to prepare for. Some miscellaneous thoughts are as follows:

  • If you don’t want to be asked about a particular aspect of your research, don’t include it in your presentation, especially if it is particularly controversial and bound to attract questions.
  • The same rules apply as for interview questions, but more so; don’t assume too much knowledge on the part of the questioner, even if the question is asked very aggressively, which sometimes does happen.
  • Don’t be wrong-footed if there is no Q&A session (less likely if you have given your presentation to the department, but I’ve been surprised by interview panels who haven’t addressed any questions specifically to the content of my presentation). If this happens, and there are parts of the presentation that you did want to address in greater depth, add them to your interview objectives and try to work them into other answers (I know this is easier said than done…)
  • Finally, I enjoyed Alice Violett’s account of what it’s like to be in the audience for a recruitment presentation. I would certainly try to hear from as many colleagues as possible before I next have to do a presentation like this, to gather tips and advice. It’s also interesting to hear how divided opinion often was.

This concludes my series of posts on academic interviews. The best of luck to anybody who is currently on the job market – it’s hell, but you are not alone.

See also: The academic job marketInterviews, Part One (JRFs); Interviews, Part Two (Getting Interviews).

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