Oral Presentation/Job Talk Hints

Professor Dan Lindley, 448 Decio, 631-3226, dlindley@nd.edu , April 23, 2004, Rev. 2.1

This is written especially for job talks, but is applicable more widely.

1. Grab the audience quickly. If your topic is narrower or more specialized than your audience's overall interests, then think of your introduction as a funnel. Tell them in broad terms why your topic is relevant and interesting to them. Then get narrower and weave them in.  At the end, you may think of your talk as an hourglass and widen back out again to give broader theoretical and policy implications.

2. State your argument up front. Do not beat around the bush or save too much for the end. Do not make the audience wonder why they are there and what they should learn from you. Tell them.

Imagine you are in the audience (think Jervis and get into their shoes). Why should you or anyone else care about this talk? Why care? Who cares? Why care? Who cares?

3. Outlines (overheads or handouts) can telegraph to the audience what you will be saying and where you will be heading next. Do not make handouts or overheads too complex. If they are complex, the audience will not pay attention to you (and, especially re handouts, they will spend time finding flaws in your argument as they pick apart the handout).

3a. Handouts: Handouts are also 'calling cards' that people bring back to their offices. Put your name and contact info on all handouts.

3b. Graphics in handouts and overheads: Some graphics can help. But do not be cute. Graphics such as arrow diagrams of arguments, tables of findings, explanatory 2x2s (and so forth) can clarify complex issues. Do not complexify a simple argument with snazzy but hollow graphics.

4. Common, sound advice is: say what you are going to say, say it, then summarize it. Part of this means putting your argument and a roadmap up front.

5. Assume your audience will be tired and disinterested. When they stumble back to their offices, what will they remember of your talk? Design your talk around a few 'take-away' high impact points. Generally, these points are your argument(s), finding(s) or conclusion(s).

Telling a memorable take-away story or giving a vivid example of your argument(s) during the talk adds impact.

6. Do not read straight text. Get good enough to talk off an outline. This signals mastery of the subject. It also makes you more engaging and allows you walk around a bit and to make eye contact with the audience (crucial).

7. Get yourself video-taped before important talks. Two personal notes. 1. I had great fear of watching myself. The fear lasted for all of five seconds of watching. So, do it! 2. When I watched my first video, I learned I was a spastic arm waver. Well worth learning. So do it!

8. For job talks, what is the common denominator in the audience? They may not know much about your topic, but chances are they can pummel you on methodology and argumentation. Be prepared!

8a. Other job talk advice: keep it to 30 minutes, 40 max. Think about what proportion of the talk you are devoting to each task. Find the right balance for intro, methods, findings, conc, etc. You will have to please specialists in your field, and also capture people who are not in your field and who are new to the subject. Anybody with any background is potentially on the search committee. This can be quite a balancing act: oversimplistic talks do not impress. Overcomplicated talks lose much of the audience, and show people you can't teach (as does droning on forever, not making clear points, etc.). Also, bring a copy of your CV to your office visits.

Best of luck, Dan Lindley