Presenting Your Research to an Industry Audience

Francine Mahak discusses the different context and expectations of such an audience and offers practical tips for graduate students.

September 5, 2019
 
 
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If an employer outside academe invites you to interview and present your research, how should your presentation be different from the one you may have just delivered at an academic conference?

In fact, the basic underlying strategy is the same for both: address the specific audience and purpose of your presentation. Identify how each audience differs in their interests and their purpose in listening to you, and then tailor your presentation design accordingly.

As a career coach with many years’ experience in the industry world, I will discuss the different context and expectations of an industry audience with graduate students and offer practical tips below. In practice, creating a presentation for industry simply requires understanding a different mind-set and making a few key changes in response. Note: The graduate students I work with are in science and engineering, but the principles here apply to industry workplaces generally.

We vary our communication naturally when we address different audiences in real life. For instance, we talk about our academic research differently with our peers and professors than we do with scholars in other fields or with our family. Each audience has its own context, and we make adjustments to enhance mutual understanding. (Or if we don’t, we probably notice that people become confused or disengaged.) Such adjustments are vital for presenting effectively to an industry hiring or funding audience, whether those people work in a business, a government agency or a nonprofit.

How Are Industry Audiences Different?

One difference is that they prioritize practical application of skills and expertise: what you know is important, but what you can do is critical. They evaluate that potential from what you have done -- i.e., your accomplishments.

Another difference is the order and emphasis. In academe, research is typically presented in the order it was conducted, and for good reason, as listeners want to track the validity and rigor of the research approach. In industry, your degree will in itself imply that you practice rigorous methods, and people will want to know your results and how you can apply your skills to help meet the challenges they face, as indicated in this comparison:

Academic audiences want to know:

Industry audiences want to know:

  • How rigorous is your research methodology?
  • How is your presentation expanding what I know or contradicting what I believe?
  • Are your findings interesting? Reproducible?

Academic institutions must show intellectual merit, win grant funding for research, etc.

 

  • What are your findings?
  • How do they apply to what we do?
  • How will your skills and experience contribute to our success?

Industry organizations must stay ahead of their competition to remain viable.

 

We can look at a real example of this communication gap, without even leaving the campus. A group of M.B.A. students interested in entrepreneurship invited an engineering Ph.D. student to present research on his medical device. He described the purpose and design challenges of the device he’d prototyped and detailed the methodology and creative problem solving he’d used to develop a potential solution. The M.B.A. students, however, were interested in the business viability of the device: What did market research show? Who were the potential competitors? What strategy was planned for the device to outperform their products?

Although both parties would be needed for the eventual success of the prototype, neither had anticipated the communication gap, and so the presentation was a learning experience for both. (The engineering Ph.D. student later bridged that gap and has joined a top management consulting firm.)

When you prepare your presentation, you can bridge the gap by first developing and demonstrating awareness of your audience’s needs and interests and then presenting in a way that is responsive to them.

Presentation Tips for Industry

An effective industry-oriented presentation has many aspects, and one of the key ones involves design and organization. Some practical recommendations include:

Know the audience. What do they know about your topic? What do they need or want to know? Are they supportive of what you plan to say, or do they have reservations that you should address? You can legitimately ask those who are arranging your presentation any questions you may have -- just present each question in terms of the benefit to them. For instance: “So I can best address what is important to the audience, could you please give me an overview of who will be attending and what they would most want to gain from my presentation?”

Identify your purpose and their purpose in listening to you. In a hiring presentation, your purpose would be to get hired. As for your audience’s purpose: What should they do as a result of your presentation? What do they need to know to do that and to actually feel motivated to do that? (Motivation makes a difference in whether and how well things are done.) Is there any material you can remove that they don’t need? Often it may be excess background information or too many levels of detail.

Design the presentation to lead from your main points, not to them. This principle, described as “concept first, then details,” is fundamental in industry and is easier to follow and more persuasive in that context. Also, if you run out of time, you’ll have already covered what is most valuable to them.

  • Put a summary slide of your relevant findings within the first few slides of your presentation.
  • Add a slide indicating how your findings relate to their organization and the specific team, thus showing your value and potential contributions.

Determine what level of supporting detail and methodology will be relevant, considering their priorities and your time limit. (Often, that will mean including significantly less supporting detail than in your academic conference presentation, but that can vary by audience and purpose.)

In designing the slides, use few words and provide more illustrations and space, but:

  • Choose key words/phrases that give the gist of your main points. (They will visually remember key words, but not sentences.)
  • Add captions to convey the message of each visual. Captions give the point of the visual, not just the title, and help the audience better remember the message. For example, instead of, “Table 1 -- Comparison of experimental results and model estimates for XYZ,” say: “Comparing experimental results and model estimates for XYZ shows that …”

Prepare and practice timing your presentation so you can end a few minutes early, with more information/slides in reserve if needed. Since circumstances can arise that reduce your presentation time, have a "chop plan" ready -- i.e., what would you cover in half the time or less? (Trying to edit down on the spot is difficult.)

You must also consider your delivery. I suggest that you:

  • Address questions when they arise. Don’t ask them to hold questions until the end. (They likely won't anyway.) Instead, give a summary answer and add that you will elaborate shortly.
  • Plan on responding generally with the short answer, and then add details. That shows organization and prevents rambling.
  • Crucial: Do not go over the assigned time, unless they invite you to. This is common etiquette, but an industry audience will also be evaluating your ability to manage time flexibly.

If you are addressing multiple audiences:

Speak in terms that understandable to everyone when you present the overall message, summary slides and main point of each section. (Remember, you may have people from HR, marketing and other areas who may have a say in your hiring.)

Speak in more specialized terms when going into the technical information supporting your main points, i.e., if the hiring manager and your prospective team members are more technical.

Academe and industry each have important reasons for the way they structure presentations based on their different contexts, interests and goals. When you apply the simple strategy of carefully tailoring your presentation to its specific purpose and audience, you will make effective decisions and the techniques illustrated in the above tips will flow naturally.

Bio

Francine Mahak is a graduate career coach with the University of Utah and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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