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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Presenting to a group, taken broadly, is a big part of what we do as graduate students. By presenting to a group, I don't just mean conference presentations and dissertation/proposal presentations. A project presentation for a class falls under this category, and frankly, so does teaching a class. Some teaching will be more interactive, like labs, and other teaching may be less so, like lectures, but it's still a presentation given to a group.

Because this is such a big part of what we do, there's a lot of presentation advice to be had. For conferences, it's good to remember that we don't need to simply read from a paper. In fact, since a presentation isn't a paper, it's probably better not to! We can speak from notes and include audio and visual aids, instead. And of course, practicing our presentations comes almost universally recommended.

Because of how speech works (and doesn't work) for me, I can't practice my conference presentations ahead of time, and my only presentation scripts are from presentations I've given with Proloquo4Text, an iOS speech-generating program. Besides, I'm not going to run an hour class lecture ahead of time before every class I teach. The preparation-to-presentation time ratio that allows dry runs for conferences isn't practical when teaching a class that runs for an hour three times a week.

What I've found very helpful in handling both my inability to do dry runs of my presentations and the universal struggle to predict the questions people will ask is participating in improv, short for improvised theater. During an improvised scene, the point is that no one knows what's coming next, but all the actors have experiences to draw on while creating stories together.

Obviously, the stories we tell at improv aren't the same ones we tell in academic presentations. I’m not acting as a very lost pirate in the jungle while teaching chemistry (I hope). But the skills transfer. By doing improv, I've:

  • Gotten more comfortable failing in public. If you give enough presentations, you're going to give one that isn't very good. If you do enough improv scenes, you're going to do one (or many) that aren't very good. More experiences failing in public can reduce the fear of doing so.
  • Practiced responding to the unexpected. I can't predict the questions people will ask me, as a teacher or as a conference presenter. I've tried, and I'm always way off. I think that's a function of knowing the topic I'm presenting on, while my audience doesn't yet. For this reason, I've found it more effective to get good at responding to unexpected questions than to practice responding to any specific question I might expect to receive.
  • Practiced performing without rehearsal. Most of us will work hard to avoid giving conference presentations without rehearsal, but teaching without rehearsal is pretty normal. Practicality demands it, but it's scary if you're not used to it. Improv gets you used to it in a way scripted theater doesn't.
  • Practiced performing without preparation or notes. When I give a conference presentation, I have notes, and I've prepared. Compared to having to perform without either of those things, the conference presentation is now easy.

​Some of these benefits may be more important because of my speech and communication needs, but I think most of them are still helpful for most graduate students. It's also nice to have a hobby that isn't research related, even if it helps my presentations as a side benefit. So on any given Friday night, I'm likely to be at (or in) the weekly improv show, looking rather silly in public.

How do you handle the unexpected in your presentations? Share your ideas in the comments below.

[Image by Benjamin Ragheb, used under a Creative Commons license.]

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