• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Lowering your Hackles for Presentation-Based Feedback

Learning to receive constructive criticism regarding how you speak about your research.

September 8, 2015


Anjali Gopal is a Bioengineering PhD Student at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter at @anjali_gopal.


One of the more common dilemmas I see in research groups is when team members who are required to make a presentation at a conference request advice from their team, and then spend the majority of that advice session justifying their slide design rather than actually accepting feedback.


Let me be clear: the type of argument in these cases is not the constructive, academically insightful, challenge-you-to-make-you-a-better-researcher type of argument. It’s not even the type of argument where you’re deciding the best way to present a figure or a particular piece of data. Instead, it’s the type of argument where the presenter is justifying why their teammates “shouldn’t” find the presentation confusing.


This looks like so:


Team-member: In slide 6, you’ve used the variables “kappa” and “lambda” and you haven’t defined what they mean.

Presenter: Oh, kappa is the input and lambda is the output.

Teammate: Well you haven’t really represented that anywhere on your slide.

Presenter: But it should be obvious...

Teammate: No, it’s not.


In other words, the presenter is requesting feedback from an audience about their presentation, and then becomes upset when the audience doesn’t understand the presentation. This is very counterproductive toward improving the presentation.


In a lot of these cases, researchers often conflate good research with good presentations. Just because your research is sound doesn’t mean your explanation of it is necessarily clear. By extension, just because a team member is arguing about your presentation style doesn’t mean they’re questioning the integrity of your research.


As such, it can be useful to develop frameworks to get the most out of constructive feedback. There are ways to think about it that may make presentation-based feedback easier to bear, or at the very least, more useful for making your presentation even more awesome.


Step 1: Really try to understand your teammates’ feedback or point of confusion.

Before you argue with their understanding of your subject matter, make sure you understand why they are confused.


Concepts that may seem obvious are not. Assumptions that you’ve made in your research may not be shared. The way you interpret a figure and the way someone else interprets a figure may be vastly different.


When someone is giving you feedback about your presentation, they’re describing their experience of your presentation. This is markedly different from your experience of your presentation. Certain parts of your explanations may be confusing or rambling.

Or perhaps you omitted details that might have contributed to a much more robust and complete understanding of the material. In these cases, realize that your teammates aren’t arguing against what your explanation is; they’re arguing against how you explained.


By striving to understand why your team members are confused, you’ll have a better understanding of what an audience’s experiences will be like.


Some good probing questions to use for this would be:

  • Can you explain at what part you started noticing you were confused?

  • What additional concepts should I include in [this slide/figure/explanation]?

  • I was thinking about this like [x]. Is that how you were thinking about it?


Step 2: When deciding what to change, try to simulate what another audience member would understand if you kept things the way they were.

Often, presenters will argue their points, and when they’ve won (or when they’ve sufficiently explained things to their team member), they will move on to the next slide or figure, without making any modifications.


If you’re thinking of doing this, wait. You just spent ten minutes explaining a point of confusion to your teammate. Now, stop and try to simulate what another audience member would understand if you kept the same slide or figure without any changes, and without giving the five minutes of additional explanation. (This is also a good way to check to see if you really understood your teammate’s confusion.)


If you think the audience member will understand the unchanged figure with no additional explanation, perhaps you can keep it as is. However, more likely is that you’ll see that the audience member will have understood as little as your teammate. And this can be your guiding principle in trying to figure out what makes sense to change.


Some good probing questions to use for this would be:

  • Would the average audience member’s knowledge or context be the same as my teammate’s knowledge or context? Will they have more knowledge or less knowledge?

  • How can I incorporate the explanation I gave my teammate into this slide/section?


Step 3: Go back and ask your teammates about your modified presentation style.

When you’ve figured out what you’re going to change (or what you’re going to keep the same), it’s often useful to go back to a teammate and ask them if that change will help them with the comprehension. Many times, you may think that a certain type of presentation style might help, but in reality, there may be factors that you aren’t aware of that could affect that presentation style.


For instance, suppose you’re trying to describe weather patterns in a certain region, and one of your teammates pointed out that the pictures are too small and the text is too dense. Once you’ve decided to add additional pictures and change to point-form text, it is doubly helpful to go back to your teammate and say “If I changed my presentation to include [such and such] main points about weather patterns and really highlight [such and such] pictures, would that help you understand better?” Getting these types of tighter feedback loops can really improve your presentation.


Some good probing questions to use for this would be:

  • If I included [x], would that clear up your confusion?

  • Would restructuring this section/explanation [like so] make things easier to understand?


It’s important to be able to separate what you know from how you say it. When you’re requesting feedback from your teammates, it can often seem intimidating because it seems like they’re questioning your research, your methods, or worse, your grasp of the subject. However, at the end of the day, these are the people on your team. Literally. They want to see your research succeed as much as you do.


Adopting better frameworks for handling criticism and feedback can often make it easier to bear. Learning to separate your presentation from your research is one way to do this. Andrea Zeller has also written a previous GradHacker post about Embracing Criticism. Failing forward is another useful heuristic. What are some other ways in which you could learn to be more receptive to feedback?

[Image by Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg and used under a Creative Commons license.]


Back to Top