A 50% Content / Discussion Formula for Academic Presentations?

Trust your audience.

November 16, 2016

Should we have a 50 percent content / discussion formula for academic presentations? 

Meaning that the time allotted for content delivery should not exceed 50 percent, and the time reserved for discussion should not go below half.  If you have an hour to present, the time it takes you to present your content should not go beyond 30 minutes. 

What do you think?

When I say "academic presentation", I mean any presentation where academics are the audience.  This covers a wide range of presentation venues, formats, types etc.

Certainly, this 50 percent formula certainly is not the norm for academic presentations.  Most academic presentations leave little time for discussion.  Content takes up most of the time.  Most often, the presenter is rushing to get through all the content that she has planned to present.  

Sometimes discussion between the presenter and the audience does happen during the presentation, but that is rare.  The larger the audience the less likely there is to be an integrated presentation / discussion format.

The time reserved for questions and discussion at the end of the content presentation is most often short.  Maybe 10 minutes in an hour long session.  

Why don’t we academic speakers build in significant time for discussion during our presentations?

Why do we continue to privilege our content, even though everybody seems to agree that we value discussion?

Some theories:

Theory 1- We Want To Give Value To the Audience:

Paradoxically, the reason that we don’t build in large amounts of time for discussion in our academic presentations is that we want to provide real value for the folks who have invested their precious time to come to our talk.  We want to reward their attention with good information, deep insights, and penetrating analysis.  We think that by only using half the time allotted to deliver content that we are only doing half of our job.  

Theory 2 - There Is Already Too Little Time To Cover What We’ve Been Asked To Speak About:

If we’ve been asked to give a talk, there is an assumption that we have something to talk about.  Often, there is a good deal of information that needs to be shared with our audience.  We know that people are very busy and may not read this information, so a presentation is a great opportunity to share.  Cutting our presentation down to half the allotted time will mean that half the information that we have been charged with sharing will not be shared.  

Theory 3 - We Are Worried That Audience Questions and Discussions (Particularly in Larger Groups) Might Go Off-Point:

There is nothing worse than a bad question from someone in the audience.  Whoever said that “there are no bad questions” has never been to an academic conference.  Bad questions are the norm.  Questions that are not really questions but statements.  Questions that are so complicated and muddled that it is hard to figure out what the audience member is really asking.  Questions that are off-point, over-long, and of no discernible relevance to the topic of the presentation.  Or - and maybe even worse than bad questions - are no questions.  When everyone sits silently.  What would happen if you leave 30 minutes for questions and discussions in an hour long talk, and then nobody had anything to ask?

These are all good objections.  You might have others.

My advice is to be willing to experiment.  Take a chance and leave half the session for questions and discussions.

It helps if you know your audience well.  Understand their work and their concerns.  If nobody asks you questions, you can ask them questions.  Or you can get things going by planting questions in the audience.  Or you could ask yourself questions.

Leaving half the time for questions also requires a strong hand in facilitation.  You need to be willing to cut people off.  This requires telling everyone what you see as a good question, and then communicating that you will keep the discussion moving.  Sometimes it helps to split the roles between presenter and facilitator, as it is hard to do both.

Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that in-person gatherings are for connections rather than content.  I’m always amazed that we go through all the effort (and expense) to get smart academics together in one place - and then we fail to build in the programming around discussion and collaboration.  

Part of the challenge is the very physical design of the most of the rooms that academics meet.  Good discussions are difficult in fixed seating tiered amphitheaters and classrooms.  But they are not impossible.

Those of us who speak to big groups frequently need to get more comfortable with a less is more approach.

We need to learn to trust our audience.

We need to think about our presentations as conversations.

How do you handle the balance between presentation and discussion in your academic talks?


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