Recently, I read this great post over at The Professor is In called, “Why Your Job Talk Sucks.” Reading it made me think that this would be a great time to talk about how to prepare doctoral students for the job talks they will be giving in the spring. The post I linked to above gives great general pointers for the common pitfalls associated with most job talks. Well, at least most of the ones I’ve been too. So take a look at it and definitely pass it along to your students.
But I want to use her post as inspiration for pushing beyond these common pitfalls. See, in my opinion most job talks don’t just suck but they are boring to boot. Here’s why….
The talks I have to sit through – even when I take out the problems cited in the post – follow the standard formula. You hear about the research problem. You learn the research question. We hear about theory/literature/methods/findings and then what it all means. Pretty standard. And of course for doctoral students I think it’s essential that they have these elements in their talk – particularly at an R1 interview. This is because it’s critical that they can demonstrate they know how to do research and communicate it.
I know…there’s no pleasing me. I just complain about the boring standard formula and then turn around and say that I think that it’s important to have these components in a talk.
But I think it’s important to consider how a talk can have all these components and not come off as boring and formulaic. It can be so much more. It can actually be engaging, interesting, and even entertaining. The question is…how?
A couple of years ago, I got a great book, “How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations.” I bought it because I was bored with any and all talks I was giving. At the time, I was really thinking about improving my conference presentations, but the ideas in this book transfer across a variety of scenarios including job talks.
I do recommend the book, and what I want to do in this section is give you my interpretation of what I learned. This is not necessarily exactly what is in the book but rather my take on how to apply what I have learned from reading it.
Consider the Story
The first thing I do now is consider what story I want to tell with my research/data set. Instead of thinking about it as a series of findings (Finding A, B, C), I consider the narrative I want to construct. This is not fiction. I want to be clear. I’m not saying make-up a story. Instead, I think of my work now as a non-fiction narrative.
Before I begin writing, I clearly identify the message that I want to communicate. The TED book recommends coming up with a catchphrase – which is explained in the book – that your audience can latch onto. I have found this immensely helpful. For me, I figure out what my main message is and write it into one-two sentences. From those one-two sentences I then configure a catchphrase.
For me, the idea behind a catchphrase is that if my audience remembers nothing then they should remember the phrase. The phrase gets strategically embedded within the talk multiple times – and I normally try to end my talk by saying it one last time. If you can remember the phrase, then that phrase should (ideally) trigger further memories and understandings you had based on my talk.
Recently, I gave a talk where I wanted to focus on the great responsibility we carry as researchers. My point was that through our data we tell the stories of others. We cannot share everything from our data so we have to be very mindful. What we select to tell communicates messages about particular populations. These message can cement or work to change the status quo.
My catchphrase? Tell Their Stories
This phrase is intentionally short. While the TED book says it can be longer, I like to keep mine in the three-five word range. It starts with an active verb, and I try to make it about the audience as much as it is about me and my work. As researchers, this is what we do regardless of what our research methods are – we are telling stories about people.
Once I got this message laid out I eventually shared stories I had collected about students’ experiences in middle school. I used the concept of story in a couple of ways. First, I used it to remind everyone that we are storytellers, and storytelling has immense responsibility. Second, I then told stories about people based on my data set. When I was done, I reminded people that we are telling the stories of others and brought back my main message.
Within that I still communicated theory and research and shared findings. You could pick out the standard elements you would expect to see for the most part. However, I worked to frame it in such a way that it had a bigger message and, ideally, could connect to the audience.
This Is Hard
I want to stress that, for me, writing talks with the above in mind (in addition to what all the Professor highlighted in her post) is much more challenging than banging out a traditional talk. Not all my talks are in the above format. Sometimes I do not have the time to dedicate in order to craft a 20-minute conference presentation like this. But when I can, I do it. I assume it will start to get easier over time.
In helping doctoral students think this way you have to break them out of the traditional mindset. Have them start by writing out what they want to say. What is the main message of their talk? This should be 1-2 sentences. From there, craft a catchphrase. Then, write your talk. And while you’re writing your talk, keep in mind all the points the Professor made as well. Doing this will help your job talk not suck (or your conference presentation or a keynote! you can apply this all over the place) but also make it memorable.
Elevating your ideas to something your audience can remember and latch onto means that you control what they think of you – well, as best as anybody can. But you do have some more power than usual to get people to remember exactly what you want from your talk.