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How to make your first presentation, or Is it worth to start giving talks

Image salle de classe“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on April 23, 1910.

I think, many of us feel uncertainty and vulnerability before the first, second, third and even many further presentations. The thing is many situations make us feel vulnerable, but a refusal to be part of them and an endeavor to avoid vulnerability could limit us from having success and consolidating great achievements as well. There is no way to give a talk (and submit an article for publication) if you are discouraged by a thought that there are those who have more expertise in your field or who may ask you that complex question which you will not be able to answer to. I am sure that awareness of all these challenges should not stop you from entering the arena: you already risk in your life entering an arena of relationship or university studies or job. As I see it, coping with an inner fear to present my research and acknowledging that vulnerability is inevitable (read as: being ready for criticism and judgement) allows me to meet interesting people, develop the network (which might be useful in the close future when I will apply for a job or look for thesis committee’ members) and opens new unpredictable opportunities (invitations for other events or an offer to write a collaborative paper).

To be honest, my first conference presentation was only four years ago, when I had already completed a bachelor degree and was applying for a Master program. I had never thought before that participation in a conference could be an interesting and pleasant experience. But my close friend, who specializes in math, gave me pragmatic advice: If I actually want to have a successful graduate career, I must participate in conferences. Although there were both strict criticism and recognition of my presentations, I remember my first two talks which have provided me with two important lessons.

As I told before, I was going to apply for a Master program in Religious studies and I had already had an approximate topic for my future thesis. After reading Max Weber on the significance of Calvinism in the development of capitalism and Stefan Zweig’s novel “The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin”, I gained a deep interest in further studies of the place of Calvinism in contemporary world. I was lucky: the Department where I was planning to do a Master degree organized a conference on Reformation. So, my first talk happened there. Although knowing in advance that it would be a failure or a total failure, I wanted to see the reaction of audience on how I present my ideas, whether the scholars would consider my thoughts to be sensible and, the most important point, whether the topic which I wanted to explore at Master degree can work. Surprisingly… I succeeded. The audience was interested in the topic which was underestimated and undeveloped in the country of my origin. Thus, due to this conference, with a strong belief that I was on a right path, I started couple months later my Master degree and Master thesis.

The second talk in my life was given at a competitive university conference on mass media in the modern world. I based the presentation on my bachelor thesis and was glad to get a chance to share the outcomes of my research which I had put much time and energy in. Having won in a session “Journalism and Religion”, now I look back and realize that there were talks which presented a stronger than mine research and the findings might have been more significant that mine. Today, I aware that the main key to my victory was a skill to manage the audience. Instead of focusing only on my scholarly achievements, I kept in mind all pieces of advice I heard from professors at the journalism department: To present any topic in an interesting and clear for wide audience manner, attract their attention (orally and/or visually – by words of the talk and/or images on the screen) and convince them that what you are doing is important.

To sum up, as I emphasized above, there are many reasons why it is worth to try it at least once. And a second time as well!

P.S. In conclusion, I’d be glad to share some tips how to make your presentation as much interesting and successful as possible. I based the following pieces of advice on my prior experience and a chapter “Oral Presentation” from Proposals That Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals: 5th edition by L. Locke, W. Spirduso and S. Silverman.

- Prepare the content of your talk, answer these two questions: “What don’t they [your audience] know that they need or want to know?” and “In what order do they [audience] need to learn things to make sense of what I have to say?” (p.137).

- Be clear and precise in your expressions and adapt your paper for an oral speech: “the listener is not free to go back and hear the presentation over again” (p.137).

- “If you have to read [your talk], never appear to being doing so!” Look at your audience, and keep eye contact.

- Use PowerPoint as a supplement to your talk to facilitate an understanding of the presented material by graphs, tables, and video or “to give your words concrete representation” (p.142). (Usually I have from 15 to 18 slides for a 20-min presentation.)

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