Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The job presentation

Having blessed the world with my thoughts on the other stages of academic job-hunting, I’ve been asked for views on this too. It is now standard for most academic jobs in the UK to include a formal presentation followed by a Q&A, in addition to the interview. Typically the presentation is open to all academic staff and research students in the relevant Department. The audience will usually give their feedback to the interview panel at the end of the process. The panel isn’t bound by what the audience say, but they invariably take it seriously, and most of the time end up agreeing with them.

Some candidates self-destruct during the presentation, so much so that we only allow them to finish and to come to the interview out of courtesy. Some candidates ace the presentation so well that they nail the job there and then. From the couple of dozen I’ve attended and chaired over recent years, some tips.

1. Read the brief. Then, read the brief again. There is no standard form. You may, especially for a junior or temporary post, be asked to perform a teaching-related task, such as giving a lecture as if to a class of first-year students. You may (this is the Durham standard) be asked to give a paper on an aspect of your current or recent research. There may be some hybrid of the two, or sometimes, for posts with particular requirements, something more specific to that job. Make sure that you understand exactly what you’re being asked to do. If you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. And, if you can do it without being clunky, it can be useful to mention to the audience what your brief was: it’s perfectly possible that they haven’t all been told.

2. But also, don’t be fooled by the brief. They have asked you to do one task, but they will use your performance in that to assess your all-round suitability. Typically, the presentation is in practice used to assess both whether you are a good teacher and whether your research is high-quality. You may be asked to give a research paper, but the audience want to know that you are a clear, engaging and lively communicator who could safely be put in front of a room full of undergraduates. You may be asked to give a beginners’ lecture, but the audience want it to be fizzing with ideas and demonstrating your scholarly qualities too. This double bind is infuriating but it is also one of the things which makes the presentation such an effective test.

3. Stick to time. I’m sorry this should have to be said, but it does. If you are asked to speak for 20 minutes, ensure that you speak for between 18 and 21 minutes. Less is much better than more.

4. Visual aids: not essential but probably helpful. Of course it depends on the task and your own style, but simply speaking from notes may be braver than you need to be. But if you do it, do it well. PowerPoint presentations which simply list your talking-points are rarely a good idea: they work better for pictures, quotations or other material best delivered visually.

5. If you do an AV presentation, especially an online one such as Prezi, be in touch with the relevant person to ensure that it can be set up and tested in advance. Never assume it’ll be all right. Personally I recommend the method by which my old colleague Catherine Richardson helped to persuade us of her unflappable omnicompetence: showing up with a complete set of handouts in your bag in case the technology fails. It is a very nice demonstration that you are a safe pair of hands.

6. And anyway, don’t underrate the old-fashioned paper handout, which your audience can digest much more easily than they can a succession of projected slides, and which they can also take away with them. Get the organisers to confirm the expected numbers present beforehand, and then add at least 50%. Make your own copies and bring them if you possibly can: your hosts may offer to make them but (I say with a hot pang of shame, having once as a host done this to a candidate … sorry, again …) they may not actually do it. And don’t forget to include your email address on a handout. Even if you don’t get the job, you may make some worthwhile contacts.

7. Regardless of what sort of visual aid you use, make it look good. It is worth spending time on this, and indeed getting help from the people you know who are better at it than you. Something with high production values pleases and tickles and audience; it makes you look professional; and again, it reassures them that you’ll be a competent lecturer.

8. Proofread, both your visuals and what you will say. Slips in grammar and punctuation will always be noticed, and I am afraid they genuinely do undermine academics’ confidence.

9. To read from a text or to ad-lib? No clear answer, but this is one of the key questions. A droning, dull or inaudible performance can sink you immediately. So can a rambling, inarticulate, over-chatty or (I have heard this) half-shouted performance. Reading allows you to control your text and your timings much more, and also helps if you are nervous. Speaking from outline notes or even unprompted can be much more engaging, but risks either stumbling or being over-glib. Do what you are comfortable with, but if you have a full text, don’t forget that this is a rhetorical performance, in which delivery and eye contact are crucial, so rehearse it sufficiently that the text becomes little more than a prompt. (It can be helpful to print it in a large point size.) If you are ad-libbing, again, rehearse it often enough that you know what you are doing. If you are worried about how you will come across, make a video recording of yourself doing the presentation. It is excruciating, but an excellent way to confront yourself with whatever aspect of your presenting style doesn’t work very well.

10. Content is harder to advise on. You will have a brief to follow and multiple boxes to tick. But some suggestions. Unless you have to, try not to lapse into autobiography. The presentation which begins ‘First I will give you an overview of my research projects of the past five years …’ rarely stirs the blood. And try to give the audience something to take away with them: one really striking idea, discovery, image or interpretation which will be new to most of them, and which will persuade them that you are a good teacher, a strong researcher and an interesting colleague. Better to give them one thing in enough depth to show your talents than to skate over too much too quickly: leave them wanting more.
11. You are, probably, not a comedian by training. But if you have a chance to make your audience smile, take it. Again it helps persuade them you are a good communicator. It makes them feel more warmly to you; and, if you are nervous, there is nothing like a few grins from your audience to help you to relax.
12. Questions at the end. You can’t do much to prepare for these, but again they can make or sink a candidate. Often it makes sense to answer the room, not just the individual questioner: both to avoid getting caught on one weirdo’s hobby-horse, and to help you broaden out a question which may be uncomfortably precise. Of course, if you don’t know the answer, say so. But if you are directly challenged on something, don’t be scared to fight back. One recent presentation in Durham turned into quite a charged argument between the candidate and a lecturer about an abstruse point of detail. The consensus afterwards was that, although the lecturer had probably won that bout on points, the candidate had put up a good fight. He got the job.

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