Breaking the mould to become a better presenter  

I love attending conferences, yet, rare are the instances in which I find myself paying attention—being fully present, in the moment—to any speaker for the entire time that they are on stage. Perhaps it’s just me; perhaps it’s a symptom of something larger—that, as academics, we are never really taught how to present our research in an engaging way.

In recent years, knowledge translation and mobilization have gained a lot of traction—and deservedly so. In a world where undecipherable academic jargon and journal paywalls prevent the public from accessing knowledge, we must ensure our research findings make their way to those for whom it most concerns. This sentiment is further echoed further by the Canadian Tri-Agencies (CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC), which have all recently revamped their strategic plans, placing a greater priority on knowledge translation and mobilization. For those, much like me, who may have applied for a research scholarship, you likely had to explain your plan to formally meet these new priorities. But, knowledge translation can also occur informally, such as every time we speak about our research with friends and family.

In 2022, I attended three academic conferences. Almost every presentation followed the same structure, was presented in a similar dry tone of voice, and ended in a very anti-climactic way – often proposing future directions and/or with a slide burdened by the logos of a dozen different funding agencies. If this description made you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror (my apologies!) don’t worry, it’s not your fault! Because this is the traditional— expected—approach. Professors and supervisors may even constrain you by saying that this is the only professional way to present. Truthfully, for me, these types of presentations are… forgettable.

As graduate students, we typically invest 2-5 years in our given degree. We make considerable sacrifices in multiple areas of our lives to prioritize the pursuit and the advancement of knowledge. The last thing we want is for our research to be undervalued. But consider your most recent presentation: did it fit the aforementioned mould, perfectly? Were your words forgettable?

I’ve struggled with speaking anxiety for the longest time, feeling like I need to prepare myself way more than my colleagues just to give an equivalent presentation. So, I, too, for several years, decided to happily fit the mould.

This changed after I forced myself to take a Graphos course on presentation skills; I then inched myself even further beyond my comfort zone by taking the next logical step: participating in McGill’s 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

In trying to brainstorm how I could communicate my research in a simple and succinct manner, I saw my research topic in a brand-new light. For each new connection I made, for each new analogy or metaphor I discovered, and for each new story I shared, my understanding of my own research topic strengthened… and, for me, that was one of the most fulfilling aspects of preparing for the 3MT.

Truth be told, I didn’t quite realize how much my speaking skills improved until the competition ended—when people came up to me to congratulate me (nope, I didn’t win, FYI!) and to tell me how my presentation made them feel. That’s when it hit me – I had actually improved! The mould began to crumble before my eyes.

I have had similar interactions with audiences I’ve presented to on multiple occasions since then. My 3MT experience has opened more doors than I ever expected, and most definitely made me a better presenter.

To be fully transparent, the 3MT itself won’t transform your speaking skills: you only get what you put in. What the 3MT does, however, is provide you with the dedicated resources, time and space to improve your public speaking. The 3MT is a single yet significant stepping-stone on the long, winding road that is academic and professional development.

So, if you’re willing to lean into some discomfort to become a more capable presenter, why not give the 3MT a shot?

Find your own way to ensure that your research is not forgotten but remembered.

Jason Dellatolla a Ph.D. candidate in Kinesiology, is researching and developing an educational videogame to facilitate the teaching and practice of cognitive behavioural therapy skills for adults navigating depression. In alignment with his work in making treatments for mental health more engaging and accessible, Jason is also committed to science communication and knowledge translation. To that end, Jason works part-time at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, where he develops and delivers workshops for McGill students.

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