By Neil Martin
Be prepared Image credit: Viktor Gurniak (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Presenting your research ideas at your confirmation of candidature is a scary prospect. I can remember a few sleepless nights thinking about my confirmation talk and all the possible things that could go wrong. However a successful presentation really does come down applying the Scouts motto “Be Prepared.”
What is confirmation for?
Your passage through confirmation of candidature involves writing a research proposal that articulates your research plan for your doctoral thesis. There is also an accompanying presentation through which you demonstrate your understanding of your research area and present a viable thesis plan that will take you through to the end of your doctoral studies. Following your presentation you will be asked some questions by your confirmation panel and members of the audience.
Prior to your presentation, the panel members will have read your proposal and formed some opinions and ideas on its quality. It may not feel like it at the time, but they are there to help. Their role is to cast an eye over your research ideas, identify any possible problems, and ultimately judge if you have a future doctoral thesis, for example: Is your research plan logical and well formed? Have you articulated your research questions? Are your ideas theoretically sound?
In the early stages of your thesis, there are lots of confirmation presentations, and it is well worth going to a few to familiarise yourself with the process. Confirmations are advertised regularly through the Redtrain bulletin, but make sure you go to as many that are close to your discipline as possible as they are the most likely to be similar in content to yours.
Preparing your slides
Given the effort that you have put in creating your confirmation proposal it is easy to leave your presentation to the last minute, however I would recommend starting work on this at least a month before. Ensure that your slides tell the story of your research including articulating the research problem, providing a theoretical overview, presenting your research questions, your studies, how you intend to analyse your data, and the possible implications of your research.
Remember not to clutter your slides with too much information (use more slides if necessary) and use diagrams where they may add understanding and context for the audience. There are some great resources out there on slide preparation so do a quick google search.
Practicing your presentation
Some of the best presenters spend a long time preparing their talks. The late Steve Jobs obsessively rehearsed product launches yet made them seem effortless. http://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2015/03/26/how-steve-jobs-made-presentations-look-effortless/#49ae7bcc458a
If like me you don’t see yourself as a natural public speaker and feel quite anxious about your presentation, your best approach is to practice and rehearse as many times as possible. First of all, practice your presentation on your own until you know the contents of each slide. Make sure that you time each presentation to get a sense of how long you are likely to take on the day. You should be aiming for a presentation that lasts around 30 minutes and no longer than 40, so you may need to add or delete a slide or two. Once you feel more confident, practice with your partner or a close friend. They may not understand all the content but you can rehearse making eye contact and begin to get a sense of the flow of your presentation.
You should practice your presentation at least once with your primary supervisor. Your supervisor will often pick up on things that you will not. I can remember clearly in a practice run with my supervisor that he noticed that I was using the laser pointer in an annoying way when explaining a diagram describing my theoretical perspective. Rather than pointing at a specific element of the diagram, I was waggling the pointer all over the place, most irritating for the audience and something I was very conscious of on the actual day and did not repeat.
Familiarisation and imagery
One tip I would offer is to familiarise yourself with the room that you will be presenting in. If it’s a bookable room then try and book it out for an hour and rehearse your presentation. Understand where you will be standing and where the panel will be sitting, check also that the technology is working e.g., if you are plugging in your own laptop.
A useful technique you may wish to try is imagery. Imagery is a psychological skill that many elite athletes use in preparation for competition and may be used in a limited way to help you prepare for your talk. Although it requires a great deal of practice (I certainly would not describe myself as an expert), it may help you mentally prepare for your talk including manage your anxiety.
The images that you should attempt to create in your mind should be one of success. On your first visit to your presentation room, learn as much as you can about it for later recollection. Try to take in as much detail as you can about the room and then imagine yourself in that space successfully giving your presentation to a panel and the audience. Picture exactly where the panel and the audience will sit, consider the noise in the room and lighting and colour. Think about where you will be standing in relation to the audience. Imagine yourself talking authoritatively and in control about your research and answering the panel’s questions clearly and concisely. You should try to be relaxed when using imagery and try to use all your senses to create the simulation.
Finally, if you have given a successful talk in the past, which undoubtedly you have, then draw upon these feelings as you prepare. It’s not easy, but try to ignore those times when you were less successful. To the best of my abilities, I used some imagery techniques for my preparation, and it really helped me with my confidence on the day. It’s certainly a skill that I would love to master.
On your day of confirmation, turn up to your room as early as possible. Set up your presentation and do (yet another) check of your slides, by now their order will be very familiar to you. After that follow a routine that be suits you, you may want to go for a quick walk on your own, or chat to your supervisor or a friend. A few minutes before your talk, stand where you will give the talk as try once again to recall those images of success. Once the panel and the audience have arrived, you will be introduced by the panel chair and will be away on your presentation. From my memory those 30 or 40 minutes go very quickly!
The dreaded questions
Having given your talk, you will be asked a few questions by the panel before opening out to the room. It is impossible to know exactly what you will be asked, but it is well worth anticipating them. Prior to your presentation day, you can discuss with your supervisor possible questions. You should also critically assess your confirmation submission for further questions writing down and answering any possible questions that you think may come up. For example, you may be very quantitative in your research method and a panel member may ask why you are not using more qualitative approaches. On the day don’t feel the need to commit to all the feedback that you are given if you are not sure of a response then acknowledge the point and say that you will discuss further with your supervisor.
I hope these tips are useful to you. Remember to prepare properly and you will increase your chances of having a positive experience in your confirmation presentation. If you are anxious remember that the audience will be more sympathetic than you think and in fact we often draw off our nerves to excel on the day. Don’t panic (more easily said that done!) and good luck – it’s one of the big milestones on your PhD journey.
Below are a few links that may help you further.
How To Mentally Prepare Yourself To Give The Performance Of Your Life
5 classic research presentation mistakes
AIS – Imagery
Help it’s confirmation and I’m experiencing fear!