I am speaking at a conference next week, which I am very much looking forward to. I consider myself an experienced presenter, as I have been talking in public for about 35 years or so. Of course, this doesn’t make me a great presenter, but I have at least reached a state of general competence. I enjoy presenting and the sound of my own voice, which fits my self-diagnosed psychological profile as a noisy introvert.
At least 25 of my 35 years experience in speaking were in business. Before I became an academic, I worked as a management consultant for a large international business and that required me to present sales, technical and other stuff to audiences around the world, but mostly in Britain and the United States.
I have now transitioned into making presentations to academic conferences with a recent stab at radio, which seemed to go fairly well. I was thinking this morning that although the skills needed to present in the commercial world and in academia are the same, the audiences you present to are very different. Not better or worse, just different. I thought it might be helpful, to explain the differences as I see them, particularly for doctoral students wishing to make the reverse journey from academia to business. Presenting ideas clearly to an audience is one of a PhD student’s key transferable skills, but it is worth noting the differences.
Please forgive the ridiculous generalisations I have made, I’m not trying to be balanced here…
In business, punctuality is expected and is seen as a sign of efficiency and of respect for the audience. Most speakers rehearse their presentations to ensure that they work, but also to make certain that they do not overrun the time allowed. I have noticed that, in the academy, it is not unusual to start a bit late and then to overrun the timeslot. If you do this in business then you stop getting asked to present, whereas in academia the cleverness of your idea determines whether you present or not.
A key advantage of presenting to an academic audience is that they are almost always there voluntarily (I don’t mean teaching students) so they are keen to hear what you have to say to see if it tells them something new, or might provide the possibility of a collaboration, or to ensure their work is not contradicted. Whatever, they are normally paying attention to the speaker. In commerce, this often not the case; people are obliged to go to presentations that they are not very interested in, or do not concern them and so often aren’t listening. The fact that most people are not listening to what you are saying allowed me to gain confidence as a speaker, but that is a small benefit in a much larger negative. One might think that in business an exaggerated 'salesy' tone is required. Not really. People respond to confidence in both spheres.
Business presenters never read from a script. This would be seen as the mark of someone who doesn’t understand the detail behind their presentation and is nervous about talking in public, which would be two black marks. It is just about acceptable to use cards as reminders of the structure of the presentation. In business, presenters are keen to engage an audience and take the techniques of presentation very seriously, whereas in the academy, a lot of inexperienced presenters don’t get the important feedback that they are failing to connect and need to do something about it. This is one aspect where academia is far more polite than business and it is not a very helpful trait. Of course, academic work requires a high level of precision which is why a script is useful, but it would help speakers to get their point across if they looked at the audience and changed the pace and tone of their speech from time to time.
Business audiences are more tolerant of the use of very detailed slides. It is accepted that some topics are very technical and deserve some detail. It is normal to share these slides before the presentation to give the audience time to think about the topic. The slides they use will be immaculate, but then they have the software and marketing support to make them look great.
Questions and response
Generally in business when the chair asks if there are any questions, there may be none, whereas in academia this would be seen as the height of rudeness and the chair will ask some starters. If a businessperson asks a question they are probably doing it to find out something they don’t know or don’t understand. In academia, as is well known, some questions from the audience will be in the form of statements or act to direct the audience to the questioner’s own work and eminence. This passive-aggressive stuff is found irritating by all, it would seem, but is not called out by the over-polite audience.