Research Hacks #24: What we think about when we think about academic impact

No-one working in academia today needs me to point out the importance of the impact agenda, nor the way in which it coaxes us to understand the value of our work in particular ways and take it in particular directions. In this post I want to explore one narrow but important set of questions within the broader impact discussion: how the word “impact” itself predisposes us to think in particular ways, and how to understand those activities named by the word “impact” in ways that free them from those constraints.

After sketching in some of the context of the impact debate (section 1) I want to take a step back and consider the metaphor of “impact” itself, what it assumes about what we do, how it shapes the way we are encouraged to think about what we do, and what its blind spots might be (section 2). I will then offer an alternative and, to my mind, more fruitful and energising vocabulary to describe what the “impact” metaphor seeks to capture (section 3).

 

1. Context and definitions

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is currently introducing a national impact and engagement assessment, the purpose of which is to “examine how universities are translating their research into economic, social and other benefits and encourage greater collaboration between universities, industries and other end-users of research.”[1] The scheme will be piloted in 2017, and rolled out nationally in 2018 as part of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise, similar to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK.

In their Engagement and Impact Assessment Consultation Paper the ARC distinguish between “impact” and “engagement”.

Impact

The ARC, in conjunction with a number of Australia’s publicly funded research organisations, adopted the following definition of impact in its Research Impact Principles and Framework (2012):

Research impact is the demonstrable contribution that research makes to the economy, society, culture,  national security, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond contributions to  academia.[2]

The UK REF defined impact as “an effect on, change, benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the  environment or quality of life beyond academia.”[3]

Engagement

If “impact” is a demonstrable and measurable change resulting from research, “engagement” is the collaboration that can lead to such change. The ARC consultation paper explains:

A recent trial by ATSE which developed metrics from ERA data chose to focus on research engagement only.  ATSE’s reasoning was that research impact focussed on the late stages of the research process and that  there are significant methodological difficulties in assessing impact. Therefore, ATSE defined engagement as:

the interaction between researchers and research organisations and their larger communities/industries for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, understanding and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

How will impact be measured?[4]

The ARC propose the following “impact measurement principles”:

  • Acknowledge that excellent research underpins impact.
  • Promote understanding through use of common language and terms associated with research impact.
  • Respect the diversity in research disciplines/sectors in demonstrating research impact.
  • Cooperate in developing a set of common, cost effective and efficient parameters for data collection and reporting.
  • Adopt a consultative approach with stakeholders in regards to implementing impact reporting in support of future research investments.
  • Encourage, recognise and reward positive behaviour in planning, monitoring and evaluating research impact.

 

2. How the metaphor of “impact” nudges us to think in particular ways

It is not my purpose here to interrogate the rationale behind assessing research impact. This has been widely discussed, and the ARC consultation paper itself raises important questions about bias towards some disciplines over others, about measurability and about short-termism.[5] I want rather to pick away a little at the metaphor of impact itself, not simply to criticise it but to begin to re-frame that which it names in ways that can resonate more engagingly with colleagues in the arts and humanities.

We all know that words matter. The schoolyard chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” doth protest too much. Words don’t just hurt us, they make us. The limits of our language mean the limits of our world,[6] we all live by metaphors,[7] and she or he who sets the vocabulary of a debate is half way to winning it.

So what does the metaphor of “impact” foreground, what does it leave in the shadows, and what, as a metaphor, does it say about the activities it names?

  • First of all, it is impersonal. The primary use of the term is in relation to bodies which “come forcibly into contact with” or “press forcibly into” one another (OED). We think of impact craters, impact tests and impact zones.
  • Secondly, it is violent.
  • Thirdly, it implies a certain passivity in the body that receives the impact. We think of the impact of a projectile on an inert surface or on the ground, but the sort of relationships in which academics can make a difference are much more consensual and collaborative, as the ARC acknowledges in its definition of engagement.
  • Fourthly, it is unilateral. The world–thank goodness!–is not out there patiently waiting for academics violently to alter it, but the metaphor does not grasp the dynamic subtleties of the relationships involved in bringing about change. “Impact” keeps the focus on the researcher and their research, but the irony is that for many academics the great challenge when it comes to the impact agenda is moving away from a focus on “my research” and onto the needs of others.

None of these are reasons to jettison the metaphor altogether, even if such a thing were possible. But they are reasons to loosen its hold on our thinking.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

 

3. So how should we think about “impact”?

Language and making visible

My discomfort with the metaphor comes also from an observation and a conviction about the way we often use language in academia. We can focus on structures and processes to the point where they obscure the human beings whose complex lives and relationships those same structures and processes seek to describe and shape, and we can talk about human beings themselves in ways that filter our human complexity to leave visible only a narrow set of concerns captured in one local discourse or set of concepts. In my last book I explored at some length the dangers of qualifying the epithet homo with any term related to a specific discourse or area of human endeavour (homo economicus, homo faber, homo loquens…), and in the same spirit I try to be mindful of the following two principles when talking in an academic context:

  • wherever possible, speak of people as such, without qualification (for example as “stakeholders” or “employees”).
  • wherever possible, make people visible in the language we use. Don’t talk about “spaces” and “end users” if “groups of people” and “people who use our services” can do the job.

I want wherever I can to use language that does not obscure the complex human relationships at the heart of processes and policies but rather makes people visible, in all our unwieldy complexity. This, in fact is the “real world” of which we are so fond of speaking in the academy: the world of real people with sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting sets of responsibilities, convictions and relationships, only some of which are caught in filtered discourse. The real world is not the world of people reduced to a particular function or discourse, but people as such, inhabiting–and amenable to description in terms of–a Harlequin’s coat of overlapping discourses and never reducible to any one.

How, then, can we express the intention behind the metaphor of “impact” in a way that reflects this impulse to make people visible? Here is a proposal that may well sound naïve, but that I am convinced is far from simplistic: When we think about “impact” we should think about “helping people”. Here’s why I think the language of helping people is an improvement and a key to unlock new ways of thinking about the “impact agenda”:

  • It’s a more immediate, intuitive idea. We all have a sense of what it means to help someone, and we all know that helping people, when done well, is a good thing.
  • It is ordinary, everyday language, and therefore does not treat “impact” as something unusual or special. It frames academic “impact” as one instance of something we do a lot of in life, and something of which we all recognise the value already.
  • As a result, it foregrounds the worthwhile nature of “impact” activities regardless of whether there is a research assessment exercise to measure them or not. It locates the value of the activity in the activity itself in the first instance, not in its instrumental value for the assessment exercise.
  • It paints “impact” as the collaborative, relational venture which it is. There is nothing more annoying than being “helped” by someone who thinks they know exactly what you want and how you want it done. To be helped, someone must be known, at least in some relevant ways, and they have to consent to and welcome the help being offered. No such recognition is necessary for the metaphor of impact.
  • It is scalable. We have a sense of what it might look like to help people in small ways, and it is similarly not hard for us to imagine how large groups or institutions and the people in them could be helped.
  • It is more concrete than the abstract idea of “impact”. It brings us straight to real people’s lives, concerns and needs.
  • Finally, it makes people and their relationships visible.

So “helping people” isn’t just a simpler, more homely or more bleeding-heart alternative to “impact”; it reflects a radically different ideology and set of concerns. It predisposes us to think about situations in terms of reciprocal and mutual relationships and about the good of the other(s), rather than impersonal, unilateral, self-focused or instrumentalised interventions. Nor is it a simplistic idea. It can be accomplished in many complex ways and have many facets.

Privileging this language won’t change anything in itself, of course, but language is important and when we begin to see situations and opportunities differently then we become open to acting in new ways in response to them. When I ask myself the question of how my research can help people, and whom it can help, I find I have more ideas, and more excitement, then when I think in terms of what might be its “impact”.

There may well be more stages to move through in this re-framing of the idea of impact, and you are very welcome to suggest any that come to mind in the comments section below. But I do think that the shift to the paradigm of “helping people”, at least in the minds of colleagues in the arts and humanities as we think about our own research, can resonate with many of us in more productive and energising ways than discussions governed by the metaphor of “impact”.

 

[1] http://www.arc.gov.au/engagement-and-impact-assessment

[2] http://www.arc.gov.au/research-impact-principles-and-framework#Definition

[3] http://www.hefce.ac.uk/rsrch/REFimpact/

[4] http://www.arc.gov.au/research-impact-principles-and-framework#impact

[5] It is important to recognise that the definitions of research engagement and impact adopted may advantage  some disciplines over others. Some definitions may also lead to more emphasis being placed on short-term,  applied, or business focussed research over the longer-term public benefits derived from more fundamental  research. The intangible nature of some social benefits of research makes quantification difficult and so  qualitative approaches based on narrative explanations of the benefits of research projects have been  advocated to overcome this. Although more easily measured, overemphasis on industry engagement and  income measures on research can have long term negative implications. Narrow measures, if used in  isolation, can drive researchers to maximise measures associated with short-term input measures at the  expense of potential long-term economic and social benefits.

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.6. “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”

[7] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003).

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Research Hacks #23: Three Microsoft Word macros for quick mark-up of articles, essays and thesis chapters

For academics who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

I have the pleasure of reading a lot of student essays and supervising a number of research students, and over the years I have found that marking up an essay or thesis chapter before I read it helps me to focus and read effectively. The technique also speeds up the reading of articles in Microsoft Word format (I’ll deal with PDF in a future post). Below are three Microsoft Word macros I have written or adapted, and that I regularly use all three for performing a quick mark-up of essays and chapters before I read them.

To use the macros below:

  • Within Microsoft Word press ALT + F8 to get a list of the current macros in your normal.dotm template.
  • Click “edit” for any of the macros you see (it doesn’t matter which one). This will bring up the Visual Basic editor.
  • Scroll down to the bottom of the window and paste in the code I provide below.
  • Close the Visual Basic window. Simple! You might (but probably won’t) need to restart Word for the macros to take effect.
  • If you want to add keyboard shortcuts for the macros you will need to do so manually, as I can’t find a way to incorporate keyboard shortcuts into the macros themselves. Here’s how to assign the shortcuts, courtesy of Lorien on this page:
    • Click the Microsoft Office Button , and then click Word Options.
    • Click Customize.
    • Next to Keyboard shortcuts, click Customize.
    • In the Categories list, click Macros.
    • In the Macros list, click the macro that you want to change.
    • In the Press new shortcut key box, type the key combination that you want to choose.
    • Check the Current keys box to make sure that you aren’t assigning a key combination that you already use to perform a different task.
    • In the Save changes in list, click the option that matches where you want to run your macro. Important   To make your macro available in all documents, be sure to click Normal.dotm.
    • Click Close.
  • When you next quit Word you will see a prompt saying something like “Changes have been made that affect the global template, Normal.dot. Do you want to save those changes?”. Click “yes” if you want your new macros to be available next time you open Word.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

1. Change the text colour of all quotations to orange:

I like using this because it shows me at a glance not only how many direct in-line quotations are being used, but how they are bunched or distributed throughout the document.

NB: this also converts all straight single and double quotation marks to curly quotation marks.


Sub AllQuotationsOrange()
'
' AllQuotationsOrange Macro

'First do a replace to make sure quotes are all smartquotes
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
With Selection.Find
.Text = "'"
.Replacement.Text = "'"
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = False
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchKashida = False
.MatchDiacritics = False
.MatchAlefHamza = False
.MatchControl = False
.MatchByte = False
.CorrectHangulEndings = False
.HanjaPhoneticHangul = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchFuzzy = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
With Selection.Find
.Text = """"
.Replacement.Text = """"
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = False
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchKashida = False
.MatchDiacritics = False
.MatchAlefHamza = False
.MatchControl = False
.MatchByte = False
.CorrectHangulEndings = False
.HanjaPhoneticHangul = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchFuzzy = False
End With

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = -654245889
With Selection.Find
.Text = ChrW(8220) & "*" & ChrW(8221)
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = True
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = -654245889
With Selection.Find
.Text = "‘*’"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindAsk
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = True
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = -654245889
With Selection.Find
.Text = "«*»"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindAsk
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = True
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

End Sub

2. Highlight all punctuation (full stops highlighted in yellow; text colour of other punctuation changed to light purple):

This is useful for checking signposting as well as monitoring sentence length and following arguments across paragraphs.


Sub HighlightAllPunctuation()
'
' Highlight All Punctuation Macro
'***********************************************************

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow


'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = "."
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdPink

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow


'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = "?"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow


'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = "!"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ","
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ";"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ":"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll


'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = "("
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

'light purple
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Font.Color = wdColorRed
With Selection.Find
.Text = ")"
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

End Sub

Highlight key words:

Allows the user to enter words in an input box, and highlights all occurrences of those words in the open document. It is quicker than using the search and replace box to highlight key words, and great for drawing your attention to key concepts as you read through an essay/chapter.


Sub BulkHighlight()
'
' BulkHighlight Macro
Do
'set the colour
Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow

'ask for the word to highlight
sPrompt = "Please enter a word to be highlighted (leave blank and press 'OK' to exit)"
sWordToSearch = InputBox(sPrompt)
If sWordToSearch = "" Then Exit Sub
'set the highlight option in the search box
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True

'do the search and replace
With Selection.Find
.Text = sWordToSearch
.Replacement.Text = ""
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
Loop

End Sub

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What academic Word macros save your time? Feel free to post them in the “Comments” section below.

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Research hacks #22: Come to terms with a new theory or thinker by using an ‘assumptions pyramid’

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

After a few posts on planning and presenting research findings, it’s time to return to the core of the research process: understanding, ordering and refining ideas. Let’s think of a particular research scenario: you have to come to terms with a new theory in your discipline. This is a phase of research that can sometimes feel overwhelming. The first book you read seems incredibly persuasive and just plain common sense, and you find yourself thinking “of course this is the way it is”. Then you begin to read critiques of the position and you find these, also, very persuasive: “what a dumb and dangerous theory it is!” With each new tome you digest, your attitude to the theory yo-yos once again, and you are left drowning in a sea of texts with no idea in which direction you ought to be swimming.

One way to avoid being blown to and fro as you come to terms with a new theory or philosophy in your area is to spend a few minutes drawing up an “assumptions pyramid” for it.

The assumptions pyramid is a tool that will help you to appreciate the theory more roundly, in its own terms, and come to your own opinion about it rather than hanging on to the coat tails of the eulogy or demolition job you have read. The principle is a simple one:

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • In the top-most triangle of the pyramid, write an explicit position that the theory holds (or an abbreviation if the position is too complex to write out in full). Try to find something as central to the theory as you can. It must be clear, explicit and unambiguous.
  • Then ask yourself: what is it necessary to assume or believe in order to hold that position? Use the following categories to help you. What must I think about
    • the way the world is (ontology)
    • what human beings are and should be (anthropology)
    • what it means to live a good life (ethics)
    • how society should be organized and governed (politics)
  • Write each necessary assumption in the second row down of the pyramid. If you find more than three, continue off to the right of the pyramid.
  • Now take each of these necessary assumptions and repeat the exercise for them: ask yourself what it is necessary to assume or believe in order to hold those assumptions.
  • Keep repeating this exercise, moving down the levels of the pyramid, until you reach the theory’s axioms: positions that cannot be proven either way but simply require commitment on the basis of an intuition.
  • Then consider the whole pyramid and ask yourself:
    • Are the assumptions reasonable?
    • What might motivate the assumptions?
    • Does the position reasonably follow from the assumptions?
    • Might those same assumptions plausibly lead to different positions?
    • Might the position be equally well supported by different or even opposing assumptions?

 

How do you go about analysing a new theory or philosophical position in your research?
CC Image courtesy of Nancepants on Flickr.

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Research hacks #21: One to-do list to rule them all

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In a previous post I commended the virtues of planning your research, but one problem with such a laudable aim is that it only holds sway over one part of your life. Bluntly, you can plan all the work you like, but the rest of life has a habit of turning up unannounced and shredding your carefully devised schemes. Academics and research students are more than research-producing machines, and if we only plan our work then we run the danger of making a reality of the subtle but insidious idea that only our work is important and the rest of our lives don’t matter that much. In a future post I want to explore more thoroughly how to be and remain a rounded human being in academia, but today I just want to widen the question of planning to embrace the whole of life.

Have you read David Allen’s Getting Things Done? I did, and I found his system of capturing all your impending tasks too complicated for my needs. One principle I did take away from Allen, however, is that all my tasks need to be listed in one single place. I can’t have to-do lists here and reminders there; I can’t have some notes on the computer and others stuck on the fridge. I need one place where I note everything I have to do, from buying nappies to writing articles.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

About a year ago I started using Todoist. It’s a free web- and app-based to-do list manager that I’ve found immensely helpful for gathering all my tasks in one place. Let me tell you why I like it, and then invite you to watch the intro video below:

  • It syncs across my phone and laptop. If I add a task on one device it appears on all my devices. I use the Android app, but it is also available for iOS.
  • Because Todoist is on my phone I can update my to-do list on the go and don’t need to remember to add tasks later. As soon as I think of something to add, I can do so there and then.
  • I can create colour-coded categories and sub-categories for my tasks. I have categories including Family, Shopping, Research, Grant Applications, and Physical Health.
  • It’s easy to set a deadline for a task and assign it to a project.
  • It’s easy to see an overview of all my tasks and upcoming deadlines.
  • It integrates with Gmail: I can turn individual emails into tasks with deadlines, and then access the emails with a single click from within Todoist (what a great feature!)
  • It integrates with Outlook.

Here is Todoist’s own introductory video:

If you are interested, there are lots more explanatory videos here. If you are persuaded and want to give it a try, sign up for a free account here.

How do you organise and keep track of everything you have to do?

CC Image courtesy of Ali Nassiri on Flickr.

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Research hacks #20: Why it pays to plan your ideal week, and an Excel workbook to help you

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In my last post I pointed out how time logging can help you build an accurate picture of how much time you are really spending on different tasks. That is only half the battle of taming your timetable however. The other half is working out how you want and ought to be spending your time, and that is where an ideal week planner comes in.

Before you laugh out loud at the very idea of an “ideal week”, remember Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wise words: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Sticking rigidly to pre-conceived weekly plans no matter what is the royal road to anti-social selfishness and perpetual frustration, to be sure. But there is also an equal and opposite danger: If you don’t have an idea of how you want to be spending your time, someone else (or more likely multiple other people, each with their own agenda) will spend it for you.

Another reason to have an ideal week plan is that, as I argued in a previous post, if things don’t get planned they tend not to get done.

To help my own planning I’ve developed an “ideal week” Excel workbook. I use it to sketch out how I want to be spending my time, bearing in mind that no real-life week will resemble the plan in anything like a photo-realist way.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Here’s how to use the workbook:

When you open it you are presented with an empty grid showing every hour of the week, and an empty table with eight categories and corresponding colours (sleep, work, family, exercise, travel, grooming, eating, and workflow). The week is broken down into half hour chunks.

You then take each of the categories, renaming them if you wish, and block out all the hours in your ideal week in the corresponding colours. You should end up with a grid looking something like this dummy version:

As you add colour to the grid the pie chart to the right populates itself with the percentage of total time spent on each activity, and the number of hours sleep appears at the foot of each day’s column.

You also get the totals for each of your categories in the table.

In my experience, planning an ideal week in this way has a number of benefits:

  • It forces you to be holistic. Rather than just saying something like “I want to work on my PhD thesis 5 hours a day”, it sets your choices in the context of your whole week and all your various commitments, and it shows you the knock-one effects of expanding one category for the other areas of your life. This is why it is important to include sleeping hours in the calculation.
  • It forces you to be realistic, and to assess how much time the real you can spend doing this or that, as opposed to the imaginary you without other commitments.
  • It gives you something to aim for, and a way of evaluating whether a given commitment or aspect of your life is getting out of hand.

You can download my ideal weekly planner for free here. You will need to add it to your “cart” and then “checkout”, but despite that nomenclature it’s completely free. The whole cart thing is a quirk of the plugin I’m using to make the file downloadable from my site. It will ask you for your address but you don’t need to enter it. All it needs is a name and an email address so that it can send you the download link.

 

Do you know how you want to spend your time? Who decides how you spend your time?

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Research hacks #19: Three benefits of time logging for academics, and one easy-to-use time logging app

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Time logging is for executives, not academics, right? It’s for lawyers with billable hours, not for researchers with theses and books that take years to complete. Wrong. I have found that tracking the time I spend on different tasks has brought me three distinct benefits, and in this post I want to share some reflections on how time logging can help academics, along with a recommendation for a free and easy-to-use app that does the hard work for you.

First benefit: a one-off audit of where your time REALLY goes

If you’re anything like me then you know that sinking feeling that can descend on you at the end of the working day: “Where on earth did all my time go today? What have I actually achieved in all the running around and typing I’ve done?”

A good first step to getting more control over the sands of time running through your fingers is to know just where your precious hours are going. So once a year or so I log everything I do for a couple of weeks. Sleep. Travel. Eating. Research. Emails. Exercise. Family time. Everything. The benefit of this exercise is that I get to see precisely how each of the 168 hours in the week are being spent. I can see where my intuitive sense of how much time I’m putting into certain tasks is correct, and where my instinct is mistaken. I can also compare it to my “ideal week” (about which I’ll write in a future post), and see where the largest discrepancies are.

“Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.” Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

It’s a good audit exercise, and liable to yield unexpected results. Seeing the hours you spend on all your weekly activities as cumulative totals gives you a sharpened sense of time (and of time wasting!). Try it and see.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Second benefit: focusing your mind on research or thesis time

Finding out how you really spend your time is not the only benefit of time logging. You can log specific tasks more regularly to get an accurate sense of how much time you are really spending on them, as opposed to how much time you’d like to be spending. For academics, one obvious task to log is research work. We all know that research is one of the first things to get squeezed when the jackboot of admin and bureaucracy descends on our tender neck, and having an accurate log of how much research we are actually doing is the first step towards bringing our actual time expenditure in line with our theoretical time allocation.

A pleasant side-benefit I have experienced from logging research time is that I am less likely needlessly to check email or distract myself in other ways if I know that the research clock is ticking.

Third benefit: proving to yourself, and to your employer, how much time things really take

We’ve all been there. We are told that the new admin job we’ve just been given will only take an hour a week. Three weeks in, we find that it is taking half a day. In order to address this mission creep it can be useful to log all the time we spend on certain tasks over a period of time (say a semester). That way we can report back to the boss with more than a vague “this took longer than you said”, and give her dates, times and total hours. I haven’t used time logging for this purpose myself yet, but a colleague employed it to achieve a fair acknowledgement of, and recompense for, the time she was giving to a particularly onerous admin responsibility.

Toggl: a great free time-logging app

So those are the main benefits I have gained, or seen others gain, from time logging. But how should you do it? There’s the good old pen and paper way, but that leaves you having to add up hours manually. You could use an Excel spreadsheet, but then for the logging to be accurate you need to have access to that spreadsheet wherever you go, and you need to work out all the formulas and calculations for yourself.

The easiest solution I have found, and the one I currently use, is Toggl. It’s a free web-based time logger also available as an app for iPhone and Android, so you can quickly log your time wherever you are, regardless of whether you are in front of a computer screen or not.

Rather than explaining the app myself, here are a couple of Toggl’s introductory videos:

 

 

Do you log your hours spent on different tasks constantly, sporadically, or never? What benefits have you found in doing so?

CC Image courtesy of cea+ on Flickr.

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Research hacks #18: 20 further tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

This is the second of two posts on how to field questions after your paper at an academic conference. The first one, which covers preparing for question time and knowing your main point, can be found here.

Get to know the main types of question

If you want to know how to answer any given question, it is useful to have a sense of the different types of question that are customarily asked at conferences. Here are the main types of question I have heard asked over the years:

  • “Can you explain…” Someone is genuinely interested but simply didn’t understand something you said. You answer by going back to the point in your paper to which they are referring and fleshing out your point at more length. Simple. If you have an example or illustration, use it. When you’ve finished explaining, ask if the explanation made more sense second time round. If the questioner is asking about something very technical that most people in the room will not understand, keep your response brief and offer to chat further with them later in the day.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • “Have you thought about X?” This can be three sorts of question masquerading under the same words.
    • The first sort is benign, and its tone is “hey, I think there’s a book or article you might be interested in”. You don’t need to defend yourself or elaborate on what they have said, just  thank the questioner and note down their suggestion.
    • The second sort of question masquerading under the formula “Have you thought about X?” has more the tone of “I’m struggling to understand your paper, but something you said reminded me of X, whose work I do know. Could you talk about them please?” If you have something to say about X then great, go for it. If not, then perhaps ask the questioner to let you in on their thinking a little more: “what was it about my paper that put you in mind of X?” or “what, specifically, are you thinking of in X’s work that resonates with my paper?” The more concrete and specific the questioner gets, the easier it will be for you latch on to something to talk about.
    • The final sort of “Have you thought about X?” question is the most aggressive of the three. Reading between the lines, the questioner is saying “I’m surprised you haven’t read X, because he/she/it completely undermines everything you have said!” The first thing to realise here is that X almost certainly does not undermine everything you have said, unless you begin with X’s assumptions and use X’s concepts. So don’t panic. Again, invite the questioner to be as concrete and specific as possible and try to find the point at which the axioms or commitments of your own position differ from those of X. You might end up with a response something like “I can see that, if you start where X starts, then my position would indeed seem to be as you describe. But that’s not where it starts. Let me explain…”
  • The next sort of question boils down to saying “Here is my pet gripe about your thinker…” Someone goes off on a rant about your main author in a way that seems like a laundry list of complaints that has been compiled over many years and that has been lying dormant, ready to be unleashed at just such a time as this. You don’t need to be drawn into defending your author at all points. If some of the gripes impinge directly on the main point of your paper, deal with them. If they don’t, then resist being dragged away from your main argument into myriad winding dark alleys in which the question time threatens to become hopelessly lost.
  • Then there is the “Look at my superior knowledge” question. This sort of intervention is more about the questioner than the paper. Someone tries to show you that they know more about your topic than you do. Don’t be intimidated. Once more, know what you are defending. If you have researched and written your paper well, you will know what your main point and supporting arguments are. If the questioner’s intervention does not touch on those, then gently point it out. If it does, deal with the question on your home territory, i.e. talk about your paper’s main point and supporting arguments. Get the questioner to explain how what they are saying relates to the specific points you made, not to your thinker/author in general.
  • Next type of question: “I have a nit to pick”. The questioner asks you about some detail of what you said, perhaps something you said in passing, and their question relates only remotely to your main point. Answer the question briefly in its own terms, and then try to bring the discussion back to your main argument by reiterating where the nit-picker’s point sits in the overall structure of your paper.
  • No-one in the audience likes the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” type of question. This is the sort of intervention that wants to be a mini-paper in its own right, an extended monologue dressed up as a question. The questioner takes advantage of having the floor to tell you all their great ideas, rather than asking you about the paper. A polite “So what are you asking about my paper?” may be required at the end of such a diatribe.
General principles
  • Assume the best in a question and a questioner unless you have clear evidence proving otherwise.
  • Questions are an opportunity for you to reinforce and expand what you have said, and to explore new implications. They are not a threat. Welcome them.
  • Questions are a reward for clarity. If no-one could understand your paper you are unlikely to get many questions. A probing question shows that you explained your point clearly enough for someone to understand it.
  • All the same body language tips apply for Q&A as for your paper. Smile, make eye contact, treat the questioner with respect.
  • Answer the content, not the tone. Some people seem very aggressive when asking questions because they are in fact being aggressive, and others just come over that way, even though they may not be aware of it themselves. If you get a question that seems aggressive, sarcastic or rude, my advice would be not to rise to the bait of the tone at all. Maintain your own composure and authority and answer the content of what is asked (if the question has any discernible content), leaving the tone aside. Don’t let the tone of the question dictate the tone of the answer. If you need to put someone in their place (and I think this is very rare), do it politely and without losing your poise.
  • Nobody likes to look ignorant or naive. If you have been asked an ignorant or naive question, deal with the questioner gently and let them down lightly, in the same way you would want to be treated if you realised you had asked a silly question.
  • If all else fails and your mind goes completely blank, you can always go back to your main point. Try to bring questions back to your main point as you are able, and if necessary you can ask the questioner to help you see how their question relates to your main point.
  • If a questioner insists on a whole string of follow-ups and you feel yourself being dragged further and further from what you are trying to say, don’t feel you need to indulge them until, like a dog with a gnawed bone, they finally put you down in exhaustion. Invite them to continue the conversation with you over coffee or lunch, or stress that other members of the audience should get the chance to ask a quesiton.
  • Whatever you do, don’t ever pretend to know something you don’t, and don’t make anything up. Being found out to be making things up is far worse than being ignorant. I’ve seen this happen at conferences, and it is not pretty. If you don’t know the direct answer to the question then say so, and try to say something at least tangentially relevant to the question that you do know.
  • You don’t have to answer the question directly. It may contain a flawed assumption or rest on a misunderstanding, or it may be the “have you stopped beating your wife?” type of question that you can’t answer directly without inculpating yourself or your thinker. If that’s the case, make that your answer: correct the assumption or the misunderstanding, or show how the question is loaded.
  • Don’t let people attack your images or analogies. They are not intended to be perfect models in every respect. They are meant to provide a helpful analogy in (usually) one important respect. Don’t let people criticise aspects of your images and analogies that are irrelevant to the point you are making, as if that were the same thing as critiquing your main argument itself.

This is a much expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Macmillan Cancer Support on Flickr.

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Research hacks #17: 15 tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In this fourth post on presenting a conference paper (following on from planning and writing a conference paperdelivering a paper and timekeeping and technology), I want to think through the often panic-inducing issue of how to approach the question and answer time at the end of your paper. This is the first of two posts on fielding questions.

Fielding questions

Prepare for question time like you prepare for your presentation

  • The first thing to say is that preparing for Q&A should be considered a task of equal importance to preparing for your presentation. Q&A is an important time: people often remember the exchanges after a paper more than the paper itself. If you prepare well for your paper but aren’t sufficiently ready for the question time then your overall presentation may fall flat and leave an underwhelming impression. You wouldn’t dream of giving a paper without thinking about it beforehand and having at least some notes in front of you. Don’t take the question time any less seriously.
  • Prepare for questions by reading your paper through with a critical eye. If it helps, imagine that you are a particular critical reader you have encountered in the past. Ask yourself “what would he or she ask about this paper?”
  • You know the weakest moments in your argument. Think what you might be asked about those.
  • If you can, find people willing to read your paper and ask them to note down two or three questions that they would want to ask you.
  • Once you have a reasonably comprehensive list of questions, put them in a document and take your time working out possible responses to each of them. Write the responses under the questions (preferably in key-word form) and take that document with you to your paper. Bring it out at the end of your presentation, and use it to jog your memory during the question time.

During question time itself

  • Have a pen and paper in front of you during the Q&A. Note down key words from questions as they are asked so that you don’t forget what you are being invited to respond to, especially if the question has multiple parts. Also note down key words of your response as they occur to you, with the purpose of jogging your memory when you come to reply. That way, you don’t have to hold your whole answer in your head at once but can concentrate on listening carefully to the question. When the questioner stops you can glance down at your notes and be confident that you have something to say, rather than looking like a rabbit in the headlights.
  • Don’t make your answers into new mini-papers. People want to hear something interesting in response to their question; they don’t want an extended monologue. 30 seconds to a minute at the most should be sufficient for most answers.
  • If you don’t understand part of the question, feel free to ask the questioner for clarification rather than launching in and hoping for the best. You can say “Just let me make sure I’ve understood. Your question is about ____, right?”
  • At the beginning of your answer it can be useful to restate or rephrase the question (especially if it was a long one). You can say, for example, “You are asking, I think, about…” This is also a moment when you can choose which part of a six-point question you want to focus on. Sometimes people’s questions wander off in multiple directions and you can’t do justice to them all, so don’t try. Pick something central to the questioner’s point that is also an issue you want to talk about and say something like “I’d like to pick up on your point that…”
  • Assume that questions are in good faith and not hostile until you have incontrovertible evidence otherwise. If it is possible to interpret a question either as hostile or as friendly, assume the friendly interpretation unless or until you are proved wrong. More on handdling different types of question in the next post.
Know your main point, and stick to it
  • One of the greatest helps in answering questions is to be very clear in your own head what your main point is, and therefore what it is you are (negatively) defending and (positively) commending. I suggested in a previous post that your conference paper should have one main point, and one of the many reasons why this is a good idea is that it helps you immensely in knowing how to deal with questions. Imagine that your paper has one main point, supported by multiple strands of supporting evidence and argument. Write them down on a piece of paper and have it in front of you during the question time. It will help you to discern quickly to which part of your paper a particular question is making reference, or indeed if the question is irrelevant to your paper.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Use your main and supporting points to work out what is at stake in the question
  • If someone poses you a critical question, ask yourself  1) “is this attacking a) my main thesis, b) one of the supporting strands of evidence, or c) nothing I have said at all?” and 2) “if it is attacking one of the supporting strands, does the overall argument still hold whether or not this strand is present?” This will help you see what is at stake in the question, whether it is a) torpedoing your hull, b) knocking out one your rudders, or c) missing you altogether by a good ten feet.
  • If you can’t see how the criticism is engaging with either your main point or supporting arguments, find a way of pointing this out politely to the questioner.
  • If the question is only attacking one of the supporting strands, and if that strand is not necessary to your argument, then after defending the strand in your answer you should add that, even if you grant the questioner their point, the main thesis of your paper still holds.
  • The art of answering questions was once helpfully explained to me with the image of a person holding a cricket bat, rooted to the spot, with people throwing tennis balls at them from all angles. They bat away the balls in front of them, on both sides, and behind, but they do not move. They have one fixed position that they are defending, and they stick to it. Balls that are not on course to hit them just sail past. In other words, know what you are trying to defend, and don’t move away from it. Don’t be drawn into flailing wildly with your bat at arm’s length. Keep it tight, know what you are trying to say, and then say it, defend and commend it.

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of opensource.com on Flickr.

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Research hacks #16: 20 tips on timekeeping and technology for your conference presentation

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

This is the third post in a mini-series on presenting at conferences. Previous posts covered planning and writing a conference paper and delivering a paper. In this post I offer some tips and advice in relation to two aspects of giving a conference paper that can often sneak up and ambush unwitting presenters: timekeeping and technology.

Timekeeping

  • Know how long you’ve got before you start writing the paper. Your time limit dictates how much you can say, not the other way round.
  • Rough rule of thumb (depending on how fast you speak and how much you extemporise): 20 minutes: 2400 words. 25 minutes: 2900 words.
  • You will probably take more time (if you extemporise) or less time (if you speak fast through nervousness) to deliver the talk on the day than you do in private beforehand. Be ready to adapt to that difference in the ways outlined below.
  • When people are in a situation of high stimulation like giving a paper they tend to speak more quickly. If you know this is an issue for you, practice slowing yourself down a bit. Perhaps even write in coloured pen at the top of every page of your paper “SLOW DOWN?”
  • Keep your own time. Don’t rely on the panel chair or on a clock on the wall. Put your watch on the desk or make sure that your phone is visible in front of you, so you how you are travelling time-wise and so that you are not surprised by the “one minute to go” sign being waved in your face when you are only half way through.
  • If you are particularly concerned about timekeeping, write time notes in the margin of your talk (for example: put a “10” in the margin at the point in the talk you had reached by the 10 minute mark in rehearsal). As you go through the talk “for real” you will know whether you are ahead of schedule, behind, or about right.
  • Don’t go over time. Just don’t do it. It’s stealing time from the other presenters on your panel and from the audience, it’s rude, and it creates an impression of self-important incompetence. There’s no excuse. You might think your paper is the most important item of the day or that your argument simply makes no sense unless you go through every point you were intending to make, but if you can’t say what you want to say in the time given to you to say it, then that’s your problem and no-one else’s. Wear it, and plan better next time.
  • Confirm with the panel chair before the beginning of the session how long she/he wants each speaker to go for, and how long is being left for questions (some people will want 20 minutes + 10 for questions, others will allow 25 + 5, for example). If they tell you something different from the original conference CFP, let them know.
  • It will almost certainly be better to cut some of your paper in order to keep to time rather than go over time. If you know what your main point is, you can always sum things up relatively quickly if you run out of time by just coming back to your central argument. If one or more presenters in your panel have gone over time already, leaving you with a truncated allotment, check with the panel chair before you begin whether you still have the full time. If they are a good chair they should have stopped the other presenters before they ate too much into your precious minutes.
  • In concrete terms, if you are one of three speakers in a 90 minute panel it can be a good idea to go in with a 25 minute version of your paper and a 20 minute version (with some unnecessary paragraphs in grey or in boxes that you can skip if you need to keep it to 20 minutes).
  • Be prepared for one of the speakers on your panel not to turn up, with the result that you more time than you had envisaged.
  • Equally, be prepared for someone joining your panel at the last minute, with a consequent diminution in the time you have available (it has happened!).

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

If you are planning to use any sort of technology…

  • Test all your tech and set it up before the session begins. Don’t try to do so at the start of your paper. If your presentation contains a video, play the video before the session starts to check 1) that it works and 2) that the sound is loud enough.
  • If you have a large presentation, consider copying it to the desktop of the computer you are running it from. Presentations usually run more quickly from the hard drive than from a USB stick.
  • Embed fonts in your PowerPoint presentations to prevent your slides from appearing like one of Apollinaire’s calligrams.
  • Embed any video files directly in your PowerPoint, rather than linking to YouTube or a similar site. Don’t rely on the conference room having a fast enough (or working!) internet connection, whatever reassurances the organisers have given you.
  • If you are worried about the layout of your PowerPoint slides being messed about by the computer in the room where you are presenting, you can bullet-proof them by going to “Save As”, saving the slides as a series of images (jpegs are usually fine), opening a new presentation and importing the images as a photo album. That way, all your formatting and fonts will appear exactly as it looks on your home computer. You will lose any in-slide animation (which you can’t re-introduce) and any animation between slides (which you can). You can re-embed any videos over the jpegs.
  • Consider using a clicker to transition between slides. You don’t know where the keyboard and mouse will be in the room relative to your position as speaker, you don’t know how reliable the keyboard and/or mouse they will be (especially if wireless) and you don’t want to have to march across the floor every time you need to change slides. I use a Logitech R800 and it has proven reliable over the years.
  • Make sure that you have a ‘plan B’ in case the tech in the room simply won’t work. Don’t spend half your paper time trying to get it to work.
  • Can you use a paper handout instead/as well? It won’t break down or fail to load, and people can take it away with them.

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Jeremy Osterhouse on Flickr.

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Research hacks #15: 15 Tips on delivering a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In the previous research hack I discussed how to plan and write a conference paper. Now we move on to delivering the paper to your conference audience.

Delivering the paper

  • Be enthusiastic, but not manic. If you don’t look interested in what your saying, why should your audience be? But if you come over like the Duracell bunny you risk diverting attention away from what you are saying and onto yourself. If you look as if you are trying too hard, you lose some of your authority. Note the demeanour of the best (clearest, most persuasive, most engaging to listen to) presenters at your conference, and try to pick up tips from how they conduct themselves during a presentation.
  • The authority of the way you hold your body and use your voice is all part of the impression you give the audience, and consciously or unconsciously it contributes to what they think of you and your paper. How your paper is received is–one would hope–mainly about what you say, but not exclusively about what you say. So put a little thought into how you will say it.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Speak in a way that you would want to listen to, and hold yourself in a way that you would think appropriate for a conference speaker if you were looking on.
  • Don’t be too arrogant, and don’t be too apologetic. A note to the arrogant: you’re not Immanuel Kant. You are not always the smartest person in the room. So don’t act like it. It doesn’t attract discerning people to your ideas; it just turns them off you. A note to the unduly meek: Your paper has been accepted in just the same way as everyone else’s. No-one gave you special treatment. You have a right to be up there speaking. You don’t need to be Immanuel Kant to give a good conference paper, so don’t make that your yardstick of competence.
  • Eye contact really helps, even if it’s not all the time and even if you are reading your paper word for word.
  • Try not to read your whole paper word for word. Know which sections need special precision and might warrant a word-for-word approach, and know which paragraphs can be delivered from memory, while maintaining eye contact with the audience. Try to deliver at least your opening paragraph without looking down at your notes.
  • Smiling also helps. It helps you to calm down and it leaves a positive, warm impression on your audience. Don’t smile like the Cheshire Cat and don’t smile at inappropriate points in the paper (if you are discussing torture or death, for example!), but a constant frown or an Eeyorish disposition creates an unnecessary distance between you and your audience. By and large your audience will be subtly drawn to mirror your emotion and expression, so if you want them to ask grumpy questions go right ahead and keep on scowling at them.
  • You are a person, not a reading machine. It’s OK to lose your place once or twice, to sneeze, or to take a sip of water. That’s what real people do. There’s no need to apologise or to get flustered.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • Often, the way people try to cover up something going wrong comes over much worse than the thing that went wrong in the first place. Things go wrong, we all know that. So if you drop your papers on the ground or stumble on the way to the lectern or overturn a glass of water or mispronounce a word in a humorous way, let the audience know that you know that what just happened was a bit funny (a raised eyebrow or smile will usually do the trick, even a shrug of the shoulders or a quick “it happens”). Acknowledging what has happened diffuses the tension in the room and gives people permission to chuckle with you, rather than smirking at you. Don’t break your rhythm for it. Don’t rush to pick your papers up like a rabid dog; do it properly. Rule of thumb: it will almost always be a bigger deal to you than it is to your audience, so don’t make too much of it. Don’t launch into a 10 second apology. Your audience don’t really mind; they just want to hear your paper.  Also let them know by your body language that it hasn’t flustered you, and get right on with the presentation.
  • Any non-verbal communication you can add (within reason!)—hand gestures, changes of intonation and so forth—will really help your audience to engage with what you are saying.
  • If you are not using a microphone, speak up. Stand up if necessary in order to make sure that your voice travels to the back of the room. Sometimes it might even be appropriate to ask people in the back row if they can hear you, rather than just hoping they can. People usually won’t move forward unless you given them “permission” to do so, even if they can’t hear.
  • Use silence to your advantage. Don’t speak at 100 miles an hour from the first word of your presentation to the last, but slow down and use pauses to emphasise important points and to let ideas sink in before you move on. Don’t go slow and use pauses in every other sentence, but one or two pauses in a paper can help people understand what you are saying and also bring them back from the brink of slumber if their attention is drifting.
  • The same goes for repetition. A little judicious repetition can really help your audience (is this your main point? then say it twice), but mechanical or incessant repetition can become tedious and inappropriately humorous.
  • If you are using quotations and don’t have a handout or PowerPoint presentation, let people know when the quotations begin and end (by saying something like “quote… close quote” perhaps).
  • As a summary of the above points, you are there to serve the audience by helping them to understand something you think is important and worth saying. You are a human being communicating to human beings, and communication from one human being to another is about more than the words on the page.

 

What are your own tips for delivering a conference paper?

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Open Grid Scheduler on Flickr.

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