Why don’t you give a self-transforming presentation next time?

Presenting your ideas to a live audience is an excellent occasion for transforming minds. I mean your mind as the presenter and not the minds of your audience. Yes, it is strange, as 99.99% of all advice on giving presentations is about how you, the presenter, can best transform the minds of your audience.

Once again, I attended an event about how to give presentations. The instructor talked about how to use pathos to engage with the audience’s feelings. He taught us how to lay out the line of argument, not forgetting to predict and address three potential counter-arguments that might come from the audience. He even suggested the order of addressing these counter-arguments: Attack the weakest counter-argument before rounding off by debunking the main one. And don’t forget the punchline, the “call to action!”

A significant portion of the presentation was about the visuals. The instructor talked about the types of photographs to use to engage with the audience and about having a conscious and consistent approach to colors, icons, fonts, slide backgrounds, transitions, and animations. “Don’t use more than three short lines of text in each slide, and avoid text alltogether if you can!” he said. There was also a brief recommendation about using generative AI to make personalized photos instead of generic stock photographs. (At this point, I had to raise my hand and remind him that maybe this was not a good idea for a research presentation, and he seemed to agree).

This is not a unique experience. Most instructions and tips on how to do live oral presentations focus on how to best transfer an idea you have in your head to your audience with the least amount of friction. In other words, a one-way transfer. A persuasion.

Most manuals on disseminating research focus on writing scientific papers. Teaching the art of oral presentation is often left to others (e.g., marketing people). We can trace this to the personality of most researchers (including myself) who would rather sit in our offices and write our papers, than going on a stage and presenting to a live audience. This disinterest in (and fear of) presenting is often visible from the quality of the few presentations we researchers are sometimes forced to give!

But are TED talks the proper model for how we researchers should present our research? And if not, what is the alternative? Can we turn our presentations into something more useful for our research, ourselves, and others?

Let’s make one thing clear. Of course it is essential to present our research results and ideas clearly. However, that is also where the similarity between research and marketing ends. Marketing assumes that you have a finished product and want to persuade potential buyers. Research, on the other hand, is never a finished product. Research is accumulative, tentative, and open-ended. Research exists through multiple ongoing conversations among researchers –and their audiences –through which all of us transform to (hopefully) better versions of ourselves. It is not proper to treat such conversations as a one-way road.

But there is hope! Let us distinguish between what I will call a self-transforming presentation (STP) and the traditional TED talk type of presentation (which I will call a persuasive presentation, or PP). In the table at the end of this blog post, I have summarized and contrasted some aspects of these two types of presentations. By giving an STP, the researcher should not only try to present a set of ideas clearly. They should also use the occasion to further their and the audience’s knowledge of the subject matter. The presentation should transform everyone. For this, STP requires a different mindset than PP, at the core of which is the belief that “I have something to learn by giving this presentation to this audience.”

Another significant difference between STP and PP is that STP tries to eliminate PP’s persuasion element. STP is transparent, genuine, and vulnerable, as research should be. My ideas are not perfect, and I am here to learn from my audience by telling them about the weaknesses and uncertainties inherent in these ideas.

When delivering an STP, we should not underestimate the intelligence of our audience. We should avoid “stupidifying” our ideas. Even “grandmothers” can contribute to a conversation about nuclear fusion if they engage in an educational discussion. (I am not trying to be insulting towards grandmothers. It is just that I have often been told that I should present my research so that my grandmother can understand it.) The focus of an STP is more profound understanding, not simplification. STP requires concentration and effort.

Using block diagrams with boxes and arrows might seem boring. That is why we are told to instead use photographs of beautiful people achieving stuff in bright meeting rooms filled with Post-it notes, Apple computers, and cups of cappuccino. On the contrary, some of the most engaging presentations I have attended were Ph.D. defenses where the candidates used boxes and arrows to present their theories. I have seen how an undefined arrow between two boxes has initiated heated debates among the attendants. I have seen Ph.D. students intellectually develop from using a lot of text (and stock photos) in their presentations to increasingly using diagrams and fluently describing what those boxes and arrows mean. You should be skeptical of those Ph.D. students who still use stock photos in their defense!

Therefore, there is no doubt that STP has to deal with its own challenges, i.e., laying the groundwork for an emerging intellectual discussion among the audience. The presenter needs to clearly present the framework for the desired dialog and act as a fluent facilitator to engage the audience in that dialog. This can be a challenge for many researchers.

Another potential obstacle to holding an STP presentation is: How do we convince our audience to attend an STP? Many people attend presentations expecting a “show” where they can learn something while being entertained, i.e., a TED talk. Our audiences want to be lectured! This is especially true when they listen to a researcher. They want to know what our research uncovered. How can we then suddenly tell them that we don’t really know much? In fact, we are here to learn from them and not to teach them?

The answer is to be transparent about the fact that you intend to hold an STP. Moreover, it would help if you always start by presenting your empirical findings. My experience is that preliminary findings will trigger a lot of engagement and discussions if only you make a point that they are, in fact, preliminary and not final, unnegotiable truths.

There are occasions where PPs can do the job better than STPs. TED talk advice is good to have when you have a brilliant idea that you want to convey. The problem is that we often don’t have brilliant ideas. In the process of becoming TED talk entertainers, we have almost forgotten how to engage in intellectual discussions with our audiences to arrive at brilliant ideas. I have attended and even organized academic conferences where no time was dedicated to STP, only PP. It is increasingly common to see conference organizers asking for ten, five, or even two-minute summaries (elevator pitches!) of research that took years to complete, with no possibility of engaging with anybody. In such a landscape, you might think it is useless to talk about STP. We should, however, remember that great knowledge is developed through conversation and not through persuasion.

Persuasive presentation (PP)Self-transforming presentation (STP)
The presenter tries to sell their ideas to the audience.The presenter tries to develop ideas together with the audience.
The presenter encourages the audience to understand and accept the idea.The presenter encourages the audience to understand and provide feedback to develop the idea further.
The presenter aims to persuade the audience to act in a predefined direction.The presenter aims at the audience’s reflection and understanding and a not-yet-planned agenda for collective action.
The presenter tries to hide all existing vulnerability areas, delivering a “bullet-proof” presentation.The presenter tries to expose weak points in the line of argument to get feedback and improve the argument.
The presenter assumes the audience cannot handle complex ideas.The presenter tries to engage the audience in complex theory development.
The presenter does not take notes during or after the presentation.The presenter has a notebook to write down all the feedback and questions from the audience.
The presenter uses stock photographs with emotional content in order to persuade.The presenter uses boxes and arrows and shapes to describe complex concepts under development and get feedback.
The presenter uses minimalistic slides with one line of text and one photograph.The presenter can have crowded slides but tries to spend enough time explaining and discussing each slide.
The presenter can be perceived as patronizing towards the audience.The presenter is perceived as empowering and genuinely interested in the knowledge residing with the audience.
The presenter has many claims.The presenter has many concepts and tentative hypotheses.
The presentation resembles a show, with the focus on entertaining the audience.The presentation resembles a meeting. The focus is on dialog and the exchange of ideas.
The presenter is the message.The presenter is the messenger.