Writing and Presenting Your Research Findings
Although the research findings presented orally at a conference one month may very well be reported in writing as a journal article the next, the best approaches for preparing the findings part of an engaging presentation will not always match those for producing the findings section of a publishable research article. The goals are essentially the same in both situations – the factual communication of meaningful research findings to an interested audience in a clear and accurate manner – but the conditions under which that audience must absorb and understand the information conveyed are significantly different.
When a reader encounters research findings in a scientific or academic article, he or she has the opportunity to pore over the text, review previous pages, compare details and generally take as much time as required to understand the material. Not all readers will dedicate so much time, of course, but that is a matter of choice. When research findings are presented orally instead of written, a speaker’s facial expressions and tone of voice can enhance audience comprehension at times, but listeners simply do not have the option to stop that speaker and ask for information to be repeated. Questions about content can be posed at the end of most presentations, but very few listeners will take advantage of this opportunity, especially if it means admitting that they did not understand.
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A scientist, academic or other professional presenting his or her research orally therefore has only those few precious minutes allotted for the presentation in which to explain and clarify everything listeners will need to know to grasp the significance and value of the research findings. Knowing as much as possible about the audience becomes more important than ever. Wasting even two minutes defining concepts your listeners already understand is undesirable, and talking for five minutes about a theory without first explaining it can be disastrous if the audience is not already familiar with it. Reflecting on the theme, intellectual context and professional objectives of the conference or meeting and highlighting them in your presentation will be helpful. Reflect on all you know about the participants working in your area of specialisation and keep it uppermost in your mind, tailoring your presentation to their interests and knowledge as much as possible. Focussing on reasonable conclusions and recommendations that can be acted upon through research, practice and policy is an excellent strategy.
A valuable mantra while writing about research findings for any form of dissemination is ‘keep it simple’ and this is a particularly vital principle for anyone who is preparing an oral presentation. A presentation is not usually an appropriate place for inconclusive results, theoretical speculation or a large number of alternate interpretations. Most listeners, even when fully engaged, will remember no more than a few key points from an oral presentation, so choose the essential take-home messages about your findings carefully, maintain a close focus on them throughout your presentation and be sure to close your talk with persuasive and memorable thoughts about them. A presentation is also not the place for a barrage of discipline-specific terminology, exclusive jargon or words borrowed from foreign languages. Each word or sentence not understood by your audience means wasted time that might have been used to report important findings and explain their significance, so be sure that any potentially confusing or ambiguous terms you deem absolutely necessary are defined immediately.
Visual aids can be extremely useful for reporting complex information quickly and effectively whether you are writing a research paper for publication or a conference presentation, but it is essential to ensure that the visual elements you use will effectively convey your meaning to the audience. A well-designed table in a published paper might be incredibly complex but nonetheless clear for a reader who is able to spend several minutes or more examining it, but when a slide of that table appears on screen for only ten or even sixty seconds while the presenter is speaking, the capacity for comprehension is greatly reduced. Visual elements of a presentation should be absolutely clear, even to listeners at the back of the room, so images that are simple, uncluttered and visually striking are best for complementing an oral delivery of research findings. Use bold lines and clear universal fonts; distinguish different features with complementary colours, but only a few; introduce and explain visual elements to engage your listeners and enhance their understanding, but remember that a slide that takes too many words to explain may not be worth the effort.
Just as you would revise, edit and proofread a research manuscript before submitting it to a journal editor for publication, you should carefully revise, edit and proofread the text you will be reading from as you present your research findings – that is, unless you are among those gifted folk who can present their research professionally and coherently without written aids. It is beneficial to have a finished clean copy for reading from, especially if you are prone to nerves when speaking publicly, and for offering to colleagues you meet at the conference who may want to read your paper. Fortunately, you will not need to worry about journal formatting and bibliographical references, but a presentation should be practised and timed. Reading a draft of your presentation aloud to yourself will work, of course, but it can prove difficult not to pause and ponder problems and awkward spots. Presenting the paper to a willing listener who will also time you is best, and there is nothing like a live audience for helpful feedback. There is also nothing like a live audience for letting you know when you are exceeding your time limit and encroaching on the time allowed for the next presenter, so do be courteous and shorten your presentation if you discover that it is more than a minute or two on the long side.
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