Defense Presentations (Hidden Curriculum #13)

In last week’s post, I provided an overview of what the dissertation defense is, and what my experience with it was nearly two months ago. This week, I want to unpack a part of my defense that, although virtually unheard of in my department, is common in others – defense presentations.

There are three main components of my preparation for this milestone in my graduate career: the outline, the slide deck, and the presentation.

Whether you’re preparing for a defense that is imminent or you’re in the early stages of your degree, I hope this post will be helpful!

How I Outlined My Talk

In the past, it’s been hard to wrap my head around preparing a 40-minute talk. How can I possibly fill that time? Will I have enough to say?

However, you tend to have the opposite problem with a defense presentation. How do I distill everything I know about this topic into 40 minutes? And, really, it’s not just everything you know. It’s also everything you did and some of the things you will do with your research in the future.

All in all, it’s a lot of information to cram into a single presentation.

But I can assure you that if I can do it, you can too.

The other problem I faced was that giving public presentations as part of your defense is virtually unheard of in my department. Therefore, I had nothing to go on.

Moreover, it is tough to find any models for giving defense presentations online.

Trust me, I tried.

In the end, I found some guidelines that turned out to be useful for conceptualizing the structure and major sections of my talk.

My own presentation ended up only having four main sections: introduction and background; methodology; findings; and conclusions. Other sections that appear in the above resource (i.e., “conceptual framework,” “research questions,” and “implications”) were subsumed into other sections. The decisions I made about what I needed to include in my presentation and what I could leave out were both questions of relevance and of time.

From Outline to Slides

In the past, I strongly advocated for the paper-to-slides approach for presentations. However, in the case of my defense presentation, I did not have a fully fleshed out talk written before I created my slide deck.

My process was relatively straightforward. Once I had an outline, I began to plug each section into a powerpoint. This frequently meant deciding how many slides I needed for those sections; in every case I needed more than one.

For example, my methodology section ended up being 14 slides.

This is because it included information about my major sources of evidence, including details about how many pots were sampled and why I selected them. In addition, I also discussed how the evidence related to my research questions.

Clearly, that’s a lot of information – way too much to squeeze onto a single slide.

Probably the most helpful part of this process – and writing my script – was that I had given talks about my research in various forms many times over the years. Therefore, I could pull text, images, and even entire slides from those presentations.

My advice for people who are nearing their defense – don’t reinvent the wheel. Revisit the presentations you gave months or even years ago. This will save you a lot of time in the end.

For people who still have a while before even thinking about their defense – talk about your research! I know it can be scary, but it can benefit you for many reasons.

This can be anything from volunteering to give an informal presentation in your department to submitting abstracts to larger conferences. Each script you write and slide deck you create will only help you when it’s time to pull together your defense presentation.

The Defense Presentation

I have known of Echo Rivera’s work on improving academic presentations for several years now. However, preparing for my defense presentation was the first time that I seriously implemented her advice.

The most useful advice that I found came from a video she made about how to give an “amazing” academic job talk or teaching demo.

Ironically, I don’t think I referenced that video when I was actually interviewing for a job, even though I knew about it then, too.

In the video, Echo recommends among other things practicing your talk in three stages.

1. Section by Section

The first stage involves practicing in small bursts. What this looked like for me was reading through my talk – which at that point was drafted in the notes section of my slides – by section. In the early stages of preparing my talk, this resulted in revisions in the text specifically geared towards making my talk sound smoother.

In previous posts, I’ve noted how important it is to practice your talk out loud. This is especially important for people who read from a script, like many academics do. Scripts, however, tend to err on the side of “written language” rather than “spoken language.”

In other words, if we don’t practice our talks out loud, we can find ourselves tripping over things like run-on sentences and difficult to pronounce jargon. These things are frequently found in the written work of academics.

You should not only be thinking about how best to write for speaking, but also how best to write for your audience. My revisions therefore also involved clarifying language for my audience, who ended up being a mix of specialists, non-specialist Classicists, and non-members of the field (my fiancé).

Not all defense presentations are public like mine. Nevertheless, it’s important for all presentations you give to consider who you’re speaking to.

2. When You Add Something New

The second thing that Echo recommends in her video is practicing whenever you introduce a new element, like an animation, to your presentation. This is relatively straightforward and can even be incorporated into the first kind of practice, described above.

The biggest difference between this kind and the first kind of practice, however, is practicing with your slides in presenter view. This is the only way you’ll know if your animations (and other things like video or audio) are working properly.

No one wants any surprises on the day of their Big Talk.

3. Full Run-Through

The final type of practice that Echo mentions in her talk is a full dress rehearsal. This can be summed up as simply practicing your talk all the way through with your slides. Echo pushes this a bit further, however, by suggesting that you replicate the actual event as closely as possible. This would also involve inviting audience members to provide feedback.

I have done and benefited from this kind of presentation practice in the past. I’m sure many of us have for varying scenarios from conference presentations to job interviews. They can certainly be beneficial both to experience what it’s like to give a talk (if you haven’t before) and for improving your talk. In the latter case, I have received feedback both on the content of my talk (i.e., things that were unclear) and on the cadence and language used.

But dissertation defenses are different. In my case, I had only four weeks between sending my final draft to my committee and my defense date. I admittedly only spent two of those weeks preparing, which didn’t leave a lot of time to schedule a mock defense. Also, defenses are nerve-wracking enough.

Can you imagine having to endure the whole thing twice?

So, basically, what I am saying here is that it’s entirely valid to do a full run-through of your talk without all the frills. I practiced my presentation all the way through maybe three times. All of those practice sessions involved me sitting somewhere comfortable and reading my talk aloud to myself in a low whisper.

It doesn’t matter how you practice; it only matters that you do. Your presentation will go a lot smoother if you practice it beforehand.

Final Thoughts

Something that a friend who had defended her dissertation a few months before me said really stuck with me. The defense as a whole can be terrifying and anxiety-inducing. But once you get going with your presentation, it starts to feel just like any other presentation you’ve given before.

And in a sense, it is just another presentation.

Yes, the stakes are a little higher, but you needn’t worry at this point whether or not you’ll pass.

It bears repeating that, although the defense is a form of evaluation, your chair would not have let you get this far if they didn’t think you were ready. They wouldn’t make you get up there and present your work if they didn’t believe that you’d made a solid contribution to the field.

[final final thoughts and CTA]

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