Presentation Skills & Academia

Academics need to learn better presentation skills. Already, in not even one semester’s worth of lectures, I’ve been in the audience for far too many presentations which have devolved into the mumbled reading, verbatim, of a previously written paper. To be sure, some of the motivation here is selfish – I’d rather witness a talk delivered with wit, verve, and palpable enthusiasm than not. But poor presentation quality brings real costs, too. It makes arguments difficult to follow and impedes the academic’s ability to transmit his or her ideas to a wider audience.

I don’t think it’s incumbent on academics to carry themselves in front of an audience with all the magnetism of a seasoned performer or politician, but there is a minimum standard of coherency and clarity that I would humbly submit too many lecturers fail to meet with any regularity. Compare Niall Ferguson here, speaking at the London School of Economics in January 2011 on detente, with John Lewis Gaddis here, speaking at Princeton in April 2009 on grand strategy.* This is a relatively benign bad example (I didn’t have the heart to link to the worst instances that came to mind), but the differences are still striking. Ferguson confidently roams the stage, inflects his voice to match the content at hand, and takes only brief glances at his prepared notes. It is a commanding performance. Gaddis, on the other hand, remains glued to his notes, his cadence, and his tone. He’s admittedly much better than most, but it is unambiguously a less engaging lecture.**

It’s probably unfair to expect every academic to operate with the presentation skills of Niall Ferguson (there is after all a reason the man has his own TV specials). But I don’t think it unfair to expect academic presenters to at least reach the level of clarity Gaddis displays in that 2009 lecture. At the very least, the style of his presentation does not detract from its content. In the case of Niall Ferguson, some would argue that sort of the reverse is true – that his style is apt to paper over flaws in content (I quite liked The War of The World for what it’s worth, but much of the recent criticism seems warranted). Conveniently, this provides a delightfully smooth and unforced return to the prior point, that there are actual real costs imposed by academics’ poor presentation skills: if you can’t succinctly and engagingly convey your point, nobody will care what it is. I suspect many academics don’t see effectively communicating their views to the public as necessarily a primary requirement of the job, and in the main they are probably correct. But if such a skill is neglected entirely, it should come as no surprise that style may on occasion conquer substance.


*These were selected basically at random. Niall Ferguson has a reputation as an engaging speaker, and John Lewis Gaddis happened to be the first related video I clicked on.

**Despite this, both videos have roughly the same number of views. So perhaps none of this is as important as I would like to think, or perhaps all you need is a certain standard of quality, above which people will watch based purely on the merits of content.