Academic research is often an international undertaking that requires researchers to present their findings in any number of different cultural contexts. In contrast, research presentations normally adhere to a universalist principle, assuming that all audiences are alike in their interest in any given subject. In this post, Zehra Waheed outlines how successful presentations do not simply convey information, but are ones in which the presenter is able to genuinely engage with the audience.
If you work in a university at any level, it is likely that you will have found yourself enticed into attending a research seminar only to find minutes in that the content was not appealing enough for you to stay for the entire session. As a seminar host, I have first-hand experience of what it is like to see initial excitement fade to a room full of people glancing at their watches every ten minutes and looking for ways to escape discreetly.
Probing into the reasons for why this seems to happen time and again, a recurring issue is lack of preparation. One would seldom expect world class academics to be ill-prepared to showcase their own work. However, I am not talking about lack of preparation of content or coverage, but rather a lack of preparation as ‘senders of the message’, or preparation to connect with the audience.
Reflecting on this, I now urge research colleagues to plan their seminars through the lens of their audience and to use that understanding so that they are able to engage with an audience at an emotional, pragmatic and intellectual level. Working at a leading business school in Pakistan, we regularly attract scholars and academics from across the globe. The best presenters tend not to be the ones representing the largest research projects, nor the ones with the most complex ideas, but rather the ones who can make this connection. Turning what could be a one dimensional lecture into an enthusiastic exchange of ideas during and after the seminar, an opportunity to develop collaborations and generally a far more ‘successful’ visit for the speaker.
Such speakers and seminars sessions more often than not have been customized for the audience. This entails preparation undertaken by the speaker prior to the talk itself – first by trying to understand the country being visited, the institution being visited and finally the composition of the audience to whom they speak. Such customisation is a key skill widely applied in executive education, where an instructor’s level of customization has been shown to be directly proportional to perceived success of training sessions or workshops. This is perhaps because the researcher’s ability to connect with the audience is tied to their understanding of what exactly the audience wishes to obtain by attending. After all, the audience are not there to simply assist the speaker in raising their own profile!
Here, I offer a few handy tips on how to connect with and audience, especially when conversing with an audience in a country you may be less familiar with.
Profile the seminar attendees. Talk to the colleague or department who has invited you to get a profile of the attendees. Most seminars request attendees to register or show an interest through an online form. This list could be solicited. The contact at the host institution would be a natural ally, willing to share typical attendance profiles, the norms of questioning, as well as cultural nuances. Profiling allows tailoring of not necessarily the content, but the tone of the conversation. A seminar with an expected high PhD and faculty attendance versus that expected to be attended by MBA students and practitioners would require a different tone.
Create an emotional link! Your research may be of interest to you for a particular reason, but why should it click with the audience? A colleague recently offered an interesting piece of advice at the conclusion a seminar on the rights of older persons in Pakistan. She pointed out that the topic of the elderly, above all, was an emotional one for Asian communities. A key emotion that the researcher could have introduced, she pointed out interestingly, could have been that of guilt! The audience comprising of young and middle-aged professional Asians, having left the parental nest and living independently may associate a feeling of guilt with the subject – or conversely that of pride at having managed an independent living through which the family’s elderly are financially supported. Both these (strong) emotions provide a means of making sure that the audience can relate to the topic through an emotional tie.
Now leverage that link! A speaker such as the one at the aforementioned seminar, is now in a position to leverage this emotional link to entice the audience into understanding the analysis of the vast dataset they had collected. The data, once embedded in the context of an emotional connection – responsibility, guilt or pride, would become more meaningful for the audience.
Profile the country and host institution beyond a stereotype. I recall a research talk by an experienced Australian academic, who within the first ten minutes of the presentation, put forward a stereotypical view of the host country and an irreparably incorrect evaluation of the audience’s intellectual calibre, by assuming the audience would have little knowledge of his home institution. Such errors are transparent to a local audience and can often be remedied by an informal chat with the hosts prior to the talk, which in this case would have revealed that the audience were largely in attendance because they had either been to or worked at the presenter’s institution. Putting off an audience through cultural insensitivity and a patronising tone is not a good look.
Tell a story! Storytelling is an instructor’s tool; so it should be used in a seminar situation. Stories stick. Stories make research relevant. A story embeds the context, the research problem, the methodology into the audience’s mind so that they begin to make personal connections with the research in question. Selecting a story appropriate to the audience’s knowledge and pragmatic needs (what practical value do they want out of listening to you?) increases personalisation. Regardless of when a story is introduced during the seminar, it enables an emotional and practical connection with the audience.
Whether you are an experienced researcher or a novice, learning to customise the research talk through profiling the audience, the host institution and the host country, creating an emotional link, storytelling and preparing to deliver pragmatic value to the audience will make your research seminar less of a hit-and-miss affair.
Zehra Waheed leads the Centre for Business and Society at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan. She is an Assistant Professor of Operations and Project Management at the Suleman Dawood School of Business, is a board member at various companies and works alongside several public and private sector entities in Pakistan. Her main research interests include conflict and stakeholder management in megaprojects, public procurement, urban solid waste management, water resource networks, renewable energy; and regional trade integration.
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