Strategic Preparation for Oral Communication: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
Now that I am officially an old professor, there are three skills that even very talented graduate students in my field seem to lack: quantitative skills, writing skills, and oral communication skills. Oral communication skills are among the most surprising deficits. Yet, as a research program develops for graduate students, one of the hardest activities is to be able to articulate your research to several different audiences. If you do not believe that is difficult, then try explaining your research to a distant relative at a family reunion. Most often your options are to bore them to tears or to confuse them with a blizzard of jargon. Except for those of you who are extraordinarily quick witted and articulate, it helps to prepare for different forms of oral communication with which you will come in contact. All graduate students and academics require at least four different forms of oral communication: the one-minute research program talk, the one-minute specific project talk, the 10-minute self-promotion talk, and the 45-minute research explanation talk. There are certainly other forms of oral communication that are important, but these are the ones you need to have prepared and ready to deliver at a moment’s notice.
The one-minute research program talk. “So, what kind of research do you do?” This is the type of question that can be asked at a professional conference elevator meeting or cocktail party, at a first date, by polite relatives, or even during a job interview. The biggest mistake that most people make in their one-minute research program talk is to go into the weeds of details. This is the opportunity to describe the big and important topic of most of your research projects. For example, I say, “We are working to shrink the research-to-practice gap to improve the education and mental-health of children who are left behind in school and society.” It should be something that everyone from a senior scholar to your aunt Dorothy can understand and can capture attention. The second point is the general methods that you use. No details or jargon here. Something like, “We capture the collective expertise of teachers and evaluate their ideas.” Next, the hero narrative is useful. This is where you quickly discuss the unique, exciting, and enthusiastic aspect of your work. An example is, “We are the only research lab harnessing the exciting potential of international collaboration to solve the problem.” Finally, reiterate the big picture conclusion. “If we are successful, we can disrupt the school – to – prison pipeline and have a society that leaves no one behind.”
The one-minute specific project talk. This is a more detailed talk that you would give to professionals, colleagues, or maybe even potential donors or members of a foundation board. Although similar to the one-minute research program talk, the specific project talk focuses on the how of research. The intro involves a specific research question you are addressing. Then the specific hypothesis being tested. Information on the specific methodology comes next. And finally, the ramifications of potential findings for future research or application. The focus here is to convince the listener that you have a well-thought-out project, the expertise to carry out the project, the resources to carry out the project, and understand the relevance of your project. It takes quite a bit of practice to make the specific project talk interesting, brief, and detailed enough to be compelling to a listener.
The 10-minute self-promotion talk. This is the type of talk that you would give as part of a symposium, at a leisurely bar meeting to someone who is expressed interest, when recruiting new lab members, or even to potential donors. This is quite a bit like an oral version of a grant proposal. And this form of talk is not for the modest. There are elements of the first two one-minute talks above, but the purpose is to brag a little bit. In addition to describing the big picture of the major issue that you are addressing, you also add elements that are special in your research lab. This is the talk where you say that your lab is fully funded by the following organizations; you have published X number of papers in high-impact journals; your research has had a major influence on research, theory, or profession; graduates of your lab have gone on to great success; X percentage of your students have won prestigious fellowships; and so on. Talking about the intuitively appealing aspects of your work is a major focus of the 10-minute promotional talk. The conclusion of this talk is to state what your goals are in the near future. The basics of this talk are: we are addressing an important topic, we are doing this research in an exciting way, the lab team is generally awesome and can carry out this important research, and our goals for the future are even more exciting than the present.
The 45-minute research explanation talk. This talk is for a guest lecturer in a class, a job interview talk, invited colloquium, and other long form opportunities. The format of this talk varies across settings, but the general principle is to begin with your 10-minute promotional talk, describe the details of at least two studies, and then conclude with future broad future goals and specific planned research projects. A long talk take significant preparation. Again, in most of the situations you are trying to sell your self, your research, and your team. Having the details of this talk worked out in advance so that you can conduct this talk with little notice is a valuable skill. Developing this relatively long research talk in such a manner allows you to free up time and mental energy to be entertaining, amusing, and sell your overall awesomeness.
There are many forms of talks about your research that you will need to conduct. However, preparing in advance for at least these four forms of a research talk will serve you well. The secondary value of preparing these talks is that it helps you to simplify and completely understand and articulate the goals of your research. Sometimes it appears that oral communication comes naturally and without effort. The reality is nearly all of us must prepare, practice, and be mindful in how we conduct oral communication of our research. The investment of time nearly always pays off.