So, what do you do?
This is a question graduate students hear frequently — whether from scholars in their field, people in an elevator, or family members. And while at first the answer might seem simple — it’s what you do every day, after all—finding ways to frame and explain your work to others can be a challenge. Thinking about your answer to this question is important since there are many situations when you might need to answer it: applying for fellowships or funding to support your work, job interviews or networking events, interviews with the media, or discussions with political leaders regarding policy. And recently, several UI students found themselves confronted with this question when former President Obama made an impromptu coffeehouse stop during his visit to campus!
Below are some tips for talking about your work to help you prepare no matter the situation.
Determine Your Context and Relevance to Your Audience
The way that you speak about your work to experts in your field will likely differ from how you chat with friends over coffee. Therefore, you need to think of several ways of explaining your work based on the audience you are speaking to. In evaluating your situation, there are a few good questions to think about:
- Where and in what context will you be speaking to others? (For example, are you giving a formal presentation, going to an informal networking event, speaking to experts in your field, speaking to non-experts, etc.)
- What do you hope to gain from speaking to others about your work?
- Why might your audience be interested in your work?
The final question is one to spend extra time thinking about. Essentially, you want to determine why your audience should care about your work. Depending on who you are talking to, the answer might differ. For instance, if you are speaking with scholars in your field, you might aim to describe how your work relates to their projects. For others, you might explain what type of problem your research solves or how your work can impact their way of thinking.
Hook and Hold Your Audience
Once you have determined a way to connect your work to your audience’s interests, think about ways you can grab and keep their attention. Some tactics to consider include:
- Tell a personal story.
- Explain what excites you about your work.
- Ask your audience questions (rhetorical or not).
- Describe something surprising or shocking about your work.
These ideas work in different ways. Audiences are generally interested in learning about your relationship to your work, so describing it from a personal level (such as through storytelling) is a great way to connect with your audience. When you ask your audience questions or describe surprising things you have found, you can bring the audience into your narrative and grab their interest. Regardless of which tactic you choose, developing a hook that intrigues your audience and taps into their interests is a key element to holding their attention throughout your talk.
Carefully Choose the Details You Share
When you are working on your project, every detail seems exciting and important. But giving too many details can complicate your message and quickly lose your audience’s attention. As you plan, think about the main takeaways for your audience — in other words, what should your audience learn and remember from your talk. Then, choose a few topics or ideas that will help you reinforce this message and add details as needed.
Mind Your Vocab
It is easy to let jargon slip into the dialogue when you are talking about your work. Remember: not everyone speaks your “research language”! Be mindful of words or acronyms that are unique to your area of study and, if you want to use them, be sure to define them so that your audience is not lost. If you’re not sure whether you are using jargon, test words on a variety of people—not just colleagues.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Talking about your work takes practice and preparation! Look for opportunities to engage with others about your work and reach out to a variety of people—both in your field and outside
One great way to practice talking about your research is through participating in the Graduate College’s annual event Research Live!, which challenges students to give a three-minute talk about their work to a generalist audience. You can learn more about Research Live! on the Graduate College website. You might also check the videos from previous participants for ideas on structure and pace.
If you would like to learn more tips for talking about your work, check out our Communication Skills webpage. The Graduate College frequently offers workshops aimed at helping students prepare for a variety of similar situations — including developing an elevator pitch, convincing people your research matters, and creating visuals to enhance your presentation. Make sure to check GradLinks for information on when these workshops are available.
Emily Wuchner is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.