The Montage Before the Fight

by Site Author

Next week, I present a paper in a seminar at another university. It may be one of the most important presentations of my career. Sadly, the paper I have to present is not my best work. But I am determined to present it well. And if I do, there’s a chance that I might end up with a new job.

They gave me little notice—I’ve only had a week to prepare for the seminar. And so this week I have been preparing the way that Rocky would train for a fight.

I’ve divided the presentation into six pieces and I’ve been rehearsing at least two pieces out loud each day. I rehearse standing up, usually alone in my office, but sometimes at home or in an empty classroom. I’ve even loaded the slides onto my phone so I can fit in a couple practice sessions while I’m away from my computer.

Rehearsing every single day is more effective than just setting aside an afternoon (the spacing effect). The first couple times I practice a section of the talk, I stumble and barely get the words out. If the practice session were actually public, I’d be humiliated. The words don’t come out naturally the first time. But by my third rehearsal it all starts to come together.

I don’t look at my notes while I practice, and try to only glance at the slides. In that sense, each rehearsal is a test, forcing me to recall the right things to say. But tests are the most effective way of studying (the testing effect). And, for that matter, I don’t want my presentation to come off as canned: I’m not memorizing a speech, I’m preparing for a seminar. There’s a difference.

Then there are the little things that I hope to get right. I’m bringing along my own bottle of water, one loaded with table sugar; 90 minutes is a long time. And I’m going to prepare notes for some of the questions I’m likely to receive (a Q&A document).

Some of this might be unnecessary. After all, the biggest factor in hiring a senior academic is the academic’s publication record and their current projects. With only a week to go, however, there’s not much I can do to my CV. I cannot improve the package, but I can improve the wrapping.