Talking the Good Talk

You did it! You made the first (or even second!) cut of applicants for that faculty job, and you’ve been invited by the chair of the search committee to come to campus.

“We’d like you to meet with the department faculty, some students, and the chair and dean. We’d also like you to give a talk about your area of research,” she says.

Ah, the job talk. I’ve seen many of them. Some have been cringe-worthy; others have been so impressive it’s been hard to resist cheering loudly at the end. We all know the things that can sink a talk: e.g., “death by PowerPoint,” which occurs when a speaker reads text-dense slides to the audience; a monotone delivery that makes even the most interesting topics seem dull; or a defensive or hostile response to questions. But what makes a job talk rise above the rest?

1. Be tech-savvy. Your talk doesn’t have to incorporate the latest-and-greatest technological tricks (and, indeed, too much reliance on flashy animation or other techno-gimmicks can detract from your message). But using innovative presentation programs, video, or an audience-response system can, if used well, engage your audience and demonstrate your facility with these technologies in a teaching environment. Whether or not you have been asked to do a teaching demonstration as part of your interview process, your teaching skills will be evaluated during the job talk, so using technology in a creative and effective manner can have a big impact. On a related note, if you are using PowerPoint, be sure to follow guidelines for creating good slides. Slides burdened with too much text and animation can come across as amateurish and create concerns about your effectiveness in the classroom.

Ask which technologies are and are not supported at the institution where you are interviewing so you don’t discover upon arrival that you can’t do the talk you’d planned. Be prepared to give a tech-free talk, just in case. Computers can freeze, projector bulbs can blow out, etc., and your ability to roll with the punches and give an engaging talk without “bells and whistles” will count for a lot. You may even get points for poise, if you successfully handle these kinds of tech problems on the fly!

2. Don’t go over the audience’s head. It goes without saying that you should practice your job talk several times before your interview. It’s just as important, though, to practice in front of people who are unfamiliar with your area of study. Ask them to point out the things they didn’t understand so you can find a clearer way to explain those terms or issues. It’s easy to lapse into jargon when you’re trying to cover a lot of ground quickly and show your expertise, but displaying an ability to describe your work in layman’s terms suggests that you’ll be able to collaborate with faculty across disciplines, and gives further credence to your ability to teach students at various levels within the department.

Similarly, don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you have to know the answer to every question you are asked during the “Q&A” portion of your talk. When I’m listening to a faculty candidate give a talk, I’m interested not only in what they know, but also how willing they are to engage in “what if” conversations that could yield new research avenues both for them and the questioner. While it can be a bit intimidating to speculate in the midst of a job talk, if done well, it can give the impression that you are confident, creative, and willing to collaborate.

3. Create connections. Speaking of collaboration, it’s common for faculty candidates to use several minutes of their talk to describe their future plans for research, but, typically, those descriptions focus on what the candidate would do on his or her own. That’s all well and good, but, in my experience, the most outstanding candidates have gone a step further to describe potential research collaborations with members of our faculty or create connections between their work and what they know of our department’s activity.

When I’m on a search committee, I always listen carefully to see how well their plans complement and expand our department’s or college’s research portfolio. Even if some of the collaborations seem a bit unlikely, this approach shows that you’ve done your homework about faculty who may soon become your colleagues and that you are excited about the opportunity to work with them. (Tip: If you have a chance to meet with some faculty members prior to your job talk, you can float the idea of a potential collaboration in your conversations with them, and then make reference to those conversations during your talk. This goes even further to demonstrate your willingness to brainstorm with and learn from your potential colleagues.)

These are just a few suggestions to consider as you put a job talk together. What would others suggest that job candidates do (or avoid doing) during a presentation to make the best impression?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user wstryder.]

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