How can a busy scientist prioritize items that are urgent and important?
August 4, 2013 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm a research scientist and I sometimes give presentations. Presentations are unique because, while they aren't the most important part of my work, there is a built-in deadline. I can only work on them until the presentation time, and then I won't get another chance to redo that particular presentation. Most other things I can work on until they are done in the order of what is most important. But giving a good presentation is still pretty important. So when I have a presentation coming up it is hard to decide what to work on first. If I work mainly on the presentation then I feel like I am postponing my important regular research, which isn't great. If I work mainly on the research, then I feel like I am resigning myself to giving a more mediocre presentation, which isn't great either—it makes it less likely that people will understand the work and isn't good for my reputation generally. If I try to switch back and forth I lose concentration and energy due to the difficulty of context switching. Do you have suggestions for how to set priorities in this scenario or what has worked for you?
posted by grouse to Work & Money (6 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Can you go through your old talks and build a 'stock' presentation (or maybe a couple of stock presentations) that you customize as needed for each talk? You can get some slides with the overview and background of your research ready to go at a minimum. Should make the actual putting together part much less onerous.
posted by zug at 5:26 PM on August 4, 2013

I agree with zug about the 'stock presentation' idea, but assuming this is a new one that you can't use a stock presentation for, this is how I usually do it:

0. While I'm doing the research, I mull off and on about how best to present it, i.e., what the interesting points are, etc. If I don't think about this then, it's a good way to do irrelevant or uninteresting research. But I don't worry at all about the presentation until...

1. A week or two before I have to give it, I sit down and come up with a skeleton of the presentation. I figure out two important things at this point: (a) the overall logical structure of ideas; and (b) what key figures or results I want to show. At this point it usually becomes apparent, if it wasn't already, what still remains to be done in terms of research needed to generate those figures or results.

2. Do what I need to do to generate the remaining research and corresponding figures. If there is downtime during this process (e.g., a simulation is running or whatever) and I don't need to use the downtime for other tasks (e.g., teaching a class) I use the downtime to work on fleshing out the talk. But most of my efforts are on doing the research.

3. The last 2 days before a talk, I pretty much only work on the talk. I am pretty hesitant to talk about research that I haven't had at least a few days to think about, so I don't usually put new research or figures in at this stage. Here I just spend a lot of time streamlining the story, figuring out how best to explain complicated things, tweaking the graphs to make them better, etc. etc.

Now, your mileage may vary: I think in another life I would very much have enjoyed doing visual design, and I find the last days of streamlining the presentation really fun and actually kind of soothing. So it doesn't feel like it's all a mad rush to me. I also have a decently high tolerance for being okay giving a not-completely-perfect presentation, so if some emergency came up in those last two days then it wouldn't be the end of the world. But this way I ensure that at the very least I have a workable structure for the presentation, and spend most of my early time on the actual research; but the last few days of fine-tuning generally mean that the presentation itself turns out reasonably polished as well.
posted by forza at 5:36 PM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

If I may suggest...

You should view the situation from the point of view that preparing for a presentation takes x amount of time. It's not really a question of prioritization, because no matter when you prioritize the presentation prep, it will still take x time. Research will always have to wait. So do it when it fits, or do it early, or whenever.

Also, apply the Pareto Principle to the prep to reduce the time investment. You can get 80% of the prep done in 20% of the time. Put that time in early. Do the remaining 20% of the work that takes 80% of the time when it fits in your schedule over a fairly long period. Since you are making finer and finer adjustments as time goes on, you can stop at any point in the refinement (at the deadline) with minimal consequence.

Good Luck,

posted by gnossos at 10:27 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

You should view the situation from the point of view that preparing for a presentation takes x amount of time. It's not really a question of prioritization, because no matter when you prioritize the presentation prep, it will still take x time. Research will always have to wait. So do it when it fits, or do it early, or whenever.

This is more or less what I do. I do a lot of public speaking on topics that I know a decent amount about but are different from "presenting my research" sorts of things and that's actually been helpful to help me prioritize. I look at it like this

- for the most part the presentation should be about making what I already know into presentation-form which means breaking it down into discrete chunks and making it more palatable for an "I talk you listen" setup.
- this means I need an arc to my talk, the details to fill in the arc, and the layout/images/words to fill in those details, each of those takes a certain percentage of my time (and it's really easy to make finding slide clip art expand to fill all available time)
- the talk will be X minutes then I need Y slides
- when I did the talk in Z minutes last time it was a little long/short so I should actually make Y +/- B slides.
- when I prepared for C hours last time I felt over/under prepared so I'm aiming for D hours this time
- (this may not be a point that matters to you) I am getting paid a certain amount for this, so preparing for 50 hours reduces my income for this to $F/hour which is silly.

After a while, I found the rhythm that worked for me and it was usually more or less like this

1. A few weeks before the presentation, I'd start my slide deck and then outline a list of talking points on them and then try to write out a rough talk in notes (I often still use notecards). Basically ignore this for another week or two, think about it in the shower, right down random notes when I think of them. Review what I said I'd be doing to make sure I was on target.
2. A week before I'd start to make the actual skeleton of this talk, try to make sure every slide has a thing on it, talk to friends about my ideas to see if I am leaving anything out.
3. About three days before the talk (especially if I have a day of travel in there) I get down to filling in the blanks, making the slides, assembling links for handouts, making a little web page with links, checking old links, etc. I usually spend one day mostly doing this I often leave the final slide/conclusion til last.
4. The next day I always say "I will do more on this" and then I always get caught up doing something else and never get to it. This used to make me panic, now I realize that for some odd reason it's part of my process.
5. Evening before the talk (or before travel) I do a run-through, make sure everything works, links are right, timing is good, then I upload it and ignore it

I used to be a nut about talks, spending weeks sort of agonizing over the right phrasing/examples/etc. After a while I started giving myself grades of how well the talk went and then I'd compare it to how well I prepared. I found, often, that there was a sweet spot of preparation time where I would not kill myself and the talks came out pretty well. Under that and I sometimes had less good talks (felt like they didn't flow, that I'd missed an obvious example, that I wasn't as confident) over that and I felt like it didn't matter, that the talks weren't getting better necessarily and I was just burning hours for no reason. And, of course, there's always the X-factor of how the audience is on any given day that no amount of preparation can really mitigate.

I also found that one thing that was really helpful to me was to make each talk somewhat new even if i was going over the same topics. Giving the same talk a few times always had slightly diminishing returns, like I never gave it quite as well as the first time. This is not an awful thing if I just wanted to give a good comfortable talk but it's nice to be able to really give an excellent presentation and recycled talks often couldn't do that for me.
posted by jessamyn at 5:34 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Develop a set of principles and mental templates for how you structure presentations and how you format and lay out slides, if you don't already. When you're doing your research, be on the lookout for opportunities to get photos and figures that will present well, and keep them organized on your computer. Talk about your research often, ideally with non-scientists, so that you can get a feel for how to break down your work and highlight the most interesting aspects of it in the most concise and accessible way possible. Save your old presentations and don't be afraid to borrow from them where appropriate -- formatting, figures, phrases, and occasionally whole slides can be recycled.
posted by Scientist at 1:12 PM on August 5, 2013

You could take the point of view that preparing the presentation is part of, not separate from, your research. It's the time when you step back and take a different view of what you are working on. It's all too easy to get sucked into the details of "regular research."

Giving a good talk is super duper important, at least in my field. Time and time again, I see people with mediocre publication records get jobs because they get out there and give lots of good talks.
posted by pizzazz at 2:59 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

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