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From Scholarly Scaffolding to the 3-Second Rule

This afternoon a friend of mine will be giving a job talk as part of an on-campus interview. She has done this several times before, but since she’s tackling a new topic, she gathered a group of colleagues last week for a trial run. My friend is an exceptionally talented scholar—that was abundantly clear in her talk—but, as specialists in criticism, our little focus group came up with a number of notes to improve her already compelling presentation. Several of those “advanced” job-talk ideas were fresh to me, and I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting pointers here.

1. Prepare off-the-cuff remarks to warm up the audience. Some of the most important aspects of the presentation are outside the scholarship itself. Instead of diving immediately into your notes, take a moment to speak directly to your audience in a more candid way.

This can begin with a simple thanks for their attendance, but while it should seem more casual and less academically crafted, preparation is key here. Important work can be done in these few brief sentences. Look at the informal introduction as an opportunity to provide additional scholarly scaffolding in support of two questions: Why is this research important in a general way to the life of the mind? And why has it captured your attention in a special way?

With sensitivity to the range of backgrounds represented in the room (are students present? faculty members from outside the department?), you should temper the remarks for greater or lesser specificity. Also, as someone shared in my friend’s walk-through, a good joke in these opening moments counts double in earning good will from the audience.

2. Use your technology to pace the presentation. Whether you use Prezi or a paper handout (and it’s always good to have a handout to fall back on), design your materials not only to illustrate and support key points but also to guide the audience through the arc of the presentation.

Don’t be afraid of a basic outline. Roman numerals can help distinguish central tenets from local color, while giving you room to deliver both in an effective way. Plot the moments when you should change slides in order to best represent transitions in your argument.

And if you do rely more simply on a paper handout, avoid asking your audience to read complicated material while you discuss it. For most of us, the more intricate the information on the page or screen, the more likely we are to lose track of the discourse. You should think of the refocusing time after an image, audio-visual clip, printed quotation, etc., as a natural pause in your presentation. Use it strategically.

3. Answer each question in terms of how it piques your interest in a larger conversation. It can be tempting to treat posttalk inquiries as you would objections at a dissertation defense. You’ve probably thought through potential questions at such length that you can see some of them coming a mile away. But launching too quickly into definitive answers may seem defensive, “pre-canned,” or even dismissive of the audience.

Perhaps it’s a good rule to count to three after each query in order to give yourself time to take into account the specifics of this particular scrutiny and to show the seriousness with which you’re approaching the thought. Your answers to the questions should situate your work in relationship to individual audience members and to suggest, even subtly, possible avenues of collaboration. You can’t do that if you’re focused solely on getting to the right answer as quickly as possible.

Of course these notes are by no means an exhaustive list of what job candidates should consider as they prepare their talks. And the simple fact that I hadn’t heard these particular pointers before makes me wonder what other ideas have I been missing. In your experience, what aspects of the job talk are most frequently overlooked?

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