A Good INTRO

I used to be petrified of public speaking. I would only give talks during my PhD when I absolutely had to. I was always concerned that I would forget something, make a mistake or be asked a question for which I had no answer. I was even nervous about being too nervous!

Then I started a business where I had to present all of the time. My fears went partly because of regularly being in situations where I had to present, but also because I went out of my way to explore ways to give talks. I liked to find out about how to structure talks, particularly the beginnings. I knew that if I could get that right I’d feel good about the rest of the presentation, whether it was ten minutes or two hours.

A few years ago, my good friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared an effective tool for starting talks with me. The tool is, fittingly, called INTRO and is an acronym to provide structure for the start of a presentation:

  • Interest: start by sharing something that will grab the audience’s attention, a fact, an image, a joke.
  • Need: say why what you’re going to talk about is important. Why does it need to be addressed?
  • Title: share the title of the talk.
  • Range: say something about how long you’ll speak for, what you might cover and how you want to handle questions.
  • Objective: close your introduction by sharing what you goal is with speaking. Is there something you want the audience to do as a result?

I really like how it helps start things off but also leads to a good overview. There’s a nice logic to it, and done well it can be a great start to a presentation. I think the five prompts also give a great format to create a summary of your research when it’s time to prepare for the viva.

  • Interest: how did you become interested in your field of research?
  • Need: what need does your thesis address?
  • Title: what is your thesis’ title, and why?
  • Range: what does your thesis cover?
  • Objective: what do you hope that someone would know, think or do after reading it?

Give INTRO a try when you next prepare a talk, see if it helps. Try it too when your viva is on the way to help break down what your work is all about.

Going Further

I like creative thinking tools. (see previously!) I’m also intrigued by people who write up their thesis but have clear ideas for what they would do next. I didn’t have that at all. The most I could see was perhaps learning C++ to code a few algorithms, but apart from that I didn’t know what I could do next to take my research further.

Fortunately, I have a creative thinking tool for that: SCAMPER, an acronym of ways to innovate. Each letter is a different prompt for re-examining an idea or solution. There are lots of ways it can be used, but I think for the purposes of thinking how to develop research it is useful just to take each prompt at face value. If you’re thinking around your research area as part of your viva prep, the following could help.

  • Substitute: what could you change in your current research to get something valuable?
  • Combine: how could you blend your research with something else to find something innovative?
  • Adapt: is it possible to adapt a process or method you’ve already used successfully for something else?
  • Magnify: can you find something valuable by emphasising aspects of your prior research?
  • Put to other use: can you apply what you’ve done in another context?
  • Eliminate: how could you get an interesting result by removing aspects of your existing research or process?
  • Rearrange: how can you take what you’ve already done and remix to find something great?

Your examiners might not ask about future directions that your research could go in. An exercise like this can help lead you to interesting ideas, and it won’t hurt you to have more of them, will it?

SWOTting Up

SWOT is a neat thinking tool: rather than just throw ideas around to try to unpick a problem or situation it uses words to direct attention. As an acronym it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. For example, if you had an idea for writing a book and wanted to analyse it you might think about the following:

  • Strengths: what resources do you have? What knowledge can you pass on?
  • Weaknesses: what will you struggle with in the writing? What is difficult to share?
  • Opportunities: can you use the same material for something else? What doors might it open?
  • Threats: why might this not work? Is there a potential downside by doing it?

I love tools based around framing words and SWOT is a really flexible tool. It works well for reviewing a PhD thesis during viva preparation too:

  • Strengths: what are the highlights of the thesis? What might others find valuable?
  • Weaknesses: what parts are difficult to explain? What are the limitations of what you’ve done?
  • Opportunities: how might you extend your work? What can you do now?
  • Threats: how might someone criticise what you’ve done? Are there any potential problems?

What else can you do to look at your thesis a little bit differently?

SMART Viva Prep

I’m a big fan of SMART, the acronym of criteria for effective goal-setting. There are various definitions; my personal flavour of SMART is Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve banged my head against a wall with a project, then realised it was because I wasn’t really defining what I was trying to do. SMART always brings me back on track.

Want to set a good plan in motion for your viva prep? Use SMART and the following questions to help frame your prep plans:

  • Specific: what exactly are you going to do? “Read my thesis” isn’t specific; read Chapters 2 and 3 is specific.
  • Measurable: how will you know when you’re done? It’s easy to keep going and going. What tells you to stop?
  • Advantages: why are you doing this? (hopefully easy in the context of viva prep!)
  • Realistic: is it do-able given your time and resources? It’s important not to try to squeeze too much in to a limited schedule.
  • Time-bound: how much time are you aiming to give to a task? And what will you do afterwards?

Being SMART will remove some of the challenges. You’ll still have to do the work, but you’re used to that by now. Plan your success.