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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ten tips for giving a job talk that doesn't suck

The following was written by my FIU colleague Joelle Moreno. Joelle is the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and a former Guest Prawf.

Remember you are salmon swimming upstream

Every school that paid the big bucks to attend the meat market is bringing back a slate of candidates.  It may only be six, but more likely it is ten to twelve.  This means that the faculty is exhausted before the first candidate even arrives.

Most of you have received bad advice.

If the 75 job talks I have attended over the past dozen years are any indication, most faculty candidates have been advised that the goal is to convince the faculty that you are a deep thinker and the smartest person in the room.   This is bad advice.  Your goal is to be interesting, to make us understand why you care, and to leave us wanting more.

 Here are 10 tips for giving a job talk that doesn't suck:

1.                  Don't be Boring

Your most important and challenging task is not to convince us that you are smart.  Assume that all of the candidates we have invited to campus are smart.  You have 30 minutes to make us care about your ideas and your work.  The best way to do this is to explain why you care.

2.                  Be Clear

Use road maps and signposts.  Begin with a road map for your talk that explains why you are interested in this topic and what you hope to accomplish in your talk and your research.  Use sign posts to signal transitions (e.g., "I'll begin with a brief discussion of the legal history."  "Now I will explain why recent developments in behavioral economics provide new insight.")

3.                  Don't be Slick

If you try to sex-up your talk, name drop rock star academics, or imbue your talk with jargon, you don't sound smart, you sound arrogant. 

4.                  Be Organized

Start strong and end strong.

5.                  Don't be a Techie, Unless....

Don't use PowerPoint unless you plan to show us:  (1) pictures (e.g., If your work focuses on the environmental impact of particular regulations on a rare spotted songbird; show us the bird); or (2) a simple graphic that illustrates complex information (e.g., a graph showing trends, a timeline).  If you must use PowerPoint do not trick your slides out with fancy animations or cute cartoons. 

6.                  Be Prepared

A good job talk provokes questions and debate.  This is not a happy accident.  You must make this happen.  If you present your ideas clearly and explain why these questions are interesting, we will engage with you.  The best way to provoke good questions and comments is to practice giving your job talk to three of the smartest people you know -- who know nothing about the subject -- and then revise based on their suggestions.

7.                   Don't be Unrealistic

Don't waste time during your talk regaling us with the details of your brilliant and ambitious research agenda.  Instead, near the end of your talk raise three provocative questions that you intend to explore in the future and invite us to respond.

8.                  Be Relaxed, but not too Relaxed

Use notes.  It is a short talk and you need to stay on task especially if you are interrupted with questions.  Besides, Spaulding Gray needed his notebook and he was a more interesting speaker than any of us will ever be.  But don't ever read anything especially a PowerPoint slide.

9.                  Don't be a Suck-Up

Do not tell us that at dinner last night our colleague Bill offered wonderful insight that has really changed the way that you are looking at these questions.  Even if you are genuinely nice person who hopes befriend our entire faculty, you sound like an obsequious sycophant.  Besides, Bill may be the biggest and most vacuous blowhard on our faculty (we all have at least one); so you are not sucking up, you are sucking down.

10.                  Be Reasonable

Do not, under any circumstances, speak for more than 30 minutes.

Finally, remember it's not just what you say, it's how you say it.  Communicate your enthusiasm.  Use your voice (volume and pacing) for emphasis.  Use your space; don't trap yourself behind the podium.  Make eye contact with us and assess our interest.  If we start to look bored, change it up, throw us a question, or grab our attention by telling us the most interesting thing you can think of about your work.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 20, 2011 at 11:39 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Great list. I would add, under "Be Prepared" - prepare just as, if not more, carefully for the Q&A session. This is where many job talks either take off or crash. Some points:

1. Always treat questions respectfully. (Should be obvious, but not always observed).

2. Listen to the question carefully to make sure you understand the gist of the question and address it. Ask for clarification if necessary. It's bad when you completely misunderstand the question. Even worse when you don't address it, or dodge it.

3. Don't be defensive. This can be hard, especially if the question is a pointed one. But try to take the question as a friendly amendment.

In the end, you want to try to cultivate an atmosphere that resembles a really great seminar discussion, with lots of questions, engagement, back-and-forth, and excitement.

Posted by: Joe Liu | Oct 25, 2011 7:45:55 AM

The advice about "don't read" is really important -- the job talk isn't just about scholarship; for schools that care about teaching (i.e., those outside the top 20 or so [LOL]), the job talk is also the most meaningful opportunity the faculty has to assess your potential as a teacher. If you can't present an articulate, lively presentation that will maintain our interest without reading on a topic you've had weeks to prepare for, how are you going to be able to do so with our students class after class through a whole semester when you have only a matter of hours, or at most a day or so to prepare?

I'm personally highly suspicious of anyone who either has a detailed script or seems to have the talk memorized, harboring concerns that if they need that much preparation to speak about a subject that they've been intimately involved with for months, they'll be unable to communicate effectively with students on subject matter in their courses that they're less familiar with. Of course, how one handles the unscripted Q&A can at least partially address these concerns; but if there's a noticeable decline in articulateness from the prepared portion of the talk to the handling of questions, you can expect to lose the votes of those who seriously values teaching. And on our faculty, I think that's the majority.

Posted by: Dave Glazier | Oct 22, 2011 10:58:04 AM

This is excellent advice. Two tweaks, though.

Re: "don't trap yourself behind the podium." There are pacers and non-pacers, both in giving talks and in teaching. If you are a non-pacer -- you stay in one place while making a presentation -- work at being the best you can at what you are, not in making stylistic changes that may distract you when trying to focus on the substance of your talk. I've seen awkward job talks during which the candidate steps away from the podium and toward the audience in a way that seems more like awkward staging than the relaxed pacing of an experienced academic. So just do what you do best.

Also -- if you're going to need a microphone, tell the person who is setting up your visit, and then if the mic is not a clip-on, don't walk away from it. People without booming voices get teaching jobs. But it will be harder if the faculty can't hear your workshop.

"I don't ever, ever, ever, ever read a talk." As a general rule, reading is not good. But this is field-specific. I *deliver* (rather than simply read) written remarks all the time. It's common for historians to do that. If you are using a historical narrative to make your argument, the talk will involve telling a short version of that story. You may find that you can do that best by distilling a section of your paper to a few well-crafted sentences. Delivering them in a compelling way (rather than simply reading from the page) can be very effective. You're likely to find that if you practice, practice, practice, and if you give your talk to friends, you'll get to a point where you've pretty much memorized the talk, so that the text simply serves as a reminder.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Oct 22, 2011 10:33:09 AM

Ditto. It's like haiku or something. Could be a signal that the candidate is the next Joseph Vining.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 21, 2011 10:30:58 AM

I consider it a good use of powerpoint to show me a bird whose features are of no consequence to the talk. For the record.

Posted by: Jay Wexler | Oct 21, 2011 10:07:24 AM

Generally a sound list. But I don't think you need to avoid Powerpoint as much as is suggested here. There are good and bad uses of Powerpoint, of course (and I consider it a bad use to show me a bird whose features are of no consequence to the talk). But law professors are easily distracted with their gadgets -- not unlike students -- and Powerpoint can focus attention on your main points. In an ideal world, everyone will read your paper. In the real world, they will at least read your slides.

Don't dream of speaking for 30 minutes.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Oct 20, 2011 7:01:39 PM

AnonTX, if you make it far enough into the process, incense and swords are involved. At least, they are at Alabama; other schools' practices may vary. Just worry about one thing at a time for now.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 20, 2011 6:26:29 PM

Thanks for these tips. I really appreciate these tidbits that you folks have shared with us on this mysterious process. Prior to my preparation for the "meat market," I assumed the process for selecting law professors involved incense and swords!

Posted by: anonTX | Oct 20, 2011 5:59:13 PM

Not a bad list for anybody giving a presentation.

Posted by: shg | Oct 20, 2011 5:44:01 PM

This is HANDS DOWN the ABSOLUTE BEST list of tips for job talks I have ever seen, and we've all seen plenty of them. Thanks for sharing this. I genuinely hope, for their sakes and ours, that every candidate on the market sees this.

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Oct 20, 2011 2:18:52 PM

Good advice. I think 30 minutes is absolutely stretching it to the limit. I'd aim for more like 20-25. Here's a tip. Most of us speak about 120 words per minute. I don't ever, ever, ever, ever read a talk, but I do tend to organize it by writing out the script in full sentences. The benefit is that it tells me how many words I have (thanks to Word's word count tool), and if I divide by 120, it gives me the length if I talk too fast. Even better is to divide by 100, which means I have to slow down a little.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Oct 20, 2011 1:56:49 PM

As someone who went through the market last year and is watching it from the other end this year, I think these suggestions are spot on.

I would only add that there is a role to be played by hiring committees to help ensure successful job talks. Each school should make clear to the candidate in advance of the candidate's visit the school's norms and expectations (without the candidate having to inquire -- though the candidate should). I understand that it is frustrating when a candidate presents a talk in a way that violates the school's underwritten expectations, but it's probably more frustrating/disappointing for the candidate, who is dinged for violating norms she didn't know about.

Posted by: Michael Teter | Oct 20, 2011 12:35:14 PM

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