Surviving the Presentation

For our discussion topic this week, I’d like to tackle an issue that’s likely on the minds of many ArLiSNAPers these days: giving an effective presentation during a job interview.

I work at the University of Michigan Library, and we’re currently in the process of filling a large number of librarian positions.  For nearly all of the positions, a presentation is a required part of the interview process.  I’ve spent the last few weeks going to a staggering number of candidate presentations.  I’ve seen bad ones, good ones, and great ones.  Here are a few thoughts I’d like to share:

  1. Even if you’re not on the job market, go to these presentations anyway.  They’re often open to library staff or other members of the community, and they can give you a sense of what to expect.  Even if they’re for positions outside of your subject area, you can still gain valuable tips for success.
  2. If you’re the candidate, try to find out beforehand where you’ll be giving the talk, who will be there, what technology will be available, etc.  Knowing these things up front can help make your presentation better by allowing you to tailor it to your audience and venue.
  3. Employers often give you a topic to address.  If you don’t understand what you’re being asked to talk about (for example, the topic is long, rambling, and appears to have been picked by a large committee with conflicting interests), don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
  4. While keeping this topic in mind, think about the purpose of the presentation.  Do they want you to demonstrate your skill as an instructor?  Knowledge of particular resources?  Critical thinking about an issue that’s important to the profession?  Use this thought exercise as a way to guide your choice of presentation style and content.
  5. If you’ll be using PowerPoint, Keynote, or other presentation software, take some time to look at the work of Edward Tufte, particularly The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.  Think about how you can avoid presenting your audience with nothing but bullet points and copious amounts of text.  We are art librarians, after all!
  6. If you’ll be demonstrating a particular resource (particularly electronic resources like ARTstor, the Avery Index, an OPAC, etc.), make sure you know it extremely well, including all of its potential quirks.  Be prepared to soldier on (while remaining calm!) if something goes wrong.
  7. Practice your presentation!  Get feedback from peers, mentors, supervisors, etc.  Practice some more!
  8. Be prepared for at least one completely off the wall question during the Q&A afterward.  Don’t let it rattle you.  The same goes for hard questions you’re not able to answer.  Don’t be afraid to say, “Can I think about that for a minute?”
  9. Remember that the presentation is only one part of the much larger interview process.  Don’t limit your prep work to the presentation and then completely blow it on the search committee interview.
  10. Let your personality show through!  You’re funny, personable, and a great conversationalist, right?  Then don’t act like a robot when you get up in front of the audience.

Have other questions or advice about surviving the presentation?  Comment away!


  1. Here are some tips if your presentation is to be conducted similar to a regular library instruction sesstion (i.e. Database demo, How to research X topic, etc.)

    – Try to relate your presentation to the school and its curriculum when possible. Most institutions will provide curriculum information on their Website. Look at the courses to give you an idea of what is taught and use this as inspiration for creating your presentation. Consider selecting a course as your “sample class”. Refer to real classes taught at the institution and real professors. This will make it relevant, show you’ve done your research and help you with your research of the institution.

    – If you’re going to do live searches, bring a back-up version of screenshots. Let me reprase that… DO LIVE SEARCHES, but bring a back-up version of screenshots. And make sure it is MAC and PC compatible.

    – Involve your audience as you would in a regular teaching session. Ask them questions. Make them brainstorm with you. Etc.

    – Provide handouts as you would for a regular teaching session.

    – Provide class surveys as you would for a regular teaching session.

    – Provide rewards for participation, if you usually do this while teaching.

    – Remember, many of the people in your audience may not be art librarians, much less librarians at all, so you are very likely teaching them new things. Just like in a real library instruction session. This should put you at ease.

    – Smile

  2. I echo Jill’s recommendation to approach the presentation as if it were an instruction session. I personally find that if I think of it as an opportunity to interactively demonstrate personal knowledge that others are going to be interested in, it takes the edge off of nervousness and feeling the pressure to look like an expert.

    I’m providing a link to a PDF handout created by Duke University’s excellent Center for Instructional Technology, about avoiding “Death by Powerpoint”. As the title suggests, it provides advice on creating compelling visuals that will enhance your presentation, not distract from it.

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