viva? conference presentation? it’s all about the ‘improv’

So it’s one of those academic occasions when you have to present yourself and your work  – to people who are there to judge you. Think the viva. The interview panel. The first encounter with a new class. The conference presentation to an unfamiliar audience.  A high stakes occasion. Scary.  When you present yourself and your work at the same time, you and your work become one – a performance of scholar, scholarship and scholarly work all wrapped up into one make-or-break event.

There’s often a whole lot of anticipatory shakin’ goin’ on before such occasions. And with very good reason. We’ve all heard stories about the perfectly capable person who flubbed their interview presentation to staff and didn’t get the vote or the job. Or the recognised expert whose conference paper was incomprehensible because they were so wound up.  Or the viva where the person could hardly manage a word.  We may even have witnessed some of these occasions – or worse still have actually had the experience ourselves, and if so, it’s one we never want to repeat.


Improvisation – Eric Decossaux. Not a viva…

But hang on. Nerves are not just something that happens to other people. The reality is that most of us have had at least one academic performance experience we’d rather not remember. Apart from anything else, it’s hard to be on point all the time. Anyone who does a lot of public speaking will tell you that sometimes things just don’t go as well as they might.

It ought to be comforting to know that you’re not alone. But much of the time, the occasions when other people marginally flop don’t usually seem as bad as the one where it really matters if you do … The viva. The interview panel. The first encounter with a new class.  Shudder. The problem with these occasions-that-matter-more-than-most is that they require a tricky combination of knowing your stuff, managing the technical details and giving a performance of a particular kind of ‘self’ all at the same time.

There’s a lot of helpful advice out there about some of these kinds of situations, combined with personal testimony and handy hints. But a lot of the advice doesn’t quite deal with the particular combination of  content, process and a ‘you’ that are at stake. Just take the viva as an example.


By the time, you hand in your thesis you know your stuff pretty well. In fact, for a short time after you hand in you can probably just about recite particular pages by heart. This accuracy dulls after a while. But of course you can always read the text again before the viva, just to refresh your memory. And you do.

And knowing your stuff  is the one bit of the viva that you are often told you can feel most sure about. Really? I’m not so sure.

The rub is that the viva is the very first time you hear what someone other than your supervisors and your mates have to say about three years or more of your life’s work.  Even if you do know your stuff back to front and inside out, you still don’t know what the examiners  are going to say. Because knowing your material is one thing – and knowing how it will be seen by examiners is another. Feeling nervous is a perfectly logical and sensible response to this kind of uncertainty.

And you could say the same thing about a conference presentation or an interview. You can know your material VERY well, but you don’t know how it will be received.


Most people do preparatory work for the viva – thinking of the questions they might get asked. Prep work can be very helpful, although in my experience examiners often ask things that aren’t on those lists of common viva questions. But the process of the viva isn’t just questions and pre-rehearsed answers to predictable questions. It’s also what you aren’t expecting. It’s about things you haven’t prepared for. So it’s not very sensible to feel completely serene about having a lot of prepared answers to predictable questions.  You will need to compose an answer on the spot – one that’ s not too long and not too short, making sure that you don’t lose track half-way through.

And yes, it can be helpful to think about techniques and props to assist you to extemporise. Write notes to self. Drink water. Pause and repeat the question. All good stuff. It’s OK to have some kind of prepared actions to fall back on if you need to. And of course, you can ask for clarification if you don’t understand. You can’t do that with every question though or you look silly. So, you can ask, but not too much.

But regardless of all the props you can carry and muster at the time, you still need to talk and at the same time think about how you are doing in the presentation and whether you need to modify or change what you are doing. You have to monitor your own performance as you are performing.

The viva is not just about one you’ve prepared earlier. It’s also about improvisation, thinking on your feet. It’s about listening to a question, translating it in your head, and then providing a succinct answer.

Now a lot of people swear by mock vivas. I agree that they can be useful. But I think there is a clear and present danger that some people see mock vivas as a means of practising a script, talking about what they think are likely to be the actual questions that they will be asked. I think that’s dangerous – see above. A better use for a mock viva is as a rehearsal in how you might improvise and self-monitor, remember what you know, think about how you are coming across – all at the same time. It’s an occasion to see what this tricky process is like, and how you might manage to extemporise in a convincing way about your work.

There’s an equivalent in conference and class presentation too –  although scripted practice is a more secure approach here as you do have a longer time to do the pre-prepared material. But there’still comes a point where it’s improv.

The performing scholarly you

The tricky bit of vivas, conferences is where you have to think about how to project a combination of comfortable, confident and chutzpah. There is something helpful to be said for thinking about this as a performance, and thinking about what can be learnt from performance practice.

Actors know that they must deal with nerves and don’t worry if they experience them. It’s part and parcel of their game. They know that they must be well prepared, learn their lines, and even if they forget them must carry on as if nothing is wrong. This is a not unhelpful attitude for high stakes scholarly performances too. As long as there are occasions when we have to get up on our feet and project ourselves and our work into a scary context we have to find ways to deal with the moment by moment self-aware actions that we take.

It’s not all that silly to consider what you will wear, how you will actually speak (lexicon, tone, volume), the props you might want to take in with you, how you will make connections with your audience… and perhaps study those who embody and perform the kind of scholar that you want to be. But, you still always need to anticipate a random left of centre question from the examiner/audience, and counter the effect that nerves might have on your capacity to respond … 

Now I know the idea of performance goes against the grain for many people who prize feeling ‘authentic’. And for those of us of a more critical bent, focusing on a performance can feel a bit like a game you don’t want to play, too performative altogether.  But on the other hand, games and performances do require a kind of analysis of rules and expectations and fashioning a show for a particular occasion – this is about playing the game to win when it counts most.

And the more you do improv – you rehearse for an improvised performance – the more you come to understand what’s involved. And the more you get used to working through and with the nerves. That doesnt mean it gets easier – just more familiar.

I’m interested in ways that people have found to think about these kinds of sweaty tricky performative occasions … how do you manage the embodied and frequently anxiety-inducing combination of self-critical and self-aware performance of your scholarship and you the scholar?


P. S. I have noticed a couple of universities where theatre practitioners offer workshops to help staff and doctoral researchers learnt improvisation and rehearsal techniques. Onya, I say.  Way to go.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conference, conference presentation, conference questions, conference survival tips, improvisation, rehearsal, Uncategorized, viva and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to viva? conference presentation? it’s all about the ‘improv’

  1. Hi Pat. This is such a great article. Thank you.
    I’m a performing musician and scholar, and find that this blend of experience really comes to the fore when presenting at conferences. My approach is to have a really well prepared series of slides which provide a timed structure, so that I’m never in that awful situation of seeing the ‘five minute’ slide and having to compress 15 minutes into five. I then use notes, with ‘essential information’ written out in script, and then ‘other information’ in bullet point notes. I practice/rehearse the presentation aiming to get to the point where the essential information is almost from memory—I always take my printed notes in with me and hold them in my hand—and then the ‘other information’ becomes semi-improvised. These are the spaces where content can be adjusted for the audience, incorporating relevant themes that have arisen, for example, in presentations by other people. And then, it’s all about actually engaging with the audience. Using movement to emphasise your message (never let yourself be anchored to a laptop screen, or worse still, hidden behind a console). I use movement as coded cues for the audience – for example, stepping forward to emphasise a point or deliver a personal observation, and then stepping back to ‘return’ to the presentation. I also always approach the audience during question time, so this becomes a dialogue/conversation rather than a Q&A. This really helps with tricky questions, as it takes the presenter out of the ‘hot seat’. It also enables you to activate the support of others to turn a tricky question into a great conversation.
    Ultimately, as a musician I know that I’ll never come out of a gig having delivered a perfect performance which will have convinced 100% of the audience 100% of the time. That’s just not even possible. What matters is how effectively I’ve communicated with the audience and shared my own conviction in what I’m doing. Have I made eye contact with people? Have I smiled? Have I communicated how I feel about the music? Have I enjoyed myself? Presenting research is exactly the same. Aim for, say, 75% solid research and preparation, and then dedicate 20% to sharing your passion and enthusiasm for what you do, with 5% learning to accept the flaws and weaknesses that make us human.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathleen Connell says:

    Personally performing, theatrics, improvisations and confidence in conference presentation is not a problem for me. I have spent a lot of my life on the stage and so its ‘natural’. Many people have not had the opportunity to do this type of work and I understand how scary it can be when standing up to present. In academia though, the scary side for me is having an argument, understanding its shortcomings, yet mentally sticking with what you have found, interpreted and how you’ve approached it and arguing its validity. I guess this might be the work or approach of a legally trained person, and that is not everybody’s cup of tea . The adversarial side of academia is scarier for me, than the performance side. Just a thought.


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