Sitting through presentations you can’t stand

An unfortunate part of grad school (and academia) is that you’re often required to attend presentations on either subjects you can’t stand or by presenters who simply can’t present. Sometimes, these two come together and it’s a double-whammy.

However, you can’t just not go (as much as you wish that was the case). And instead, it’s better to learn early how to sit through terrible presentations, without being that person. You know, the one who distracts everyone else or is so blatant that they aren’t paying attention.

The goal, is to look like you’re paying attention when you’re really not. Or course, you may be a better person than me, and can actually manage to force yourself to pay attention during these talks. If that’s the case, ignore my advice and tell me how you do it.

If you know a presentation isn’t going to be your piece of cake, then be proactive and take a seat near the back. Let the people who really want to be there sit closer to the front, and then there’s less people for you to distract.

The following is a list of possible distractions you might try to use, and some of the benefits/drawbacks of them. However, should you use one of these, make sure that you aren’t working on a task that requires a lot of attention. You should make it a point to look up at the presentation often.

  • Laptops/Tablets – I don’t recommend using these, because anyone sitting behind you can usually figure out from your screen that you’re not taking notes. And even those in front of you can guess that if you’re typing pretty continuously. No one takes that many notes. The tablets (like an iPad) might work better, because you can at least keep the screen flat in front of you, and not as many people will be able to tell what you’re doing. If you choose to use one, try to pick a task that won’t suck all your attention away – so no chatting with friends or playing games.
  • Notebooks – These are my favorite. Really, any type of paper is good. First of all, you’re less likely to write continuously, so you’ll remember to look up and pretend to pay attention more often. Second, it’s an individual task, so you’re not likely to get sucked into a conversation with another (unless you start passing notes – and trust me, you’ll end up being obvious if you do so). Also, it’s easy enough to jot down a to-do list, make some doodles, brainstorm ideas for a project, etc. This means you can possibly be productive instead of having the presentation be a waste of time.
  • Phones – Lots of people like taking notes on their phones. Personally, I don’t get this. I have an iPhone, and except for the occasional task or to-do I need to remember, I don’t use it for notes. I find the screen is too tiny and the keyboard is a pain to use for lots of writing. However, be aware, that most people will assume you’re texting if you’re on your phone.
  • Off in your head – if you’re good at getting lost in your own thoughts, this is the perfect time to do so. First of all, you’ll look like you’re watching the presentation and paying attention. Second, you won’t be making any noise so there’s no distraction for anyone around you. You can play mental games, people-watch the rest of the audience, make a mental to-do list, think about your project, etc.

Should you decide to use something electronic, please remember to put it on mute and turn off any possible sounds. You don’t want to be the person whose phone starts ringing or video starts playing.


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