Framing the discussion

I don’t remember much from being in debate in high school. But that’s probably because it barely lasted a semester. I do have one specific memory, and that was when we were told that the most important part of the debate is the introduction by the first speakers, as they get to frame what the actual debate is about. Sure, you get a topic that you’re suppose to debate, but you can use that introduction to define exactly how narrow or broad the debate will be. And, if you’re good at it, you can possibly stump the other team who is expecting a debate on y, and ends up with one more focused on x.

I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days after a discussion with my supervisor. We were talking about my candidacy document, and the few final changes I need to make. And the discussion evolved into one about how it’s really important to frame the discussion and emphasis your contributions. Something I’m not particularly good at. And something I really need to learn how to become better at.

For example, my research is split into a few different pieces. But the main contributions are found in two specific pieces. However, the way I talk about one of the pieces, I focus more on the design and construction of the experiment. While the experiment will be very important – it will (hopefully) validate our expectations – it is not the contribution. That part is more hidden as it’s the underlying architecture that will make the experiment possible. And, so for events like my candidacy, the discussion needs to revolve much more around the contribution, than the experiment. The committee needs to understand that I understand what my contribution is.

Framing the discussion is also very important when you’re writing papers. Most conferences and journals provide a page limit (or cost for extra pages). This means that you will likely have to pick and choose what to say and what to leave out. Often, criticisms for a paper will be along the lines of “you didn’t consider work by x” or “you didn’t talk about y” or “why didn’t you do z”. The best way to prevent those (besides making sure you find as much related work as possible), is making sure that you clearly explain what you’re going to talk about in the paper. If there’s a reason you didn’t do z, tell the reader. If you specifically skipped x or y, be able to explain why if it’s not immediately clear.

Some of the ways you see this being done, is when a papers start by talking about a larger project, and then narrow to the actual scope of the paper. “We are working on x, but here we are specifically going to talk about piece y.” This allows the reader to understand how the work fits in the larger context, but also points out that not all of that is going to be discussed. Therefore the reader understands that the paper is omitting some details on purpose – not because they don’t understand them or think they are unimportant.

Framing the discussion helps make sure that both you and the person you are talking to are talking about the same topic. It helps clarify the topic which usually means less confusion. Now I just need to learn how to be better at putting this into practice. And noticing when I’m not…

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