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Ask Dr. Editor

How to write the script for your job talk

You should carefully consider word choices and sentence structures when you’ve got a high-stakes presentation to give.



I’ve got a job talk coming up, and I’m struggling to balance sounding sufficiently academic on the one hand and, on the other, actually being understandable to a listening audience. I’m really comfortable writing articles and chapters; but when I’ve given conference presentations in the past, it never looks like my audience is fully with me. How do I still sound academic (which is how I think and write naturally) while enabling my listeners to follow me well?

– Anonymous, Religious Studies

Dr. Editor’s answer:

Having sat through too many incomprehensible presentations in graduate school – presentations in my subfield, which I deeply wanted to be able to follow! – I’m so glad that you’re asking this question. I’ve written previously about writing to be heard online, but I think it’s smart to carefully consider your word choices and sentence structures when you’ve got as high-stakes a presentation as a job talk.

To help with my answer, I spoke with my colleague Erin K. Maher, an editor who specializes in supporting humanities researchers. She is one of the three coaches I’ve hired to support participants in the May/June 2024 section of “Becoming a Better Editor of Your Own Work.” Here’s what she advises:

1. Write to your specific audience

Use what you know (or can assume) about your audience to determine which terms you need to define or explain. Without the discursive footnotes or lengthy asides you might use in a written document, you’ll need to be more selective about the context or examples you provide. Look at the department website to get a sense of the faculty members who might be attending, but keep in mind that the audience could also include students and people from other departments. Overexplaining for your target audience risks coming across as patronizing, but if you assume they have expert-level background knowledge and they don’t, you won’t be communicating clearly.

Dr. Maher notes that the difference between reading and listening makes clarity especially important: “When we’re reading a book or article, we can pause to reread a confusing passage or look up an unfamiliar term, but the audience at a live talk is listening in real time. If something doesn’t make sense or a key detail passes them by, they can get lost and not be able to catch up.”

2. Place a noun after the word “this”

When you start a sentence with the word “this,” always place a noun – not a verb – after it. Consider, for example, the following pair of sentences:

The ambiguity of Genesis 18 has posed a challenge for evangelical theologians in establishing a stable interpretation of the chapter. This contributes to the contradictory beliefs about the forms that angels can take.

When read aloud, this pair of sentences has the potential to create confusion for your listeners. Does “this” refer to Genesis 18’s ambiguity, to the challenges faced by these theologians, or the lack of stable interpretations? When you pair the word “this” with a verb, your phrasing lacks clarity. And because your talk will continue to add new information on top of this unclear phrasing, you risk losing your listeners as they struggle to parse your meaning and lose the significance of your argument.

This problem has an easy fix: add a noun after “this.”

The ambiguity of Genesis 18 has posed a challenge for evangelical theologians in establishing a stable interpretation of the chapter. This ambiguity contributes to the contradictory beliefs about the forms that angels can take.

At the beginning of a new paragraph, an unclear “this” is an even bigger problem – it could refer to anything in the previous paragraph! Dr. Maher advises, “The audience can’t see where your paragraph breaks are, and this invisibility makes clear paragraph-level transitions more important, not less.” Listeners should be able to follow the threads of your argument from one paragraph to the next, which means you need to show them the specific connections you’re making.

3. Use the first person

If you ever were hesitant about using the first person, a job talk is the ideal time to let that hesitation go. In a job talk, you want to be crystal clear about how your analysis diverges from those of previous critics, and where your interpretation adds new insights. Consider integrating stock phrases like,

  • “While Smith argues ____, I disagree.”
  • “By looking at _____, I found …”
  • “I interpret ____ as emphasizing …”

As Helen Sword has shown in her book Stylish Academic Writing, the first person is common in humanities disciplines closely related to yours, including literary studies and philosophy; you can use to determine whether your favourite writers in your subfield also use “I” and “me.”

Using the first person strategically is more important in job talks and grant applications – texts in which your audience is judging your current capacity to do good work, and your potential to continue to do so in the future – than it is in journal articles and scholarly monographs. Because a job talk is a live presentation, referring to yourself can also help you connect with the audience: “They’re looking right at you,” Dr. Maher says, “so avoiding the first person feels more artificial than it does in a chapter or article. If you don’t have a presence in the text of your talk, it can create distance between you and your listeners.”

4. Turn off Grammarly and go ungrammatical

Finally, as you practice and revise your presentation – as you note the places where you’ll need to pause to sip water or to transition between ideas – I suggest thinking about places where you may want to be ungrammatical. That sentence I just wrote – and this one, too, with a long interjection in it – these kinds of sentences are hard for listeners to follow.

If you write conference presentations that have this kind of sentence structure – if you tend to interrupt yourself to clarify, expand, or nuance an idea – then your sentence structures will benefit from a bit of repetition, a return to your main topic after your interruption, a reiteration of your main idea, even if doing so isn’t strictly grammatical and isn’t what you’d do in a piece for publication (unless, I guess, you’re me, and you’re trying to make a point!).

Want to dive deeper into editing your own work? Join Dr. Maher for the May/June section of “Becoming a Better Editor of Your Own Work,” facilitated by Ask Dr. Editor’s own Letitia Henville.

Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at
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