The speed of fright: research in a six minute slideshow

by Rob McNeil

The joy of academia, for many, is the attention to detail. The sort of attention to detail that allows us to luxuriate over the minutiae and nuances of an issue for hours, days, months, years – sometimes even entire lifetimes.

Most people, of course, don’t have this luxury so, for the 2018 ESRC Festival of Social Science, we decided to try to speed things up a bit.

In fact, we decided to get 11 speakers to explain everything you could possibly want to know about the fiendishly complex issue of EU migration in just 72 minutes…

The format

Our plan was to get 11 academics to present their work using the ‘Pecha Kucha‘ or ‘speed geeking‘ model which involves talking over 20 slides, each of which is shown for only 20 seconds.

The genesis of the event was an effort to condense REMINDER – a €5 million project, based at COMPAS but with researchers based all over Europe – into a series of bite-sized chunks.

REMINDER is a huge programme of work, analysing the social and economic impacts of migration across the EU, and how migration is discussed in media, politics and wider public debate.

And to add some other perspectives, we also invited speakers from outside the REMINDER project to discuss their research into an array of fascinating, and related subjects.

The practice

My own experience of this high speed format began as I over-confidently put together my own presentation – on migration in the media around the EU. I had set aside one afternoon to put something together, and decided to give it a run through to see how well I did against the 20 second slide timer…

The outlook was not good.

I quickly realised that my normal approach to presenting – waffling away cheerfully without notes – was catastrophically ill-suited to the format. I went back to the drawing board with the intention of putting together 20 snappy bullet points and tried again. After a few more tweaks and practice runs I was relatively confident that I could be fairly well on time.

The real thing

On the big day itself, the various presenters gathered, and, while the room was pleasingly full, I sensed the audience was there to chuckle at the disasters that were sure to unfold as much as to be stunned by our razor-sharp analysis.

My impending sense of dread was not helped by the knowledge that the assembled audience was provided with emojis with which to express their delight, astonishment or bemusement at each of the talks they heard.

As the talks began, however, my initial concerns evaporated. Martin Ruhs managed, amazingly, to weave a touch of Viking comedy into his analysis of the fiscal impact of migration around the EU, while remaining magnificently calm, and keeping to time perfectly.

Martin was followed by Dace Dzenovska, who delivered her thought-provoking look at local concepts of emptiness and fullness in the context of migration in Latvia and Lincolnshire – again perfectly to time.

Carlos Vargas-Silva, the principal investigator of the REMINDER project and Esther Arenas-Arroyo then whizzed through two analyses of the role of migration in labour markets perfectly to time.

Then it was my turn to talk about migration and the media in the EU.

I could see Carlos – emboldened by his own presenting success – gleefully fiddling with the old-fashioned car-horn he was using to signal “time’s up” for all participants. I knew he was keen to catch me out.

I began my sprint through the slides calmly enough. By 10 slides in I felt I was on a roll, but as I progressed toward the end – to my horror – some sort of primal panic began to set in. I began to hear a strangulated wobble, like a teenage boy whose voice is breaking, undermine my normally mellifluous tones. I soldiered on, but noticed a mischievous gleam entering Carlos’ eyes…

By the last two slides I was still feeling a little flustered, but felt I had regained my composure somewhat. But as I tried to gasp out a final sentence, Carlos began furiously honking his horn to signify that I had overshot.

Thankfully the positive emojis suggested that my fight-or-flight presenting panic had not undermined my coherence too much.

The relief

As I returned to my chair with a sigh of relief, more excellent (and well-timed) presentations followed (none of which received the honking-wrath of Carlos…).

The audience asked incisive and interesting questions, suggesting that the format had worked well. Carlos deflected the difficult ones over to me, of course, but thankfully he didn’t honk when I waffled my answer.


The ESRC Festival of Social Science is an annual celebration of the social sciences, aimed at policymakers, business, the public and young people alike. This year’s Festival will take place between 2-9 November 2019.

If Rob’s speed geeking experience has inspired you to host your own event and share your social science research with a new audience, why not apply to host a Festival event? Applications close on 10 May 2019. You can follow updates on Twitter using #ESRCFestival


McNeil-2 150Rob McNeil is a researcher at COMPAS and Deputy Director at the Migration Observatory.
He examines the social environments from which news stories and narratives about migration and migrants emerge; how media debate affects migration policy decisions; and how information gaps affect the way these issues are discussed.
He was part of the team who launched the Migration Observatory in 2011 and, since then, has been working to embed Migration Observatory analysis in public debates. He is responsible for public relations strategy, parliamentary and community outreach and news and commentary work.

This blog is based on the Rob NcNeil’s blog ‘The Speed of Fright: Sharing EU migration research in a flash‘ which was published in November 2018. You can follow @MigObs on Twitter.

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